Life Itself (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Life Itself (2014)

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Roger Ebert, Chicago's golden boy of cinema, passed away in 2013.  Before he passed, Steve James, whose film Hoop Dreams Ebert championed for years, connected with Ebert to make a documentary about his life.  James takes passages from his writings, interviews from friends, and the vast collection of media available about Ebert for this documentary, Life Itself.

Life Itself is currently available in select theaters and through Video on Demand services such as Amazon.

The wonderful sprite"A fact of life, we're going to die.
Be of good heart, cry the dead artists out of the living past.  Our songs will all be silenced.
But what of it?  Go on singing.  Maybe a man's name doesn't matter all that much."
-Orson Welles, F for Fake-

We all know how this ride is going to end.  What we face when we get off the coaster and into the grave is up for interpretation, but not matter the story it all ends the same way.  Life Itself faces that particular issue right out the gate because its subject, Roger Ebert, died while it was being filmed by director Steve James.  Neither James, nor Ebert, make any attempt to hide what is coming, and it's in that graceful acceptance of death that they find the best way to tell this story, as a "how to" live life in a way so as not to fear death.

Life Itself is not about cinema, but there is room for a few movies.  Nor is it about every minutiae of Ebert's life from the moment that his mother and father brought him into the world to his last internet post when he took a "Leave of presence".  What Life Itself does, and what makes James the perfect director for this project, is take the various chapters of Ebert's life and weave a Dickensian tale of big emotions with colorful characters all leading toward an inevitable destiny.  Each chapter teaches us something both about Ebert's years both in and out of the public eye, and what it means to live a good life.

Ebert and James do not spare us the difficulties of Ebert's post-surgery life, but also how the life Ebert led gave him the tools to handle it.

Ebert and James do not spare us the difficulties of Ebert's post-surgery life, but also how the life Ebert led gave him the tools to handle it.

James is the perfect director to tell this story because he has a knack for looking beyond the surface of someone's life and finding the stories hidden in the background that bring new nuance to the foreground.  There is, of course, a long section about his friendship and rivalry with Gene Siskel, his critical opponent over at the Chicago Tribune.  But even this well-visited part of his life is given a fresh perspective thanks to James weaving in mostly unseen footage of  his earlier television days.  It brought an extra element of humility to a man who has long been seen as the premier film critic on TV as he muttered away and nervously shifted his gaze from side to side trying to introduce a film by Ingmar Bergman.

What we're reminded of, between each of these stories, is how they influenced the man who in the "current" timeline of the documentary is moving on after the surgery which removed his jaw.  Ebert's discomfort in being put on the spot when it came to introducing Bergman films is reflected in the late period of his life when asked to walk up the stairs under his own power, and puts up a struggle not to.  The Ebert who weaved fantastic stories at his pub of choice, O'Rourke's, continues to hold court, albeit in a much slower fashion, around the laptop which grants him the speech his surgery robbed.  Each tale of Ebert's past is foregrounded in how it affects his condition in the present, adding a bit of a moralistic flourish about how the life well-lived gives us the tools to face death.

Which brings us to the bit of Ebert's story that only gained prominence in the days leading up to his death and afterward - his partnership with his wife Chaz.  James' films always find the unsung background players of their subject and Chaz takes center stage in many moments of the film.  What we find is a once guarded woman who learned to slowly open up now that she is in the public eye, and finds the strength to support Ebert when he can't support himself.  James, in an early and remarkable moment, interviews Chaz about how she met Ebert and in a split-second she lets her shoulders relax and tells James about how they met in AA.  That moment of naked honesty and emotion underscores just how much of Ebert's life is thanks to her, and sets the tone for the many confessions to come.

James does not leave any doubt as to where Ebert's strength comes from in the later periods of his life, and introduces many to the wonderful Chaz in the process.

James does not leave any doubt about where Ebert's strength comes from in the later periods of his life, and introduces many to the wonderful Chaz in the process.

And boy howdy there are many of them.  So many luminaries of Ebert's life, from the unknown barflies to his prestigious cinematic colleagues, let loose with their favorite stories of Ebert.  My favorite is when A.O. Scott, brilliant critic of the New York Times, dances around Ebert's love of giant breasts by discussing how cinema has intellectual appeal but we mustn't forget about its "earthier" qualities.  James never loses sight of making sure each story is building up to how Ebert faces his death, cutting that with him later in life talking about the lessons of his youth and how when he first went to the Conference of World Affairs he was hoping to get laid.

As was Ebert's favorite axiom, and motto the the 7 Up series, "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man."  Ebert the man and Ebert the boy never parted ways where their appetites are concerned.

James' film, in the end, serves as a companion piece to Hoop Dreams.  Both, in a very strong way, are about the American Dream, what it means to attain it, and how it affects everyone differently.  Ebert's life was distinctly American, and James' film is filled with reminders.  There's the nearly endless score of blue and jazz, Ebert's favorite music, on the soundtrack and in one beautiful moment Ebert's long-time friend recites, from memory, the closing lines of The Great Gatsby.  Life Itself is about how he reached that orgiastic future, found it wanting, and beat back against the current once more.

If my approach to Life Itself feels more analytical than emotional, it is because the film, in structuring Ebert's life as lessons for how to handle death, constantly reminded me of how I'm not done saying goodbye.  What's comforting is seeing just how many titans of cinema, from Martin Scorsese to Werner Herzog, struggle with their own ways of saying farewell.  Ebert's legacy can bring even Scorsese nearly to tears with a bad review from two decades ago.  We'll one day say our final goodbyes, but this film is a beautiful acceptance of the death that waits us all, and Ebert's life as an instruction on how to leave with dignity.

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Tail - Life ItselfLife Itself (2014)

Directed by Steve James.

Posted by Andrew

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