Life itself (2014)

Movie poster for Life Itself

…(F)or me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.     – Roger Ebert

I lost one of my closest friends last year. I didn’t realize it until I watched Steve James’ documentary Life Itself, a wonderful eulogy to Roger Ebert. I say eulogy because although the film is loosely based on Ebert’s memoir, it has the advantage of having been conceived and filmed during Ebert’s final months. It is candid and sometimes uncomfortable; ultimately the movie embraces its title – this is an outstanding tribute and a wonderful movie story in the bargain.

On April 4, 2013 I wrote:

Roger Ebert died today.

I think I’ve read at least half of every word Ebert published, and I’ve disagreed with at least half of those. His “thumbs up/down” represented a dumbing-down of film criticism that persists today in one form or another. He was an inconsistent critic who would praise one film for the same qualities he condemned in another.

And yet.

Ebert’s best books, “Scorsese by Ebert,” “The Great Movies,” and “Life Itself: A Memoir” are accessible and hugely enjoyable. If he had an ego, it didn’t come across in his writing the way Pauline Kael’s or Stanley Kauffmann’s did. Ebert came across as a guy you’d like to have lunch with; it’s this quality that made him so successful on TV. And he wasn’t afraid to change his mind – on occasion, he would revisit a film with a new essay, explaining his new thoughts. The critic I loved to hate. Despite that, I read him.

I don’t think I knew then how much I read him. A friend asked yesterday what book I’d recommend to change someone’s life. Pauline Kael’s For Keeps has been on my nightstand for years and I’ve probably read it five times. I don’t know if it would change anyone’s life, although her writing changed mine, but I’d carry it out of the house in a fire. Ebert is another. His blog remains on my list of favorites; his books are on my phone and I’ve probably read five or six of his essays every week for more than half my life. I used to buy Ebert’s annual collections and read them in the projection booth during my cinema years. I still read him waiting in line, at the dentist, etc. Near the end of the film, Ebert estimates he reviewed 6,000 films; I’ve read most of those. In an interview Ebert joked that nobody ever argued with the classical music critic at his paper, but they had no compunction about disagreeing with him.

I used to watch Siskel and Ebert on TV every week when I lived with Mike and Betsy Larson. I remember pizza and chocolate chip cookies, and more than once Betsy and I would go to a film Ebert recommended. (We didn’t care for Siskel as much – Betsy thought he was too slick.) Although I didn’t like the thumbs, the underlying enthusiasm about movies resonated with me. Even when Ebert didn’t like something, he spoke from a place of passion – that passion has stayed with me.

In the movie, Stephen Stanton, a vocal impressionist, reads passages from Ebert’s memoir. He sounds uncannily like Ebert, and although I might not have made the same choice, it’s more comforting than distracting (you remind yourself that Ebert was unable to talk for the last several years of his life, and couldn’t have narrated these parts.) I should note that I rented the movie from iTunes, and Stanton’s vocal track faded in and out – it was the only audio element to do so, suggesting it was in the source. I hope they fix it.

James does a nice job balancing Ebert’s biography with his last struggles with cancer. This is the film’s great achievement – although a compendium of TV clips and Ebert’s best-known reviews might have filled an hour-long special, his willingness to be open about his illness and share his death with the world is revelatory. James makes clear that Ebert made the decision because Gene Siskel never shared his own illness until the very end; Ebert vowed if he went through something like that, he’d tell the people he loved. We see Ebert in the hospital, shocked at first to look right through his lower jaw (the Esquire magazine cover was surprising but more elegant, in a way – here we get the day-to-day reality.) We see nurses suctioning fluid from him. In one excruciating segment, we see him struggling to walk in a rehab session, trying to find a way to communicate that he needs to stop. (I had to walk away more than once.)

The love stories in this movie are what make it improbably cinematic. Ebert married for the first time when he was 50, and his wife Chaz is given plenty of screen time. Ebert signed a Do-Not-Resuscitate order without her consent, and Chaz’s recounting (she requested a defibrillator before he finally passed, and the nursing staff refused) gives pause to my own desire for the same. Ebert’s other great love was for Gene Siskel, which he acknowledged in his memoir and several times since via his blog. They came across like enemies on TV, and the behind-the-scenes footage James uses supports that, but it’s clear there was more for both men. I challenge anyone to watch the part recounting Siskel’s death without choking up.

James finishes with the same elegance the movie began with (see the quote at the top of this article.) He includes several short e-mail exchanges in which he was trying to finish his interviews and gain some final footage for the film. Ebert was no longer engaged, and asked James to find the answers in his book. Finally Ebert just wrote, “I’m fading.”

Two days before he died, Ebert’s last blog post was titled, “A Leave of Presence.” Although it promised he’d return, the piece concluded with the words, “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.” I read that at the time and I wished him well. Then he was gone. James allows us to share Ebert’s last moments through Chaz, which is heartrending and also life-affirming. Maybe I should say, “love-affirming.” Ebert said he’d lived a good life and was ready to stop fighting. For all his faults, many of which are referenced here, he influenced countless people through his writing; he is also remembered as a devoted husband, stepfather, step-grandfather and friend.

Some critics have called this movie unreviewable – they say it can’t be considered objectively. But what movie can really be considered objectively? James had a great story to tell, a great storyteller as his subject, and ultimately, he “helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” What more can we ask?

Roger Ebert on the cover of Esquire Magazine, 2010
Roger Ebert (1942-2013) on the cover of Esquire Magazine in 2010