Sunday, June 15, 2014

2014 Sydney Film Festival Review: Life Itself 

Director: Steve James

“‘Kindness’ covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do.”

                                                                                                         ~ Roger Ebert

I distinctly remember the moment I “discovered” Roger Ebert. I was about 15 years old, browsing Rotten Tomatoes late one night to see what big-name critics thought of Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack—a childhood favourite of mine. I came across Roger’s review and decided to read it in full. I had heard of this critic before, and was curious to see why everyone talked about him. Roger hated the film. This didn’t surprise me; I knew I was in the minority by liking it. What surprised me the most is that I accepted Roger’s criticisms without hesitation. Jack is a film where Robin Williams plays a boy with an ageing disorder that makes him look 40 years old when he is only 10. It is so preposterous and Roger could have easily dismissed it with sweeping statements. But he didn’t simply state that certain scenes didn’t work; he explained why they didn’t work. I kept thinking, “Wow...I’ve never thought about it that way before.” I became fascinated with the idea that any piece of cinema could be reviewed, whether highbrow or lowbrow. That same night, I read about a dozen more Ebert reviews of films I cherished. I learned a lot, and for the next two years, I would follow a routine of watching a film then reading Roger’s review of it immediately afterwards. I have never formally studied film at university. If I sound articulate when I talk or write about film, it is because Roger planted the seeds. I write about movies because of Roger Ebert. He is the reason your eyes are scanning these words.

Life Itself is directed by Steve James, whose Hoop Dreams was lauded by Ebert as the best film of the 1990s. The documentary draws on excerpts from Ebert’s memoir of the same name. James traces the topography of Ebert’s life in intimate detail. We learn of his roots as college newspaper editor and reporter for the News-Gazette in Champaign, Illinois. Ebert was thrust into the role of Chicago Sun-Times film critic in 1967 following the departure of Eleanor Keane. He did not ask for the role, but he made it his own, and his older colleagues were intimidated by his precocious writing ability and a work ethic usually reserved for senior editors. I do like that the movie represents Ebert as a writer, first and foremost. Yes, film was his forte, but you could give the man any topic and he could string together an intellectually-engaging think piece. He could do it with astonishing speed, too.

A large focus of the film is Ebert’s complex relationship with rival Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel. Their early years co-hosting PBS’ Sneak Previews were rife with tension. When the men disagreed, there was no compromising. Any dispute must have meant at least one person was fundamentally wrong. They found it challenging to like each other. As they transitioned into At the Movies, rapport strengthened and they became more accommodating with one another. This duo was like a pair of siblings whose petty arguments were no match for their mutual love and respect.

The film acquaints us with Ebert’s widow, Chaz Hammelsmith, who is nothing short of amazing. Roger married Chaz when he was 50. He had feared his twilight years would be spent alone, until he found this incredible beacon of light and hope. In a blog post from 2012, Roger described Chaz as “the great fact of my life”, and “a wind forcing me back from the grave.” Roger must have seen thousands of great love stories played out on celluloid in his career but, to him, the one he was living was the greatest of all.

The film is a little hard to watch when we see Ebert in his hospital bed. We know this man for his vociferous defence and/or condemnation of films, but cancer has rendered him without a voice. However, there’s something deeply inspiring about these scenes. We see the twinkle in his eyes and he seems to have boundless enthusiasm to participate in the documentary despite everything life has thrown at him. In one of the film’s most shocking revelations, we see an email from Ebert telling Steve James he would only agree to participate in the film if it would show his physical deterioration. Ebert concludes the email with the line, “This isn’t only your film.”

I admire the film for eulogising Ebert without working on a mythic level. It must have been so tempting to lapse into hero worship, but we’re given extensive insight into Roger’s health problems, his struggle with alcoholism, and his strained relationships with fellow critics. James makes no secret that Roger’s ego may have stretched longer than the running time of Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó. At its core, however, the film paints a loving portrait of a man whose legacy will echo for myriad decades to come. On a personal level, I was surprised that the film didn’t make me bawl my eyes out. I expected it to render me a mess, but no tears streamed down my cheeks. They merely pooled in my eyes, waiting for the ultimate trigger that would compel them to flow. It never came, but Roger would’ve hated a film about his life that tried so desperately to be a tearjerker. I am reminded of Neil Finn’s comment during Crowded House’s Farewell to the World concert: “It feels more like a celebration than a funeral.” When we hear recollections from directors such as Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog and we see the joy on their faces, we realise they are here to celebrate, too. (Okay, so Marty may have been choking back tears at one point.)

This film will demolish anyone’s preconceived notions that Roger Ebert was a walking ball of snark, an image he may have accumulated through his many years of bickering with Siskel on television. It strips back that facade of cockiness and shows us the warm, gooey centre of a man with a beautiful mind and a large, giving heart. There is one especially touching scene involving a jigsaw puzzle gifted from Alfred Hitchcock to Marilyn Monroe—it confirms that Roger Ebert was a wonderful human being. Believe it or not, there are still some people who hold an eternal grudge against Ebert for his stance on video games as art, and for a harmless quip he made following the death of Jackass member Ryan Dunn. Hopefully, this film will erase their pathetic prejudices, but it’s likely they won’t make an effort to see it.

In his memoir, Ebert devotes an entire chapter to his own mortality. He quotes Walt Whitman:

“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”

I’ll keep looking for Roger under my boot-soles. I miss him terribly, and when I walked out of my screening of Life Itself, I was more sure than ever about his description of the movies as “a machine that generates empathy.” Roger also said, “It’s not what a movie is about, but how it’s about it.” I like what this film is about, and everyone involved went about it very well.

4/5 stars (two thumbs up).


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