Movie Review: Life Itself
Director: Steve James
Reviewed: 16 August 2014
I meant to see his film in Houston on the big screen, possibly with some of the middle school students from Denver Harbor who met him with me in June of 2004 (impossibly, those same students are now in their twenties: some in college, and some with families). However, it seemed right to watch it in Elmhurst, a suburb of Chicago, where I grew up as a kid, although the experiencing of seeing a new movie on the television is still one I have to get used to. My parents were there on the couches and chairs next to me, and my wife who also met Roger Ebert on that trip over ten years ago was at my side. The spirit of family, community, and place swirled about me most fittingly as I watched Steve James's new documentary Life Itself, among the very people who would purchase the Sunday Chicago Sun-Times on Saturday to start going through it the night before. That Sunday Sun-Times featured essays and interviews conducted by Roger Ebert and in late December every year, it featured his best movies of the year. Those lists and his myriad books dominated my consciousness and still do, beckoning me to try new directors, genres, and expand my canon. I have no doubt that Roger Ebert helped steer my parents towards films such as Glory, Goodfellas, and The Crying Game during 1991-1993, and they mentored me by showing me my first real works of cinematic art at a formative time in my life. My Friday morning ritual in high school was to run the two mile loop up Myrtle Ave to the train tracks, train tracks down to York Road, stop somewhere downtown with my 85 cents in hand to purchase a Friday Tribune and a Friday Sun-Times for Siskel and Ebert's written movie reviews, and then jog back home with the papers in hand, usually passing Nu-Time Video with an alluring movie poster beckoning from beside the front door. I would read the movie reviews first--before sports, the front page, and any sort of world news. They were that important to me. Ebert's writing was voluminous and profound: lengthy treatises with literary analysis, rich in film history, but always written with his unique and approachable voice. His television persona to me was not as strong, but I saw Siskel & Ebert whenever I could, and I always found it to be illuminating. Two smart guys on television talking about movies! And not always agreeing! About two weeks after graduating college, I met Ebert at the Harold Washington Library where he read e.e. cummings's poetry aloud and signed a copy of his book to me. Later that first year as a teacher, Ebert emailed back and forth with me about teaching the very course at that Houston school that would lead me to being able to meet him three years later. He was a champion of film and of life, and Steve James expertly captures that in this film, the best of the year so far.
Clearly, as a Roger Ebert fan, Steve James's film worked for me on multiple levels, but as I watched James unfold the debilitating and devastating medical diagnoses that Ebert receives and lives with as does his wife Chaz juxtaposed against the wilder, raucous years of the Pulitzer Prize winning writer's life, I found the core of the film through the title. Life itself. Roger Ebert was so much more than just an attitude or a persona. His life itself was about finding what defined his life, and the search for truth never goes simply or smoothly. Ebert has described movies as being "empathy machines" because of their transformative and evocative power to take us inside worlds in surprising ways. Movies connect and allow us to, as Atticus Finch would say, "put yourself in someone else's shoes and walk around for a little bit," to paraphrase the familiar line. We walk in Ebert's shoes in this film as James skillfully weaves from his childhood and rise to prominence as a critic as well as a television personality, and then again, we walk with him through painful years of alcoholism and in physical therapy as a battered but unbroken Ebert fights to regain control of his body. We walk with Chaz, the love of his life, and the woman whose life for Ebert defines the film and him. His success, James makes me think, would have been merely empty laurels without the love of Chaz and the joy he felt when with her and their family together. Home video clips punctuate this feeling.
I knew I would love the old Siskel & Ebert clips and out takes, some particularly vicious and petulant. I knew the talking heads aspects of the film would work for me, hearing tales of old Chicago and old newspaper business. The film shows an imperfect man adrift in a successful life who found love, and that love anchored him in a way nothing else ever could. Instead of canonizing or lionizing the beloved Ebert, James aims at presenting a more balanced, more honest portrait. Friend Martin Scorsese discusses their friendship and the pain of a negative review for The Color of Money. Gene Siskel's widow recounts their bickering, professional jealousy, and at times, awfulness to each other. Chaz shows the grace and grief of a partner turned caretaker when the simple act of walking up the stairs can become a trying ordeal of shaken heads, upset hands, and even rage. Throughout it all, James's focus on Ebert analyzing his life and considering his own mortality allows us a shockingly intimate and hopeful picture of what it means to live and what it means to die.
Steve James was brought onto my radar by Roger Ebert in 1994 with the documentary Hoop Dreams, and Ebert's championing of that film brought it worldwide renown and an Oscar nomination for Best Editing (though none, criminally, for Best Documentary). James has continued to make fascinating films ever since, from Stevie to The Interrupters, and what a uniquely appropriate joy it would be in late February to see Steve James standing at the Academy Awards accepting an Oscar, finally, for this tribute and examination of the great Roger Ebert. To me, Life Itself, like Ebert's autobiography of the same name that provides some of the film's foundation and shape, allows an audience to ponder the deepest questions of what makes our lives worth living while retaining the joy and twinkle of the man who would have written this review much more eloquently and much more rapidly.