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Life Itself (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | July 22, 2014 | 3 Comments

A young Roger Ebert celebrates winning the Pulizter Prize for Criticism in 1975

Early in this film, we hear a recollection of Robert Zonka, feature editor of the Chicago Sun Times, telling Roger Ebert that he would take over the job of the paper’s film critic. As he recalls in his memoir, Ebert was happy to have “a title, my photo in the paper, and a twenty-five-dollar-a-week raise”. We should be happy too, because without him we wouldn’t have had one of the most opinionated and important film critics of all time. Hey, without his writing, I might not be writing this review now. His reviews were some of the first I read, and they inspired this blog in many ways.

Now we have Life Itself, the film tribute Ebert deserves, a loving yet unflinching documentary by filmmaker Steve James. Based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name, the film tells the story of his life, using interviews, family photos, film clips, and footage James shot with Ebert in the last months of his life. In 1994, Ebert championed his basketball doc Hoop Dreams, which he called the “the great American documentary”.

As an only child growing up in Illinois, Ebert found a knack for journalism as a high school sports writer but blossomed as a reporter, and then editor, of the Daily Illini, while at the Univesity of Illinois. It was there he developed his thoughtful yet fervent writing style and, as colleagues attest to, his demanding, ambitious personality. It was there he even wrote one of his first movie reviews, for La Dolce Vita in 1961. Several years later, Ebert was a real film critic, writing during the early era of “New Hollywood”. He was one of the first to praise Bonnie and Clyde and 2001: A Space Oddysey. Ebert wrote about twenty-something art house auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog when they were just starting out. In the film, Scorsese talks specifically about the experience of being praised and panned by Ebert, and the surprisingly pivotal role the two played in each other’s lives. In 1975, Ebert became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975.

Ebert wasn’t without his problems, however. For years, he struggled as an alcoholic, trading insults and stories at O’Rourkes, a Chicago bar. The film covers this time in depth, drawing from the memories of Ebert’s drinking buddies and the bar owner.

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel during the heyday of their movie-review show At The Movies

Some of Life Itself‘s best moments involve Ebert and his turbulent yet deeply important relationship with film critic Gene Siskel. Ebert, as film critic for the urban Sun Times, wanted nothing to do with (or even talk to) his new rival, who worked for the more urbane Chicago Tribune. By 1975, however, the two worked to cohost Sneak Previews (later At The Movies), inspiring a new generation of film lovers. James uses television footage, outtakes, and numerous film clips to illustrate their rivalry and friendship with hilarity, friction, and, ultimately, warmth. Interviews with At The Movies producer Thea Flaum lend context and history, while Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen, tells some heart-rending stories.

Movie geeks will be particularly absorbed by a segment chronicling Richard Corliss fascinating but arguably unfair 1990 piece “All Thubs: Or, Is There a Future for Film Criticism?” He writes about At The Movies: “It is a sitcom (with its own noodling, toodling theme song) starring two guys who live in a movie theater and argue all the time. At The Movies is every kind of TV and no kind of film criticism.” Ebert’s response, from “All Stars: Or Is There A Cure for Critcism Film Criticism?”: responded by saying “it would be fun to do an open-ended show with a bunch of people sitting around talking about movies—but we would have to do it for our own amusement because nobody would play it on television.” This section of the the film is small, but memorable. With these think-pieces, Corliss and Ebert shone light on film criticism’s purpose-whether it is important to write lengthy reviews for the sake of integrity or to expand a television audience’s appreciation of film. As Martin Scorsese says of Ebert: “He made it possible for a bigger audience to appreciate cinema as an art form, because he really loved film.”

It may sound like this is a film focused on, well, films. And, because it is about Roger Ebert, movies are a central part of this story. But we learn about all aspects of his life: his drinking, yes, but also his personality, his late-in-life marriage to Chaz Hammel-Smith, and the thyroid cancer that cost him his ability to eat, drink, or speak. Communicating through voice synthesizers on his computer and introducing himself to a new generation of readers (myself included) through his blog and Twitter, Ebert plowed on; showing his endurance and strength during times of extreme pain and despair. After multiple surgeries and a multitude of blogged movie reviews, Ebert died on April 4, 2013 at age 70. Obama Oprah, Spielberg, Redford, and many more praised him. In Redford’s words: he was “one of the great champions of freedom of artistic expression” whose “personal passion for cinema was boundless”.

It was Ebert’s writing style that made him such an icon. Direct, encyclopedic, eloquent, and opinionated, his combination of old-fashioned newspaperman clarity, a film buff’s knowledge, and a TV host’s accessibility made him one of the most talented film critics of all time. Pauline Kael may have influenced the generation of New Yorker film critics that followed her, but you’ll hear Ebert’s impact in almost anyone writing newspaper movie reviews.

Back to Life Itself: how does it work as a movie? Steve James doesn’t break boundaries with his techniques, but cross-cutting between unflinching interview sessions with a hospitalized Ebert and a more conventional talking heads/archival footage documentary approach is a masterful move. Early on, the film suffers from Stephen Stenton’s dry readings of Ebert’s memoir and unfunny soundbites from Ebert’s old friends, making the early scenes feel like a weird combination of audiobook and television retrospective. But the film gets more insightful and affecting as it goes. Its two hour length feels exhaustively informative yet also brief considering how much happened during the man’s life.

Post-surgery Roger Ebert, still reviewing movies and living life

Ultimately, Life Itself‘s few flaws are overshadowed by it’s many strengths. Steve James and his team clearly have immense respect for Ebert, but they rarely shy away from giving us a warts-and-all study of the man. What we’re left with is a film about life and love, sickness and death, newspapers, criticism, and the movies. At times inspiring, poignant, hard to watch, and hilarious, Life Itself  tugs at your heartstrings, makes you laugh with joy, and will have both your thumbs pointed up.

Comments

3 Responses to “Life Itself (Flack’s Review)”

  1. Hildy ITKIN
    July 23rd, 2014 @ 7:42 am

    A lengthy insightful review of a complex life, giving the reader all the information they need to put this film at the top of the ‘must see’ list. Well done Flack.

  2. Carson Laundry
    August 3rd, 2014 @ 11:56 am

    Hey guys! Sorry that we haven’t seen each other this summer. Just wanted you to know that I saw Guardians of the Galaxy yesterday and it was amazing! If you see it, I hope you will love it as much as I did! On another note, wow, I can’t believe school starts in just a few weeks!

  3. Steve Itkin
    August 7th, 2014 @ 9:15 am

    I wii see this film ASAP!

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