(115 minutes, Rated R)
The man behind the infamous/amazing thumbs up, Roger Ebert is probably the only name that is synonymous with film criticism. Certainly this does not mean he was the greatest critic ever, but he was damn sure the most influential person in the profession. And the wonderful Life Itself is an ‘in depth look’ at Roger Ebert, which luckily began filming five months before his death. Part of this documentary’s charm is to see the battle weary Ebert, without a jaw, still looking joyous and active.
Though he cannot talk, his voice was still loud and clear through his daily posts on his blog. And for a film that would end on such a down note, this was uplifting to see: in fact, for a documentary where the audience knew the outcome, it still managed to take viewers on an emotional rollercoaster. This alone shows that Steve James, the director of Life Itself, is a master at his craft; there are moments, including Siskel’s death, Chaz Ebert’s heartfelt commentary and even Roger’s time with his grandchildren that will leave people close to tears. The documentary perfectly balanced every moment of Ebert’s life: and each progression, whether it was alcoholism, marriage, grandchildren, At the Movies or cancer, was effectively paced and shown.
It does this by having a perfect narrative structure: Life Itself uses excerpts from his autobiography to frame moments from his life, which eerily works, acting like a narration (voiced perfectly by Stephen Stanton) from beyond the grave. But perhaps its best structure is how it jumps back and forth from telling his story to present day: again, Steve James was present for the last five months of Roger’s lives and he caught all of the man’s final struggles on camera. These moments of reality help to balance out Ebert’s darker past: alcoholism and crass humor that horribly manifested itself through egotistical tendencies. By far the best part of Life Itself is that it does not put Ebert on a ‘god-like’ pedestal; by showing his negative past, Steve James brought out the subject’s humanity.
Now, I am not saying this bashes Ebert: but it certainly addresses the man’s biggest criticisms. He was an egotistical man, who did not have an ounce of humility in his body (at least before his marriage): furthermore, it is argued that Ebert over-simplified a complex profession, while also becoming too close to the stars he was supposed to critique. All of these are interesting ideas that show the opposite viewpoint of what mainstream society believes. However, these arguments are quickly refuted in the documentary; and though it is nitpicking I would have liked a thoroughly researched answer for both sides.
But it is hard to spend anymore time looking into these semi-bogus accusations, when the runtime is already at 115 minutes; yet one can tell that the director’s partialness towards Ebert was clearly evident during these segments. However, whenever a documentary involves the family of a subject, I always expect it to be somewhat partial. Yet, minus a few things here or there, I actually thought Steve James did a good job stepping back and just seeing how events played out: showing that even the great legend Roger Ebert made some stubborn mistakes in the past. It also does not hurt to juxtapose, the younger pigheaded Ebert, to the much older, wiser and humbler dying man.
Though I did not always agree with the man’s harsh and sometimes crass opinion, particularly his high-minded need to throw around morality (Blue Velvet review), I cannot deny his influence over my life. Before I knew what film criticism was, I knew the name Roger Ebert. When my love for cinema was still metabolizing, I was watching At the Movies: a show that I continued to watch well after Ebert’s departure. So yes, as a prospective critic, who simply loves to talk about cinema, I owe a great bit of gratitude to Ebert.
And perhaps this is in a way, my final goodbye to a man who has dedicated his life to sharing his passion: something so idealistic in comparison to today’s society. And to think he got started out of circumstance with the Chicago Sun-Times is quite magical. Yet, I do not want to push people away from this documentary due to my bias love/hate relationship for the subject; I find the man’s flaws just as interesting as his achievements. Even if you do not like him or believe a documentary about a critic is boring, this is near flawless filmmaking; James not only knows how to play with your emotions, but he sets up a narrative that perfectly adapts Ebert’s past to the seemingly random present.
Like most grade school level historians could tell you, ‘history is always doomed to repeat itself’ and James perfectly uses the juxtaposition of the past and the present in an attempt to disprove this ideology. Life Itself openly talks about the most influential film critic of all time, but on a deeper level the audience gets to see Roger Ebert evolve as a person: even on his death bed, it is quite evident that he is truly happy with what he has become and the legacy that he has left. All I can hope for is that his legacy will live on for centuries to come: even if people disagree with his opinion.