I saw the matinee premiere of Life Itself, the Roger Ebert documentary today and it inspired me to write a little review of my own. Please humour me in this bit of homage to one of the greats:
Life Itself is an unflinching, wonderful, occasionally graphic, but honest and triumphant tribute to one of the all-time great movie critics, Roger Ebert. The movie itself, filmed over the last few months of Ebert’s life and directed by Steve James of Hoop Dreams fame, hits many of the same notes as Ebert’s memoir of the same name, and indeed felt imbued with the same spirit of a life having been well lived, of memories having been not only accumulated but treasured and revisited, and of streets that were walked down again and again. Ebert was a man that seemed to know his exact place in the world, and marked the time with regularity through a string of familiar haunts, and familiar people. It is a trait I feel I identify with.
We see his past through the eyes of those who knew him; among them his on-air sparring partner Gene Siskel’s widow Marlene, his own widow Chaz, Bill Nack, Martin Scorcese, Werner Herzog and the various producers, drinking buddies and other newspapermen Ebert knew throughout his life. In the interests of time and for purposes of focus, periods of Ebert’s life such as his time in South Africa as a young man, and his various encounters with cinema legends like Robert Altman, Russ Meyer, John Wayne and Lee Marvin, as well as many others are either glossed over or left out entirely, but the essence of this newspaperman, this last link to a bygone era of large two-story printing presses that shook buildings, and the smell of ink and the clacking of typewriters in a real newsroom, is very much intact. You can almost feel the Daily Illini newsprint on your fingers.
Heartwarming, occasionally unflattering, funny and interesting stories and moments from Roger’s past, including a treasure trove of old footage from throughout Ebert’s television career, is juxtaposed with what was Ebert’s present during filming in 2013. We are treated to arduous physical therapy sessions, torturous “suctioning” sessions where Ebert’s exposed throat is literally flushed out by a nurse with a long, thin tube, moments of frustration and immobility imposed on Ebert by his failing health; in short a portrait of a man at the end of the road of his life. In these moments everyone in the room is aware of life’s frailty, acutely presented with its finality, but defiant to press on for however long they can press on. Ebert answers questions posed by James between therapy sessions. He worked on his blog and completed reviews of movies right up until his last few weeks. His relentlessness at a time in which most people would give up on their work is amazing to see up close.
Gene Siskel, for many Americans, helped to define Roger Ebert and his career. Despite the fact that Ebert had won a Pulitzer Prize, and had written film reviews for a decade before he and Siskel first teamed up on screen, he was not known to many of my own generation until he became one half of “Siskel and Ebert.” So naturally, Siskel is a dominating character in Life Itself in a way he was not in Ebert’s book. His death at age 53 is juxtaposed with Ebert’s, and the relationship the two men shared is traced through the years as one that was defined by rancor and competition in the beginning, by debate and one-liners in the middle, by professional success and mutual respect at the end, and by reminiscence and re-analysis as Ebert entered into the twilight of his life. These scenes are easily the film’s most touching ones. The movie reminds us that this was a relationship that transcended professional rivalry and one that came to define both men in a way they did not expect. It was also the reason Ebert was so frank and so candid about his own health as it began to take a turn for the worse. He respected Siskel’s right to keep his own illness close to his chest, but decided he would do the opposite in true contrarian “At The Movies” fashion and spare us no details. This very film is an extension of that, it forces us to confront both Ebert’s mortality and our own as well.
In the end, of course, James has to inform us of the last few weeks of filming when Ebert, quickly fading as cancer and pneumonia ravaged his already weakened body, could no longer take and answer questions or visit with him. We had, throughout the film, been treated to stark and unblinking shots of Ebert’s face hanging slack where his lower jaw used to be, of Ebert struggling to stand and walk, and of Ebert smacking the arm of a wheelchair in frustration when he is without his notepad at a time when he urgently wants to communicate. In a way the audience is already preparing itself for what they know comes next. The details of Ebert’s passing are revealed by Chaz. Hands were held and serene music played. Ebert had said “I’ve lived a wonderful life, you must let me go” and indeed that is what happened. But it is not a reason to be sad. It is a reason to celebrate, a reason to look back with wonder at a life truly well lived, and at a man who will truly be well missed. I for one was glad to have taken part in the final act, even if only as a member of the audience much like Ebert often was.