Sunday, October 19, 2014

A FOUR STAR TRIBUTE TO A FOUR STAR LIFE: a review of "Life Itself"

Based upon the memoir written by Roger Ebert
Directed by Steve James
**** (four stars)

My hero. What else can I say after seeing a tribute this loving? My hero. How I so dearly miss my hero.

Many words on this site have been written in tribute to several figures who have shaped me and in someways or another, have given me the tools in order to write and even realize Savage Cinema in the first place. From Harold Ramis, to Robin Williams and most certainly to John Hughes, who receives annual tributes in this specialized part of the internet, I often feel so compelled to share with you just how important these people, all of whom I have never met in real life, seismically influenced me, my worldview and I just cannot stress enough, every single word that I write.

In the case of Roger Ebert, the tributes carry an even greater weight, as he (alongside the late Gene Siskel), completely opened the universe of the cinema up to me during a time when the movies themselves seemed to introduce themselves to me. It was the perfect meeting at the perfect time, and without the writings, teachings and lifelong guidance of Roger Ebert, I doubt that this particular path would have been one that I would have undertaken at all. That is how important Roger Ebert is to me and how important he will forever remain.

It is more than difficult for me to accept and even believe that I now live in a world where Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel no longer exist. In fact those were the first words I said to myself when I finally began to screen "Life Itself," Director Steve James' lovingly rendered cinematic tribute to the life and legacy of Roger Ebert. The film opens after Ebert's passing with Chicagoans and presumably tourists walk by the luminous Chicago Theater bearing the brightly lit marquee that carries the following words:


And involuntarily, a few tears began to emerge in my eyes because I just cannot believe that he is gone.

Yet, what Steve James has performed and accomplished so richly and triumphantly throughout this two hour documentary is to weave a full portrait of a life in the way that I would imagine Ebert himself would be pleased by if he were able to review this film for himself. It is a film that works without maudlin or easy sentiments and complies much footage and collective of viewpoints from the likes of collaborators, friends, filmmakers of the stature of Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog, and most crucially, his wife Chaz to convey a deeply complex figure, who just happened to be a world famous celebrity and brilliant writer, who was embarking upon the exact same life journey that we are all undertaking. As Ebert himself states, also at the beginning of this film:

"We are all born with a certain package. We are who we are. Where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We're kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth, is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us." 

So, taking that quotation to heart and the purity of its intent, Director Steve James has not only crafted "Life itself" as a supremely fitting tribute to Roger Ebert, it is also a film of surprising openness and candor, a film of the very style of truth and honest depictions of life as it is lived as Ebert himself championed in his favorite films. As we learn and understand more about Roger Ebert, his upbringing and the life he lived, we are in turn seeing a film that is about all of us. Simply perfect as Roger Ebert's populist style always invited us into the conversation and even after his passing, we are able to still have that conversation through this wonderful film.

Wisely, what Steve James has devised is a chronicle of Ebert's life through a series of movements--much like a jazz suite that flies off on virtuoso diversions and returns to the main themes--instead of a standard birth to death narrative. In some ways, I actually found this approach to feel quite representative of how we naturally exist through life as the past always informs the present while we all ponder our respective futures. Time converges upon itself constantly as that is indeed what we do experience throughout "Life Itself," a film that finds Roger Ebert nearing the conclusion of his life with repeated hospital stays, treatments, operations and procedures all the while with Chaz firmly at his side and Ebert himself forging ahead with his writings and becoming even more expressive with his craft in the process. These sequences arrive as initially visually jarring moments not solely due to Ebert's physical appearance, which was permanently transformed due to the removal of his jaw, but also due to his physical frailty from his lengthy battles with cancer compared with the vibrant urgency with which he seemed to face life for better or for worse.

Of course, James spends copious screen time to the fame aspect of Ebert's life and career as a film critic for the Chicago Sun Times and his ongoing rivalry and eventual brotherhood with Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel during their landmark film criticism television programs and those clips brought a rush of vivid memories back to me as I remember watching them all for the first time. 

But, James also gives us insight into Ebert's ferociously competitive spirit and more than healthy ego, which made him a titanic figure during his college years as editor of The Daily Illini, a Pulitzer Prize winner, screenwriter of Russ Meyers "Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls" (1970), his uncanny ability to befriend actors and filmmakers while maintaining his journalistic integrity when reviewing films as well as existing as a combative figure with Siskel (just watch the honest, seething rage that arises during their television show outtakes) and at his lowest points, an alcoholic, an aspect James covers with sensitivity and unflinching honesty.

Other aspect that I was surprised to witness on screen were portions of Ebert's hospital care, including some punishing physical therapy sessions as well as very close-up shots of the cleaning of his prosthetic jaw, two sequences that found Ebert wincing painfully. His temper is also displayed during once sequence where he is blatantly ignoring Chaz's wishes and words, just so he can have whatever working space he is able to have at the ready for himself in the hospital because godammit, if he can't have his music and his computer when and how he wants it, then how else is he able to function? By including passages that showcase Ebert's so-called flaws, we are thus given a greater insight into his life experience, a tactic that ensures the film exists beyond hero worship and presents a warts and all portrait, an approach I would think that Ebert himself would have insisted upon because if you're going to make this film, then make this film! 

As with so many great films there is usually a great love story at the core and "Life Itself" houses a beautiful one in Roger and Chaz, and what an engaging and supremely warm presence Chaz Ebert happens to be on screen. Like the best leading ladies, you will undoubtedly fall in love with Chaz just as Roger Ebert did due to her steadfast nature, positively hopeful spirit, sharp sense of  humor and overall determination. While we are able to see images of Roger Ebert's life as a family man complete with grandchildren, Steve James somehow finds the right angles and experiences to elicit a love story that is reflected in just how Roger and Chaz look at each other as well as how they treat each other since standard communication has been so severely compromised.  

"Life Itself," is a film about writing, fame, a life at the movies, building a life in Chicago, exploring various aspects of communication through words all the way to the internet, struggling with isolation, the triumph of the spirit when the flesh begins to fail as well as also existing as a beautiful eulogy for Gene Siskel. It is also a film that reminded me powerfully that Roger Ebert was a writer until the very end of his life ensuring that whatever voice he had been given, he was determined to never silence it until he had not one more word to say. Because of that, "Life Itself" functions as a stirring tribute to our own individual voices and the places that we take and share within the world together. James explores how we influence each other, nurture and care for each other and how one act of kindness can be the precise fuel one needs to simply continue on their own life path.

It only seems fitting to me that Steve James, the man who helmed the legendary three hour basketball driven Chicago documentary "Hoop Dreams" (1994), a film that would have gone largely unseen if not for the full, vibrant endorsements by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, would be the figure to bring the documentary of Roger Ebert's life and legacy to the screen. Additionally, it is was moving to see how Martin Scorsese, one of this documentary's Executive Producers, became visibly emotional when describing a professional and personal low period and how the actions of Ebert and Siskel revitalized his sense of purpose.

In some ways, this film reminded me of Cameron Crowe's documentary "The Union" (2011), which featured Elton John paying tribute to Leon Russell, the musician who was possibly John's greatest influence, as that was an experience that spoke to how if we ever finds ourselves with the ability to reach out and thank those who have influenced us in any conceivable way, then that is an act that should be celebrated. In turn, those very acts that are indeed on display throughout "Life Itself" are precisely what makes this film so celebratory and filled with anecdotes, remembrances and sections that will indeed make you laugh out loud heartedly and smile broadly.

Yes, I did tear up a few times during the film and the film's conclusion certainly left me with a deep melancholy. But those feelings are not indicative of the film as a whole experience as Steve James has delivered a film that is as much about what it means to be alive just like Richard Linklater's masterpiece "Boyhood."

"Life Itself" is indeed that entertaining as well as being that soulful because despite the fact that Roger Ebert's life was played out on the world's stage, his path mirrors our own. Themes of our beginnings, where we come from and how we begin to emerge into our full beings and the lifelong process of existing as those beings, as augmented by our relationships, experiences, successes, failures, aging and bouts with mortality are all shared within this human experience and with "Life Itself," Steve James gave us the life of Roger Ebert to empathize with, to compare and contrast with, and to understand to a greater degree, especially how to possibly confront and process our own eventual final years. Thank you to Steve James and Roger Ebert for sharing this wondrous life with all of us.

"Life Itself" is one of the best films of 2014.

So where and how can you see "Life Itself"? Well, as I have detailed for moth son this site, I had been hoping to see it at my local Sundance theater but sadly, it never arrived due to distribution issues. So, I buckled down and viewed it through my cable provider's "ON DEMAND" feature, which yes, certainly helps with the convenience of not having to leave the house but somehow felt strange as I firmly believe that a film about Roger Ebert demands to be first seen in a movie theater.

But these are the times we live in now as movies are finding a more difficult road in being made and released if they have nothing to do with a toy, a comic book, a sequel or reboot or something with a built in audience. Something I seriously believe that Roger Ebert himself would have much to write about, if he were here to do it. Perhaps it is all up to us now...

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