LIFE ITSELF (2014, doc)

life itself Greetings again from the darkness. Director Steve James is well known for his heralded documentary Hoop Dreams, released 20 years ago. Film Critic Roger Ebert was one of that film’s earliest and loudest champions. Now, Mr. James returns the favor with a tribute to the life of Roger Ebert, based on the memoir of the same name.

James struggles a bit with the film’s structure because there is so much story to Ebert’s life, and the director’s access to the challenges faced by Ebert during his last months of life make for a story unto itself. No punches are pulled, and this is one of the most head-on presentations of illness and dying that we have ever witnessed on screen. Ebert’s cancer took his jaw and his recognizable voice, but this man would not be silenced. He passionately embraced social media and blogging to become even more relevant than ever.

It’s fun to see the love-hate relationship between Ebert and his TV co-host Gene Siskel. This was the best kind of rivalry – one that brought at the best in both. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to them via PBS in 1975, their first year broadcasting together. I’ve said it before, but these two guys taught me how to watch a movie … how to appreciate what story was being told, and how it was being told. Their brief verbal jousts showed me that opinions can vary widely on movies and that it’s not just OK, but actually fun to debate the merits.

As much fun as their show was, what I really enjoyed was reading their full reviews in the Chicago newspapers. My trips to the library were often for the sole purpose of digging out the latest reviews (this was prior to internet). Whle I more often agreed with Siskel, it was Ebert’s stunning writing skills that really hit home with me. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned he won a Pulitzer at age 26, and had grown up as a journalist. His words could translate what his senses took in.

Because of all that, this documentary is very personal to me … as I’m sure it is to the entire community of film lovers that Siskel and/or Ebert inspired. The interviews with Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese and Errol Morris (plus others) clearly display the impact of Ebert. But as personal as it is to these men as filmmakers and to me as a movie blogger, that’s nothing like the personal level we witness between Roger and Chaz, his wife. Roger’s health issues and numerous operations and rehabilitation stints show the courage and love of these two. This was heart-warming and gut-wrenching all at the same time … the kind of movie that Roger would have given a big thumbs up.

Here is what I posted the day after Roger Ebert died:

watch the trailer:




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