Life Itself is a beautiful love letter to, well, life itself.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Full Disclosure: I owe Roger Ebert pretty much everything. If it weren’t for him, I would more than likely not be sat here right now talking to you – through the medium of text – about movies. I was about 10/11 years old when, one random day, I stumbled upon the now defunct At The Movies website. I don’t quite remember what brought me there, but I remember the site housing an archive of nearly every single review that the show had broadcast in the 15 or so years that that particular version had existed. I also distinctly remember losing many days after school to that archive.
As a child, I had a fondness for film but a majorly strong one. I mean, how could I really? I was a kid and hadn’t yet figured out what exactly I was interested in, besides videogames and cartoons (not much changes, I know). Ebert was one of the first to really change that in me. The way that At The Movies was structured and presented, mixing the formal with the casual near-effortlessly, hooked my attention and seeing Ebert and Gene Siskel – and, eventually, Richard Roeper – trade strong opinions about a medium I didn’t realise meant so much set off some kind of light bulb in my head. “These people get paid to talk about movies!”
This is not to discount Ebert’s written work, of course. The man had a way with words that managed to convey this wonder about films that I had previously never heard of or would not normally have sought out, and made them things I needed to see or avoid. He was able to do this for 10 Year-Old Me, reading articles and reviews intended for an audience way older than I at the time; a testament to the sheer power he had with words, both written and spoken. His was the voice that pushed me a bit deeper into the world of film and his was the first voice to awaken a desire in me to try writing critically. His influence is so great in me that I can’t imagine a version of me that made it to this point without that initial tangible moment as a kid.
When I heard the news of his passing on April 5th of 2013, via Twitter as is so often the case nowadays, I closed the door of the bedroom of my house – to ensure that none of my family members could come in and ruin the moment with their casual insensitivity – and I cried. I cried for a good 5 minutes and I was miserable for a good hour or so afterwards. Roger Ebert was a goddamn hero to me and the loss of his life hurt like nothing else had hurt me before. After wallowing for a while, however, I chose to watch a film. In my mind, that was the only true way to react to the news, to re-immerse myself in the medium that had inspired him in the way that he inspired me.
Now, before you ask, yes, there is a reason why I told you all this. Personal bias disclosure is only one of them. I wanted to get across why a documentary about Roger Ebert cannot solely be about Roger Ebert. The reason why he was so beloved, why he remained at the forefront of film criticism right up until his death, and why his passing was mourned by so many is because of the different ways he affected us, the people who paid witness to his various works. To make a documentary solely focussed on Roger Ebert, one that looks purely at his life, his accomplishments and legacy in a dry, laser-focussed way that leaves “Roger Ebert was a swell guy” as the sole thematic thread for proceedings, would be to do the man a disservice and to misrepresent precisely why he was so important.
Life Itself, then, doesn’t do that. Its director, Steve James – whose 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams was fiercely championed by Ebert throughout his life – recognises the futility of such an endeavour. Instead, Life Itself is a documentary about love, life, sickness, death, film, culture, television, art, relationships, and so much more with Ebert himself as the focal point around whom the film pivots. This is not just a film about Roger Ebert, although he is its central figure, and that is the thing’s stroke of genius. This is the kind of film, I firmly believe, that really does have something for everyone, where anyone can view it regardless of their preferences or prior knowledge on the subject and get something strong and something different out of it.
On the surface level, as a documentary about the life and times of noted film critic Roger Ebert, it more than does its job. As expected, James interviews a whole bunch of people that Ebert had a strong connection with – from colleagues at The Chicago Sun Times, to filmmakers, to his wife Chaz, to the owner of a bar that Ebert would frequent in his early days – and the film goes into varying amounts of detail on the things worth noting about the man – At The Movies, his relationship with Gene Siskel, the time he wrote Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls for Russ Meyer. All very standard and how you do.
What sets it apart is the presentation. I’m not referring to the visual style – talking heads, file footage, a very good impression of Ebert by Steven Stanton who quotes from Ebert’s memoir frequently – I’m talking more about the tone, the mood. This is a joyous film, a celebratory film, and that infectious spirit and energy fuels the film for its two hour runtime. It’s not a hagiography, and it’s not free of heartbreak and scenes of great sadness, but that celebratory nature underlines the effect its subject had on those who came across his work and adds up to this genuinely inspirational aura that emanates from it. I had a great big smile on my face for the vast majority of the length of this film, and learnt a tonne about the man and what made him tick, too – specifically the lengthy segment dedicated to his yearly patronage to the Conference Of World Affairs.
But, as previously mentioned, Life Itself is not just about what Ebert has done. It’s also just as much about the impact he had on those he interacted with, and the film touches on these in a number of small-scale case studies. Martin Scorsese relates just how important Ebert’s first review of Who’s That Knocking At My Door? was to him, Ramin Bahrani goes into detail about his friendship with Ebert and how vital that was in aiding his career artistically, Werner Herzog explains why Ebert is the only person he has dedicated a film to. It would have been easy to go wide with this, to look at his influence on a wider scale and interview tonnes of people with their own short little stories, but that would downplay the human element and the fact that the film minimises the number of these stories – and giving the ones that do come up time to breathe – makes them connect that much more strongly.
Then, of course, there is his relationship with Gene Siskel, which provides its own narrative and thematic thread – one of rivalries and friendships. Seeing the beginnings of their relationship, their simmering contempt for one another, and watching it defrost and blossom into this competitive yet friendly rivalry where begrudging respect gives way to playful teasing is a genuinely joyful thing to behold. The way it contrasts a set of outtakes from an earlier episode of their show – where their bickering is very much mean-spirited and openly-hostile – with a later episode of their show – lighter, more tongue-in-cheek, affectionate – is masterful. Even those who aren’t already familiar with their dynamic should be clued in with exactly how close their bond ended up by the time that the film has to address Siskel’s untimely passing.
Which brings me to the film’s focus on sickness and death. The mostly chronological telling of Roger’s life is infrequently broken up by scenes shot with Roger in the hospital just a few months before his death, and Life Itself does not pull a single one of its punches here. Quite simply, a hell of a lot of this footage is excruciatingly hard to watch as Ebert – without a lower jaw, surgically removed to help slow down the spread of his cancer, and the ability to speak – soldiers on towards a death he knows is coming, although unsure of exactly when, and of which he is powerless to do anything to stop.
These scenes are brutal, especially the further into the documentary we get as even Roger Ebert fails to muster up the energy required to put on a brave face for the camera the worse his condition gets. Yet, they represent an incredibly frank and truthful look at the process of sickness and slow debilitating death. Heartbreakingly miserable one minute, uncomfortably hard-to-experience the next, surprisingly funny every so often. In one of the film’s stand-out scenes, Ebert has Steve James film the process that he has to go through to ingest food and water. It legitimately affected me in this deep, personal way – seeing somebody I look up to and respect the hell out of in this vulnerable reliant state dredged up memories of seeing my Granddad in hospital before he finally succumbed to cancer – but Ebert is the very first to lighten the mood, almost proudly declaring that they have filmed something that nobody else has likely ever filmed before.
I spent at least the last half hour of Life Itself in near-non-stop floods of tears of various kinds. When I noted that the film doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to depicting Ebert’s final few days, I damn well meant it. Seeing the last of his resolve fade away, so soon after the film had covered Gene Siskel’s death, really hit home for me. But it is not manipulative, or exploitative, or anything that connotes poor taste. What it is is honest. It is honest and genuine in a way that I have yet to experience from any other movie that I can recall. And yes, part of that is due to my prior stated admiration for Ebert and part of that is due to my own personal baggage, but for a film to so masterfully and so frankly look at death in a way that brings up my personal baggage without it feeling crass astounds me. In a good way. It’s genuine and it provides a fine compliment and counterpoint to the celebration of life that fuels the rest of the film.
No film this year has touched me, affected me, and spoken to me in the same way, the same style, or the same quality as Life Itself has managed to. This is one of those films that can offer something for pretty much everyone, even though its appearance seems like it will only appeal to a hyper-specific group. It is a celebration of life, an honest look at death, a punishing look at sickness, an uplifting look at the effect that one person can have on those who interact with him directly or indirectly, an inspirational reminder of the power of film, and a fitting tribute to one of the most important men in film criticism.
It is all of those things but it is also, for me, an intensely personal document of the things I love, the people I aspire to be even a hundredth as good as, the things and concepts that terrify me most in life, and a pure shot of feel-good inspiration. Life Itself is an indescribably beautiful film that speaks to me in a way that few films do. Everybody should see it immediately.
Life Itself is available to buy and rent on iTunes. It will be released on DVD on February 23rd 2015.