LIFE ITSELF Review

It feels a bit backward to write a critique about a documentary that holds the subject of the man who arguably made film criticism what it is today. While there have been plenty of minds and influential voices in the industry of film criticism there is no argument that both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert cast a shadow over that world and are the most recognizable names on the pull quotes of your childhood VHS tapes. I always wondered as a child what made these two particular men that much more qualified to give us their opinion on movies and what made that opinion more valid. It wasn't until after Siskel passed that I came to appreciate the anticipation that came along with waiting to see what Ebert and Richard Roeper or whoever might be joining him in the balcony thought of the new films opening that weekend. It was a safe environment, a world where arguments could be had, creative endeavors discussed and yet there were no hard feelings because despite the often difference of opinions everyone always realized that ultimately art will always be subjective. What helped me understand and what made it comforting though was that the point of Ebert and his shows criticism was to tell the audience to strive to seek out the best kind of entertainment possible. I remember realizing you didn't have to completely trash a film to be a critic and you didn't have to necessarily like every indie movie because it was an indie movie or that it was "okay" to take a film for what it was intended to be and judge it on that basis alone. At The Movies never felt like criticism in the vein of making fun or demeaning, but was always constructive. After seeing the entirety of Life Itself it seems such romantic ideas of Ebert and his criticisms were just that and instead the man who gave the "two thumbs up" slogan a life of its own was as much a flawed individual as the most flawed person you might know. Ebert had his bouts with alcohol, his indulgences in narcissism and his arguments with Siskel that highlight some of the more interesting parts of this doc, but to see him near the end of his road, in his most fragile state, is to put a full life in real perspective and understand what it means to live a life in your own movie and not in the trailer for it.

Steve James (Hoop Dreams) has put together a documentary that began shooting five months before Ebert's death on April 4th, 2013. James, whose early films were championed by Ebert and who he likely owes much of his success to, jumps right into the days of a cancer-ravaged Ebert sitting in his hospital room after being re-admitted for a hairline fracture to his femur bone. It isn't necessarily a pretty picture as you can see that there is no jaw left, but simply hanging skin. When the nurses come in to feed Ebert and change his bandaging you see through where his mouth once was to the bandage around his throat, it is startling, it is depressing. The only thing that keeps you at ease is the optimism with which Ebert seems to approach James and his camera. He can't speak anymore, not as we are accustomed to anyway, but he types away at his computer and an electronic voice expresses his thoughts aloud. He heavily relies on his trademark "thumbs up" so as to convey his emotions while Chaz, his wife, and other close family and friends look on. As this is technically an adaptation of his 2011 memoir of the same name, no matter how much that might have changed given the timing of his death, James then dives into different chapters of the book that begin to shape a history to the man we now see as someone an illness has taken horrible advantage of. If you are a fan of film criticism it is unlikely you learn anything you didn't already know before about the life of Roger Ebert. He was always writing, but tacks on the difference in that he didn't just dwell in his journals, but that he in fact had the need to be published-to know his voice was being heard by others. It takes a certain amount of ego to feel such a way and as he made his way into college and became the editor of the Daily Illini at the University of Illinois he found that being arrogant was easy when backed by his level of intelligence and skill. I found it somewhat odd there was no focus on what role the movies played in Ebert's life up until he received the critic job at the Chicago Sun-Times, but more in the writing and journalistic efforts alone.

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel at the movies...
When Life Itself dives into the territory that has not previously been discussed or divulged to the masses is naturally when it becomes the most intriguing. It is of course no coincidence that what serves as the meat of this documentary about Roger are the moments that touch on what made him the figure in culture that he eventually became and that would be Gene Siskel. Siskel was the rival critic from the posh paper across the street, The Chicago Tribune, so the idea of putting them together to talk about film was that of combining oil and water. What serves as the insightful and smile-inducing moments here though are the differences between these two men and how that created a chemistry over time that fueled passion and formed a friendship. The two couldn't stand one another and the interviews with Siskel's wife, Marlene Iglitzen, really open up a world to us that we didn't see between the co-hosts. The film is honest about who these men were and that there wasn't always this great, fluid argumentative chemistry between them but that it took time to cultivate on the public television stations that were at first wooden and inorganic affairs. James relies heavily on the commentary of their producer, Thea Flaum, to highlight the fact that despite Roger having been on television before he was still unable to write as fluidly for the medium as she needed him too and looked more like a deer in headlights than anything else. That Siskel was a natural, an effortlessly cool guy that, according to his wife, "lived the life of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" to which Roger could only aspire seemed to spark this need for confrontation. Speaking of Dolls, the film is only mentioned briefly, but again there is an honesty to the proceedings and clips from the likes of Martin Scorsese that really drive home the question of how such a celebrated writer could formulate such vulgar and trashy situations for a director such as Russ Meyer. In drawing this comparison and the admiration that Ebert harnessed as a secret jealousy of Siskel for which he over-compensated with his confidence it, at the very least, adds a new layer of dynamic when you go back and watch some of their older episodes.

It's hard to say if Ebert was the best writer of his day, he was good of course (he won a Pulitzer for his film criticism) and he has built plenty of solid reasons as to why his life should be celebrated in such a fashion as this, but more than anything Ebert was born at the right time and made his way to the right place that ensured he became the voice he is now remembered for having. He was pivotal in always accepting the changes in publishing as I can remember reading his site since before I began working on my own high school newspaper. Ebert was always looking out for up and coming filmmakers he thought might go on to influence the course of cinema in pivotal and interesting ways. There is an extremely touching story involving writer/director Ava DuVernay whom Roger met when she was a child as she waited outside the Oscars with her aunt and who would one day champion her film about that aunt into the homes of millions of viewers. He used his influence to build the arts and he never stopped writing up until the last days of his life when he physically became impaired. It is sad, it is depressing and it shows us how much of a bastard time can be. For these revelatory moments about the pinnacle of Ebert's life to the quiet moments in his hospital room with Chaz as they discuss death with such perspective and reverence there is something more to be said about the man who became famous for criticizing. Life Itself, as much as it is an extended "In Memoriam" video that might play at someones funeral, is also a deeply affecting journey through a mans life and how he comes to deal with his death.