Sunday, 13 July 2014

Life Itself

Title: Life Itself
Director: Steve James
Released: 2014

Plot: Documentary charting the life and death of legendry film critic Roger Ebert

Review: On April 4, 2013 a dark shadow was cast over the film critic community as Roger Ebert lost his 11-year battle with cancer. Ebert was seen by many of us as a titan of the critic community and while I might have written off his relevance at during the early years of this blog it would be after I saw how he championed smaller and lesser seen movies like “Welcome tothe Dollhouse” that I finally got the importance of his work and realised that he was not another mainstream critic simply reviewing movies, but rather a man who truly loved films and saw his critical work as a way to share this love with others and perhaps encourage people to view films in ways they might not have otherwise seen them.

Director James who previously gave us the basketball documentary “Hoop Dreams” here crafts a touching tribute to the life and ultimately death of the legendry critic as he was still filming right up until Ebert’s death. Ebert and his wife seemingly give him here seemingly unlimited access to their lives as well as home movies and photographs to craft a truly full picture of his life, starting from his early writing assignments with his university paper the “Daily Illini” were he also served as the editor before starting his role as a film critic for the “Chicago Sun-Times” which in turn would lead to his now legendry partnership with Gene Siskel.

Narrated by a spot on impersonation by voice artist Stephen Stanton reading passages from Ebert’s autobiography from which the film takes its name, the film is guided by these passages while being added onto by interviews with his friends, family and more surprisingly only a handful of director interviews with Martin Scorsese being the biggest named of these directors to appear and this might be more down to the fact that he is one of the executive producers, but as always makes a warm and welcome contribution to film, aswell as highlighting the contribution Ebert made to his career revival with his contributions to the promotion of “Raging Bull”. On the other end of the scale we also have directors Ava DuVernay (I Will Follow) who shares memories of meeting Ebert as a child and meeting him years later when she made her directorial debut. Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart) equally shares a number of happy memories, while seemingly also appears to have had a mentor and apprentice relationship, with Ebert clearly having held out hopes of big things for Bahrani’s career from some of the stories he shares, while scenes of him visiting Ebert in the hospital show a friendship much deeper than critic and film maker.

Needless to say the most interesting parts of the documentary revolve around his professional rivalry and unique friendship he had with Siskel. While the question as to how much of their rivalry was for show still hangs in the air, it is clear from the interviews with those closest to them that they held a level of respect for each other, with Marlene Siskel really nailing it when she quotes her late husband as saying

“He was an arsehole, but he was my arsehole”

Ebert’s quotes from his memoir do also outline much like the well-publicised footage of them finally finding in religion something they can finally agree on that while they might have had their disagreements on screen that off screen they shared many moments he held dear. What is clear though here though as it was then is that both clearly relished the fact that both could give as good as the other.

Equally interesting here though are the sections surrounding Siskel and Ebert constantly promoting the smaller and frequently less seen films, something that Ebert continued to do through his website which would become the home of his critic work for the latter end of his career. The example of this kind of promotion given here though is the Errol Morris documentary “Gates of Heaven” which they managed to sneak onto their show three times. Sadly though this is really the only example given, with the likes of “Dark City” for which he contributed a commentary strangely not even being mentioned which I found to be one of the more frustrating aspects of the documentary much like how his work on Russ Meyer’s “Beyond the Valley of Dolls” is only really glanced with no mention of the adopted father figure he found in Meyer’s thanks to a shared love of large breasted ladies, as highlighted in the Meyer’s biography “Big Bosoms and Square Jaws”. At the same time these things are more of a minor concern if you knew they existed in the first place….so sorry for giving you that irritation I guess.

Ultimately this is both a touching and moving tribute to the life and work of the great man and one which fans will not be left disappointed by, especially as it trades a star studded interview list to craft a truly intimate portrait, especially when the gaps are filled by his wife Chaz whose extensive interview footage ensuring that that this really as complete a profile of the man as possible and an ultimate tribute to the staggering body of work he left us.

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