Film Reviews

Life Itself Steve James

Rating - 6/10

Steve James' inflated commemoration of the late Roger Ebert is brimming with such a wealth of documentation, archival footage, and eulogizing voices that it's as disorderly and unfocused as it is a moving tribute to one of most lauded figures in film criticism (who initially championed the very filmmaker some two decades ago).  Aptly, Ebert's first words in the production are lifted from a July 2005 speech about movies acting as "a machine that generates empathy... help[ing] us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us."  Indicative of Ebert's "relative, not absolute" approach to criticism, he firmly believed everyone should be able to understand the presentation of a film, even if it this noble crusade often appeared to be impractical.  This quote's prominence seems self-congratulatory in the context of James' film, as if predetermining its own emotional resonance.  Life Itself successfully humanizes Ebert's various complications through his nearly fifty-year career, but for a movie documentary concerning the critic of the medium, James seems to obscure Ebert's everlasting effect by continually tampering with the audience's emotional centers to the point of exhaustion.  Humorous anecdotes of Ebert's youth as well as heated banter between Ebert and inseparable rival/television partner Gene Siskel are dispersed with melancholic accounts of other colleagues and family.  Due to its expansive length and focus, Life Itself earns its title separate from Ebert's memoir of the same name.  Yet the restless structure and emotional oscillations often scatter rather than zoom in on Ebert's life even if James anchors the film with a demanding look at his medical ordeal during a December 2012 hospital stay after a femur fracture.

Although Ebert is a film critic now more recognized by his distinctively hearty voice, portly appearance, and trademarked "thumbs up," the film provides a suitable counterbalance by incorporating excerpts from his memoir and film columns; subbing as Ebert's voice is actor Stephen Stanton, who recites passages from his appraisals of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Cries and Whispers (1973), and The Tree of Life (2011), among others.  The words nostalgically materialize at random points on the screen and vanish quickly as if James is attempting to revive his physical presence through visual effect.  Ebert's leap from page to television screens of millions of Americans is the most pointed aspect of his career, but it somehow feels lopsidedly represented in the ongoing brotherly feud with Chicago Tribune critic, Siskel.  Working his way up to most famous contributor for The Chicago Sun-Times in the late 1970s, Ebert was then propositioned to do a public-access television show with Siskel, who literally worked across the street.  From the beginning, there existed an animosity (and bad fashion sense) between the writers and their respective demographics, which transferred to the complex dynamic between them on-screen.  From Gene's articulate air to Roger's sharp sarcasm, audiences came to admire their unique and uncompromising charisma.  James pinpoints this through the inclusion of a series of TV spot rehearsals in which the co-hosts ad-lib to promote their various takes on the week's cinema block.  These charged moments are both amusing and revealing, suggesting the biggest attraction for viewers was often not their preexisting reputations but rather their "transgressive" arguments as a result of their alpha personalities.  Despite his on-screen confidence, as television producer Thea Flaum notes, Ebert needed to adapt to the more conversational format despite his own boasting that he had a Pulitzer on his mantle for the written word.

Finding comfort in a screen presence, Ebert's heft as a pundit became more tangible over the decades as the television show changed names and networks; despite backlash from Time Magazine writer Richard Corliss who claimed Siskel and Ebert's show was cursory and oversimplified, Ebert ignored naysayers and embraced new creative visions that matched his own progressive ambition and reverence for the film medium.  Several filmmakers appear in Life Itself to return his kind words, as Ebert elevated their independent works to national attention.  Errol Morris is most significant with his Gates of Heaven (1978) documentary about California pet cemeteries.  "I wouldn't have a career without him," he remarks.  Others include Ramin Bahrani with his neorealist-new wave fusion flick, Man Push Cart (2005), and Ava DuVernay's affecting drama of love and loss, I Will Follow (2011).  By the end of his illustrious career, Ebert claims to have seen 10,000 films while reviewing about sixty percent of that total.  Particularly in the latter half of the documentary, James turns away from public achievement to more pressing private memories, which equally expose his successes and failures.  Chaz, Ebert's devoted wife of twenty-one years, who he first met at an AA meeting, details her husband's perseverance in the face of various setbacks.  With her detailed reminiscences, however, the film acquires a greater habit of skipping through personal and professional voices; while they are indicative of Ebert's far-reaching connections and impact, some of the accounts feel a bit speculative and superfluous.  Bahrani exhibits a jigsaw puzzle bestowed upon him, tracing its origins to Alfred Hitchcock; digressions into Ebert's activities at a '70s Cannes Film Festival feel like footnotes rather than true points of interest.  And the final harrowing portion of the documentary is allocated solely to Ebert's deteriorating state with thyroid cancer, which is somewhat manipulative.  However, with this empathetic glimpse, Life Itself achieves what no mere text could, perhaps as Ebert himself found success, in the real-time presence of one who endures.