It takes a courageous sense of perspective for a filmmaker to get to the place necessary to make a review-proof documentary, and director Steve James deserves all the praise he has so far received for Life Itself. James burst onto the documentary scene in 1994 with Hoop Dreams, a film that has stood up so well 20 years later because the director showed a clear understanding of staying true to his subject no matter how distressing the picture became. With Life Itself, James turns his lens on film critic Roger Ebert during his final days.
A well-known seeker of humanity in cinema, Ebert comes across as the ideal subject for James, ready to open himself up to the film with as much honesty as he can humanly muster. It helps that Ebert’s trust for James began with Hoop Dreams. After all, the Chicago Sun-Times film critic championed the film when it first came out, giving it a four-out-of-four-star rating. To Ebert, a four-star film had to transcend the screen as something more than escapism. He opened his review with a typically bold statement for a movie bestowed with a perfect rating: “A film like Hoop Dreams is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”
James has now given Ebert the ultimate payback. The filmmaker employs his perceptive lens to document the writer’s life and the aftermath of his death with an empathy that is both a tribute to Ebert and a gift to those who will see this film. It opens with a snippet of a speech Ebert gave during the dedication ceremony of his sidewalk “medallion” in front of the historic Chicago Theatre. “For me,” he says, “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” James has certainly taken this to heart, as he seeks out the person that was Ebert over any sense of grandiose legend.
If there is any doubt of that, James gives us an unflinching scene while Ebert was hospitalized. A nurse uses a gastronomy tube to suction out Ebert’s throat (cancer left the writer without most of his jaw and robbed him of the ability to drink, eat and speak). In a brief but uninterrupted take, Ebert squints and shudders, his lower lip swaying without muscle or bone support. The sound of liquid rushing through the tube mixes with Ebert gasping for air. It’s quick but clearly painful and after the nurse removes the tube, our man slumps over exhausted but gives the nurse a thumbs up. Later that day, Ebert sends James an e-mail that reads, “I’m happy we got a great thing that nobody ever sees: Suction.”
Ebert understood the role pain plays in appreciating life, so of course he would find a not-so-subtle way to encourage James to include the scene (Ebert is also the guy who wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valey of the Dolls, after all, so he also appreciated anything in-your-face or maybe over-the-top). In a way, James grants Ebert input in a gesture that acknowledges that this film critic knows the value of dramatic dynamism in telling a story. A film that’s supposed to cover a life in less than two hours needs resonant moments like these that may disturb to inform the lighter, more banal moments.
Throughout Life Itself James captures many sides of Ebert. He was a cocky young reporter, but he also knew how to empathize with his subjects at an early age. James does not gloss over the younger Ebert’s penchant for drinking and whoring but gives equal time to his decision to join AA and settle down with Chaz Ebert. His widow also comes clean for the first time that she too was in AA, and that was where she met her husband. It’s a gesture that shows how deep she loved Ebert; she understands presenting her vulnerability stands as testament to the love of her life. She now carries on that affection by managing his website, which continues to put out exemplary film criticism in the spirit of Ebert.
Of course much of the Life Itself spends time on his television work with fellow Chicago film critic and beloved nemesis Gene Siskel. James captures a rivalry full of humor and pathos that grows into a profound affection for the other. But Life Itself stands as something so much more than a movie about a movie critic. Though James spends time going into what drove Ebert’s aesthetic principles as a film critic, featuring insights from the likes of A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss and Jonathan Rosenbaum, this is a film less concerned with film criticism than it is humanity. Even these critics toss off observations about Ebert’s style on a personal level, as if Ebert’s writing was an extension of his persona. That’s the power of having a distinctive voice, that an essence of the author can exist in his words. For that, despite his suffering, Ebert is fortunate to have found a bit of immortality that will continue to touch readers, and Life Itself is a worthy cinematic totem to not only Ebert but the Ebert sensibility that lives on in much of film criticism.
Life Itself runs 118 minutes and is rated R (language and images of R-rated movies and stills). It opens in South Florida on July 11 at O Cinema Wynwood, Miami Beach Cinematheque, The Bill Cosford Cinema, Cinema Paradiso-Hollywood, Cinema Paradiso-Fort Lauderdale. On July 18 it opens at O Cinema Miami Shores (which happens to be Roger Ebert day in Chicago). It has theatrical opening dates scheduled through October. Visit the film’s official website for details. Magnolia Pictures provided us with a preview screener for the purpose of this review.
Update: O Cinema has finalized a critics panel preceding Saturday’s 2 p.m. screening. Meet some of South Florida’s film critics (in order of how well I know them, from seeing almost daily to never having met). It starts at 1 p.m., and it’s free (you will have to pay for the film):
Miami SunPost’s Rubén Rosario (miamisunpost.com)
Miami New Times Cultist contributor Juan Barquin(dimthehouselights.com)
Reuben Pereira (filmfrontier.wordpress.com)
Kai Sacco (kaisaccofilm.tumblr.com)
Billy Donnelly (thisisinfamous.com)
Andres Solar (hudakonhollywood.com)
Marc Ferman (keepitclassic.com).