Life Itself (2014)

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“I can write, I just always could.”

I’m a firm believer that certain people are destined to become certain things. Maybe it’s due to their geographics, could be because of their family or the culture they were raised in. For whatever reason, the late Roger Ebert was meant to be a writer. A Pulitzer Prize under his belt most certainly backs that up. But it’s not his style or controversial remarks that make his legacy carry on. Anyone can run against the grain, compose a sentence in a different way than the rest of the crowd. Roger towered above his peers, and likely will stand above every future critic, because he truly connected to his audience. That’s not something you learn; it’s innate. Ebert, in all of his elegant and intelligent prose, wrote for the people. He will live on forever. Not because of this movie, not because of his expansive body of work, but because of the way his words made us feel. The way they made us think. Early footage shows him saying, “For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” Life Itself makes us feel the same and shows that you can literally take away a man’s voice, but you can never take away his words.

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The documentary starts with a photo reel of Roger that spans from his adolescence to early adulthood. He was a Middle-American and overweight man all of his life. Roger delivered papers as a boy and worked his way up, eventually becoming a part time sportswriter after college. When the paper’s movie critic passed away, he was given the job without question. What a fortunate case of events. Throughout the course of the film we witness a man that overcomes alcoholism, finally finds love, and ultimately loses his battle with cancer. Amidst all of the agony and despair is a man so unabashedly enthusiastic about film that it’s infatuating. Ebert’s cancer-riddled jaw flops around as he mimics conversation, and claps at his excitement to see a new movie. Never have I, in any film genre, seen such a resolute sense of joy to be alive.

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We also see the dark side of Ebert, the part hidden by his printed words. He spent most nights at the bar after work and went on legendary benders. His taste in women was terrible according to a friend, and he was known to pay for female companionship from time to time. Numerous rationales for his failed script Beyond the Valley of the Dolls are given. But we also see his loyalty, and how after winning his Pulitzer refused to leave Chicago for more powerful newspapers. His reasoning? “I didn’t want to have to learn new streets.” Roger sobered up at 37, found companionship at age 50 to the love of his life Chaz, and continued to dominate film criticism. He was an icon.

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Lots of time is spent discussing his period with Gene Siskel. They were adversaries, two complete opposites who firmly believed they were better than the other. And while old footage shows them fighting, there is always a sense of respectful rapport. Their stubbornness just got in the way from time to time. They were rockstars, appearing on late night talk shows dozens of times, and their Thumbs Up slogan becoming the make or break sign of success for production companies. The pair could establish or demolish careers. Some knocked their work and discarded it as consumer advice rather than criticism. In turn they argued that was what television called for, and in their defense they were right. Ebert had an encyclopedic knowledge of film. Get your hands on a copy of Citizen Kane with his commentary and listen to it while watching the movie. It’s better and more informative than anything I ever got in a college film class.

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The movie is a love story, for cinema and for Ebert’s wife Chaz. They met in A.A. and hit it off. She was worried about their interracial marriage and he told her not to worry, because love is love. Chaz is an important figure in this documentary. Her devotion to her husband is tremendous, and makes you wonder if you could do the same. What a special person she must be. And then there is Roger’s love for film. Almost giddy in his anticipation of something he wants to see, tireless in his work ethic to bring his thoughts on movies to the masses. Even in his last days he wrote. Heck, he reviewed movies for half of cinema’s existence. That’d be a hard habit to break.

Roger Ebert, left, pictured with Martin Scorsese in 2009.

Personally, I found Martin Scorsese’s story to be the most powerful and the greatest example of Roger’s straightforward personality. He executive produced this documentary. They were friends, and I can imagine how hard it would be to knock a pal’s work, but that’s exactly what Ebert did with Scorsese’s The Color of Money. He said the filmmaker wasn’t challenging himself, and while it hurt the director, he knew he was right. Scorsese also discusses how at one point he was spiraling out of control with a bad cocaine habit and wanted to kill himself. That’s when he got a call from Roger and Gene, asking him to come to a ceremony honoring his excellent work up to that point. That reinvigorated his career and saved one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. An entire body of work could potentially be gone if Roger hadn’t chosen to celebrate the cinema he so dearly adored. Thank goodness for that.

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This is a film that’s very well made and extensively labored. The editing is top notch and takes on a Ken Burns documentary vibe, using pictures strewn across the screen with voiceover. It’s like having a nighttime story for adults being read to you. Acclaimed documentarian Steve James uses email correspondences with Roger, specific and detailed questions he asked, to show the man’s enthusiasm and gradual quietus. They go from detailed responses to simply saying, “today is not a good day.” The technique works but is mostly thrown into play during the second half and should have been spread out more. A little more rearranging of the material might have suited it better. I don’t know, maybe I’m just being picky, maybe I’m just trying to find flaws in a movie where few can be found.

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“This is the third act, and it is an experience.” Of course that’s how he would describe his demise, how else would a storyteller put it? Life Itself shows us that Roger lived his life to the fullest, even if some did think him to be a know-it-all from time to time. I’ve always felt that all fear, no matter what it is, comes from the same singular source; the unknown. We’re afraid of the dark, not because we can’t see, but because we don’t know what’s there. We fear going to talk to the attractive person on the other end of the bar, not because we’re afraid of rejection, but because we don’t know what will happen. Ebert said, in his computerized voice, “I have no fear of death. We all die.” He abandoned his fear of the unknown and was able to focus on life itself because of it. His words inspire us to this day. Thank you, Mr. Ebert. I’ll see you at the movies.

“Two Thumbs Up!”

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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