By Simon Miraudo
June 9, 2014
Roger Ebert, lover of women, alcohol, cinema, and life itself, is seen at the conclusion of Steve James‘ new documentary making peace with his impending death, calling it a satisfying conclusion to his narrative. He would have hated being robbed a “third act” through sudden death. That’s remarkable chutzpah for a man who spent his last seven years without a lower jaw, unable to speak or eat, and relying on his wife Chaz and his burgeoning blog to communicate with the world. But then, as anyone who spent time with him in a bar, read his occasionally scathing film reviews, or saw his lone screenwriting effort (Russ Meyer‘s raunchy Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) was already well aware, Ebert was not short on chutzpah.
Most of us knew him best as the rotund anchor of At the Movies alongside the more aerodynamic Gene Siskel, returning Gladiatorial theatrics to criticism by giving the latest releases a ‘live’ or ‘die’ ranking with only his thumb. Personally, I admired the way he could cut to the heart of a feature’s essence in writing with a perfectly worded observation; often just a single sentence could do it, and clarity with brevity is a rare thing indeed. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Sun-Times journalist disappeared from public view in 2006, only to re-emerge as one of the internet’s most dynamic pundits (on politics and rice cookers too), and it was easy to read his works and still hear his voice. Ebert finally succumbed in April of 2013 to the cancer that took his vocal instrument away, and now James’ Life Itself, based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, reveals just how significantly he had been physically diminished in his final years, though not diminished creatively or inspirationally.
It opens with Ebert communicating to a crowd his belief that movies are machines for generating empathy. What follows is the story of a man who was good at his job, endured personal hardships and professional rivalries, found happiness in family and soldiered on through unimaginable sickness. Ebert was a great critic, a flawed human, and the perfect subject for a documentary encapsulating everything valuable, fleeting, and marvellous about life. The opening suggestion, of movies being a machine to generate empathy, is proven by the very movie containing it. There was not a dry eye in the house of my screening, and that may have even proved true in the adjoining theatres showing Edge of Tomorrow or Godzilla, so overwhelming it was.
Kind words flow from directors Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani, Errol Morris and Ava DuVernay, as well as colleagues from the Sun-Times (the latter armed with the most outrageous anecdotes about young Roger during his alcoholic days). The flick finds its true fulcrum, however, with Ebert’s ongoing feud with late Frenemy Gene Siskel; conjoined nemeses whose rivalry made them widely adored and wildly wealthy. The outtakes of Ebert and Siskel sniping and swearing at one another is just good watching. They’d have to agree on that, perhaps through clenched teeth.
Chaz, a woman who’s already given much, allowed her final months with Roger in hospital to be filmed by James, and that includes the bad days. He intersperses those more harrowing moments (often mercifully deflated by the unspeaking Roger’s gallows humour) with archive footage and talking heads. It’s extremely well paced and honest and entirely entertaining, and the legendary Chicago filmmaker does a fine job of documenting Ebert’s declining days without seeming exploitative. James is one of the greats. He deserves his own doco someday. It’s said Ebert loved to hold court at his local haunt and spin yarns for hours on end. He would have likely yielded the floor if the man responsible for Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, and now this wanted to share some tales of his own.
Do I keep going, or see if I can’t capture the essence of Life Itself in a sentence, as Ebert always managed to do? A line from the incisive cartoon Rick and Morty feels apt, boiling down our entire species’ being and reliance on art as a panacea: “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s going to die. Come watch TV?” That’s a great line, and it’s true, but it’s not mine, and it’s not how Life Itself made me feel. Maybe it’s best not to try and mimic Mr. Ebert; at least, not in a review of this particular film. The true tragedy of Life Itself is that Roger isn’t around to write about it. No one would have been able to say whatever there is to be said any better.
Life Itself plays the Sydney Film Festival June 12, 2014.