THE ONLY THING ROGER LOVED MORE THAN THE MOVIES.
I first approached this film because of my interest in movies and as a fan of Roger Ebert as a film critic. Would it appeal to someone who didn’t care about movies or was this simply an experience for a very small crowd? I didn’t care, this was after all a gift for me and anyone else who felt the same way. But Life Itself aims to speak to a greater audience, and hopefully it will thanks to its distribution – first at film festivals, then a release in theaters and on VOD after which it was sold to CNN Films where it was heavily marketed, and finally the film was streamed on Netflix. Failing to bag an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, Life Itself nevertheless stands out as one of director Steve James’s best films.
Roger Ebert remained true to his Chicago through life. After getting some journalism experience from his high-school paper and the Daily Illini where he also published his first movie review, of La Dolce Vita in 1961, Ebert came to the Chicago Sun-Times at the age of 24 as a reporter and feature writer. The year after, 1967, he became a film critic and one of few to be able to look beyond the bloodshed of Bonnie and Clyde and realize that this was a masterpiece. He was soon recognized as someone who not only looked at movies incisively but also knew how to write in a way that never pandered to the audience – he was an intellectual, but such a gifted writer that he connected with readers of all stripes.
Ebert went on to win a Pulitzer in 1975 for his film criticism, which helped some take it more seriously. His subsequent TV show together with fellow critic Gene Siskel, At the Movies, popularized film criticism in the 1980s and that tradition continued into the Internet era where Ebert thrived. He was only 70 when he passed away, but he always seemed ahead of us.
The person behind the critic
Steve James is not shy about the fact that he owes Ebert a lot; his documentary Hoop Dreams (1994) was hailed by Ebert, which made James’s career. There’s also a scene in this film where Martin Scorsese talks about what a wreck he was after a period of drug abuse in the 1980s, feeling so low that he saw little point in going on living. It was Ebert’s championing of his films that helped the director pull himself together; even his harsh criticism of The Color of Money (1986) helped Scorsese because it was enlightening, not just empty, mean-spirited words.
But James is also interested in the person behind this critic who had supported him. The director takes us through Ebert’s life, from the early days when he was out partying with other journalists who were equally ideological and cynical to that day in 1979 when he quit booze forever. We learn how he met the love of his life, Chaz, without whom he says he was destined to live alone forever, and we follow his struggle with a particularly nasty and cruel form of cancer that deformed his appearance in an astonishing way.
Elegantly and very well structured, with illuminating interviews and a healthy dose of Chicago atmosphere, the film is just as much a tribute to a great man and life’s idiosyncrasies as it is evidence of James’s tremendous skill as a documentary chronicler.
In the 1940s, famous Swedish author Harry Martinson called cinemas a “temple for those who are afraid to live”. I’m sure many critics like myself feel forced to ponder the meaning of those words, considering how many hours we spend in the dark. But it’s only true if you choose not to make something of your life. Roger Ebert did, to the fullest, and this film is an inspiration.
Life Itself 2014-U.S. 121 min. Color. Produced by Garrett Basch, Steve James, Zak Piper. Directed by Steve James.
Trivia: Co-executive produced by Scorsese and Steven Zaillian. Based on a memoir written by Ebert. His words are read in this film by an impersonator, Stephen Stanton. Among those interviewed in the film, apart from Scorsese: Werner Herzog, Ava DuVernay, Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrani and Gregory Nava.
Last word: “Chaz was looking for someone to read some of Roger’s great reviews, to commit them to audio, and they discovered [Stephen Stanton]. […] They went to him to do Roger, and he was amazing, and they knew we were looking for someone that sounded like Roger, but you’d never be convinced or confused that it is him. I wanted either one of two reactions: One is to completely not even get it and think it’s Roger, because it’s his words. Or a momentary ‘Wha? Huh?’ and then go on and forget about it. […] When I was editing, we used Ed Herrmann, he did the audio version of the book, and when we looked at it and showed people at Kartemquin, it always pulled you out of the movie. Even though it was Roger’s words, it was like, ‘It’s not Roger, who is that guy?’ It always pulled you out of the movie. Once we recorded Stephen, we had you.” (James, The Dissolve)