Thursday, July 3, 2014

A Machine That Generates Empathy: LIFE ITSELF


The temptation in writing a review of Life Itself, a biographical documentary about legendary film critic Roger Ebert, is to make it about one’s personal feelings for him. For 45 years, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer appeared in print for the Chicago Sun-Times reviewing as many films as humanly possible week after week. For nearly as long, thanks to various movie review programs he co-hosted with Gene Siskel, he was a household name. When he died last April at the age of 70 after a long, public struggle with cancer, I wrote, “After years of reading him, I felt like I knew him. He’s the reason I wanted to express my thoughts about film in writing in the first place. When news arrived today of his passing, I felt like I had lost a friend. He’s the most important person in my life that I never met. All of us who love films and want to write and respond to them are in his debt.”

So of course this movie was an emotional experience for me. It’s a feature-length remembrance of a person whose work meant much to many. How wonderful to hear his story, hear others share their memories, see old clips of his passion and wit. However, Ebert famously said that a film is not about what it is about, but how it is about it. Luckily, in the case of the movie about him, the how is filmmaking from Steve James. It’s fitting that an iconic Chicagoan and a lion of criticism would have his life story told by Chicago’s leading documentarian. From 1994’s Hoop Dreams, the epic story of two inner-city basketball-playing boys, to 2011’s The Interrupters, following a violence-prevention organization, James has a keen eye for humanizing detail, a virtue Ebert often championed.

Those earlier films are all present tense verite, but Life Itself rests on archival footage of which, as a television personality, Ebert left plenty. There’s also voice over from a sound-alike (Stephen Stanton, uncanny) who reads excerpts from reviews and Ebert’s memoir of the same name. Through his own words, Ebert enlivens the film with his gregarious presence and spirited prose. We hear about his childhood, his early successes, his cult classic screenplay, his struggles with alcohol, his intense brotherly rivalry with Siskel, and his marriage (‘til death do they part) to Chaz Ebert. This is brisk, lively, complicated biography skillfully told, helped along by a generous assortment of noteworthy talking heads from filmmakers and colleagues alike. This isn’t a hagiography or teary-eyed tribute. It paints a multifaceted picture of Ebert the man, not just Ebert the public figure. Dissenting voices are heard. Descriptions of some of Ebert’s testier tendencies are included. Honest discussions of his darker days make the cut. He was, after all, just as human as the rest of us.

James began work on the documentary during what were Ebert’s final months. Cancer left him without physical voice. He was thin. He was weak. He was fed through a tube. He communicated by typing on his laptop or scrawling on a notepad. The Eberts allowed James and his cameras into their lives and the footage he captured is a heartbreakingly unflinching look at the effects of this disease on who was once a robust, energetic, avuncular figure. It’s an insightful, inspiring look into the resiliency of a writer who simply had to continue having his say, right up until the very end. It’s also a glimpse of the strength of love he had in his life with Chaz a warm, determined presence, and their marriage clearly one of mutual respect. The film touches profundity in the calm Ebert has in the face of death. Did he know he was about to die? Perhaps. There’s an eerie comfort in seeing a beloved figure face the inevitable with such acceptance.

The movie opens with video of Ebert’s famous quote about cinema’s power as “a machine that generates empathy.” That’s precisely what this film about his life does. It’s filled with biographical information, clips of films, great anecdotes, and loving reminiscences. But what lingers is the sight of Ebert in the hospital, propped up in a wheelchair with a keyboard on his lap, determined to put down more words. For decades, his writing had such a strong voice, so cheerfully personal, quotable, and idiosyncratic, that it was as if he wrote his own memoir before he actually wrote it. To read his oeuvre in total is to get an understanding of the man himself, his preferences, habits, interests, pet peeves, and deeply held convictions. On TV, as one of that medium’s greatest duos, he and Siskel arrived weekly in America’s living rooms, friendly and familiar. But on the page and on the airwaves, he was working in close-up. With Life Itself, Steve James pulls the camera back on Ebert’s life and takes it all in.

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