“The movies are like a machine that generates empathy”—Roger Ebert
Review by Ken Burke Life Itself
A documentary about revered film critic Roger Ebert's life and recent (2013) death, exploring his years of fame juxtaposed against his difficult final days of impaired activity.
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A lot of other activities have reduced my cinematic-free-time over the last week, leaving me with just Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay), the latest machine-warfare-extravaganza from a very successful franchise (that I care almost nothing about), and Life Itself (Steve James), the just-opening-documentary-biography of revered-film-critic Roger Ebert to write about. While I normally will staple together whatever I’ve had a chance to see since my last posting—sometimes with thematic connections, sometimes just as a cluster of unrelated reviews—I decided not to do that this week in respect for Ebert’s grand, extensive contributions to the discipline and public discourse of cinematic analysis because while Roger was no royal personage who had to be respected at all costs (in fact, the one time I met him a little over 30 years ago I found him to be insufferably full of himself, although constantly knowledgeable about whatever he was discussing so he had some valid reasons for feeling he was the most valuable voice in the room; he also, prior to his long-lasting-marriage, had quite the voracious appetite for women, mirrored in his co-writing of the script for Russ Meyer’s monumental-sleaze-fest, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls —although that X-then-NC-17 “classic” is usually explained as a satire), his memory deserves something better (… Dolls not withstanding) than to be linked to something as extravagant, unnecessary, and unbelievably long as the new Transformers “epic” (even if he might have liked it, but I have no clue about that), so I posted comments on Bay’s behemoth as a stand-alone-review on July 2, 2014 so that I could give Roger his due in this separate spotlight. When I started writing the Transformer comments, though, I thought I’d have little to say but I managed to stretch it out to fairly standard length for my singleton commentaries because one statement just keep leading to another, etc. For Life Itself, though, I sincerely intend to keep it short—especially for a windbag like me (post-writing/pre-posting-comment: of course that didn’t work out, so read on as usual)—because this is one of those films that is just so infused with the spirit of its subject that to attempt to transcribe, paraphrase, or quote it at length just in an attempt to transform a 2-hour audiovisual experience into something that resembles it in words is to do disservice to the original. Even if you never paid much attention to what Ebert wrote in his newspaper or online reviews, many books (on topics that were not even always about film) and/or never saw him in the various incarnations of the movie review show he did with various others from 1975 to 2006 (notably the late Gene Siskel, then Richard Roeper after trying out a good number of other well-known film analysts from the print world when deciding how to replace Siskel), you owe it to yourself to find—or someday rent if necessary—Life Itself to see what one of the great minds focused on film was all about, especially if it then gives you further encouragement to seek out some of those many writings to get more in-depth into what you’ll just be introduced to with this well-researched, well-crafted documentary.
|Ebert and Siskel in their standard viewing room seats|
I normally end my comments in each posting with a Musical Metaphor that somehow speaks to what I’ve been reviewing (sometimes in a serious, thoughtful fashion, but also with the option to just be plain silly with my choices); however, I’m going to build my comments on Life Itself from the start on some of the lyrics of my chosen song, Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” (from his 1983 Too Low for Zero album), as I hope to justify this choice with explanations about why many of these words seem appropriate to me about Ebert’s life as explored in James’ film (the song itself is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6KYAVn8ons in its original music video form if you’d like to give a looksee first before reading on; you can also get the lyrics for full context). This song is actually about a couple of lovers who are going to be forcibly separated while he’s away in the service in the 1950s, so I mean no disrespect to Ebert’s memory in appropriating some of these lovesick statements to refer to aspects of what you’d learn about him in the documentary, but I do think it fits (metaphorically, remember), especially with the last verse lines of “But more than ever I simply love you, More than I love life itself,” which I thought of immediately after getting the chance to see this film at an advance press screening (I haven’t been harping on Spoiler Alerts this time, even though I know that Life Itself is just now opening this weekend [July 4-6, 2014] because there are no surprises as such to find here—we know he was about as famous as most of the movies that he analyzed, we know he sparred constantly with his most notable TV co-host, Siskel, we know he was admired and respected by a vast number of other critics and movie-biz folks [Martin Scorsese is the most notable director to sing his praises in this documentary tribute—he’s also one of several Executive Producers of this project—but many of you will know Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and/or Gregory Nava as well; some notable critics also contribute, primarily Richard Corliss of Time and A.O. Scott of the New York Times], and we know that he died on April 4, 2013 after allowing himself to be seen publically with a disfigured face after cancer surgery on his throat and jaw, so it’s not about secrets, it’s about hearing what the man—and many of those close to him—had to say about his life, interests, and evaluations) because while the film’s title refers to Ebert’s own print autobiography of the same name—with the reference being that life is the only thing he loved as much as the art and entertainment of cinema—it’s clear from what we see in the footage of his waning days spent in hospitals and therapy rooms that there was one love that transcended them all, the affection for and connection with his wife of a bit over 20 years, Chaz (actually, there’s a lot of love, both romantic and platonic, shown and indicated in Life Itself from all of those interviewed, as well as aspects of admiration and respect [even while acknowledging real human flaws], with a sense of reaching back into the past for perspective as Elton’s music video also does so I’m sticking with this song, crazy as it may seem as a connection to the film under review—I may not be as successful a critic as Ebert but I’m damn sure wackier and I intend to stay that way).
As far as the connection between Roger and Chaz, it’s shown as unwavering, not in prepared scenes of interaction but just cinema verite footage of the constant care she provided (along with a crew of health professionals) to a man who could no longer walk, eat, or talk, with his former life of verbal imposition upon anything in his vicinity being reduced in his last years to having others speak for him or transcribing his thoughts into a computer with those discomforting vocalizations that made him sound like a robot. Nevertheless, Chaz consistently displays her dedication to the equal love of her life, calling to mind for me the lines from Elton’s tune, which I think would still resonate for her even after Roger’s death: “Just stare into space, Picture my face in your hands, Live for each second without hesitation, And never forget I’m your man.” I don’t pretend to truly speak for these people that I don’t know on a personal level, but what I see in this documentary about this highly-connected-couple feels so much like what I know of my own 24 years (as of June 30, 2014) of life-affirming-marriage to my marvelous wife, Nina; therefore, I feel like I can empathize somewhat with the Eberts, even if just from the distance of what fully existed on the other side of the screen in a movie auditorium.
In addition to the chronological survey of Ebert’s biography in Life Itself—which is filled with various clips of his commentaries over the years back when he could organically vocalize his thoughts—a lot of the film’s focus is on the years with Siskel, probably because that’s how most of us came to know him (except those personal friends and colleagues who also offer a lot of honest recollections that acknowledge this guy was not only no saint in his younger years, that he was quite a domineering jerk at times, fueled by alcoholism that he finally had to forcibly push away from) in the various versions of their weekly-2-man-roundup of current movies from 1975 to 1999 (when Siskel died, to be replaced by Roeper from 2000-2010). It’s been noted how odd it is that Roeper is barely mentioned in Ebert’s memoir book, with no presence in this current film either, but whatever that’s about we get plenty regarding the professional and personal feud that fuelled Ebert’s years with Siskel (with footage from the time and copious recollections from producers of the show). Had I known how serious their disagreements and animosity were it would have made watching their verbal sparing a lot more uncomfortable, beyond the entertainment effect that their disagreements provided for a medium that thrives on conflict, even in something that’s essentially news reporting with personal opinion overlaid—although Ebert was quite proud of himself for being the first newspaper writer to win a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism (in 1975 for the body of his 1974 work), enough so that you can tell he truly wanted first billing on the TV show but that had been decided by the “careful process” of a random coin toss (this reminds me of how Paul McCartney occasionally attempted to reverse the Lennon-McCartney order of their songwriting credits after John’s death but generally relented after facing criticism for this stance). Ebert notes in Life Itself that the reason why he wanted to be so public about his illnesses and health difficulties is because Siskel kept his own brain cancer a secret, even from his children until close to his demise, so again I turn to Elton John’s lyric: “Don’t wish it away, Don’t look at it like it’s forever, Between you and me I can honestly say, That things can only get better.” Maybe now they’re both in the great beyond (whatever/if-ever that may be) they’ve come to a measure of true peace with each other, although in Life Itself we get some testimony that their tensions finally did mellow somewhat into mutual respect, even in the face of frequently-intense-disagreements.
In general, the line that gives Elton’s song its title, “And I guess that’s why they call it the blues,” speaks to me of the difficulties that Ebert had just living from day to day as his physical condition worsened, especially when we see fluid being suctioned from his lungs through a hole in his throat. It’s a grueling thing to watch and certainly seemed painful for him, despite the fact that most of the time that we see him in Life Itself he’s smiling. At times I thought that it was a permanent smile (like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight [Christopher Nolan, 2008]) resulting from the removal of much of his jaw which left his mouth and teeth intact with the chin hanging around them but then an open space in front of his throat that gave him a grotesque appearance at times when you could see right through his mouth to the bandaged throat behind, but after viewing him in a few instances where conditions were distressing enough to eliminate the smile I could realize that his benign appearance was a conscious effort to show a sense of acceptance of his situation and happiness that he was still alive, with Chaz, still able to express his thoughts on films and life in general through keyboard assistance which resulted in regular movie reviews right up until his death with the same clarity and eloquence that you’d find in his filmic explorations of several decades earlier. Based on what Ebert tells us of his views on various aspects of the time on Earth we all share (which you can find aspects of in this video clip where an actor's pleasant, non-mechanical-voice articulates his book’s closing comments on life, death, and religion), I think he became a much more accepting, generous, open person that what I experienced of him over about a week’s encounters in 1981 when I was teaching at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where the Meadows School of the Arts annual Award was given in its inaugural year to Ingmar Bergman who came to the campus toward the end of the spring semester to accept it and offer some master classes to students. As preparation for Bergman’s visit there was a lengthy series of his films shown, with notable critics invited to lecture on some of them. Ebert was one of those lecturers, but he also did his own master class where he, I, and many of my students spent 2 extended afternoons doing a shot-by-shot-analysis of Persona (1966) using a still-frame-16mm projector with everyone participating in the discussions of the construction, supposed intentions, and impacts of this masterpiece of world cinema (still my all-time #2 after Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941]—Ebert’s stated best film as well). It was a marvelous learning experience for all involved, but even in our large Bob Hope Auditorium (obviously donated by you-know-whom) Ebert seemed to take up most of the space in the room, both physically and psychically (in all fairness, he lost a lot of that excess weight later, as well as becoming less dogmatic), being quite proud of himself for doing so. It was a memorable time, even after all these years, but it always made me a bit uneasy seeing him on TV after that, even when I agreed with his choices (which was most of the time).
Roger Ebert was a giant in the world of film criticism, proving himself quite adept at probing deeply into the widest realm of our beloved art with an encyclopedic command of the medium as well as being able to function as a more straightforward reviewer for the many weekly openings that he covered in concise (what does that word mean?), engaging prose in formats where brevity enhanced with clarity is necessary, as opposed to the books where he could explore cinematic topics in greater depth. His legacy continues in those collections of his writings as well as the official website dedicated to his work and his memory if you’d like to better acquaint yourself with what he accomplished. In the meantime, though, I encourage you to seek out Life Itself, as I don’t know how wide it’s being released nor how long it will linger in theaters given that even with Ebert’s name-value there potentially may not be too many audiences who want to experience the daily details of a dying man, even one with a lot to bequeath to those who will avail themselves of his shared lessons from the active, diverse experiences that he lived through and the calm acceptance of his inevitable fate once his robust years disappeared. Steve James always appreciated the strong support he got from Ebert (and Siskel) for the quality of his Hoop Dreams documentary (1994; about 2 Black teen boys in Chicago with hopes of being basketball pros, despite the difficulties that prevented their NBA aspirations from becoming realities) so he set out to make Life Itself—with full cooperation, warts and all, from Roger and Chaz—as a tribute to his advocate. He succeeds in a very informative, moving fashion that could only be properly evaluated, despite my regular use of stars, as worthy of “two thumbs up” (even though both of them belong to me—and I hope I don’t have to pay royalties for that phrase because it was trademarked by Siskel and Ebert, so I’m sure their widows still control its official use; maybe they’ll let me slide this time, given that a lot of other reviews of this film are using it as well).
In that I’ve already applied my Musical Metaphor I’ll wrap up instead with a Sports Metaphor (my other passion, along with Nina and movies, although mostly limited to the Oakland Athletics, not sports nor baseball in general) given that I’m posting this on July 4, 2014, the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s famous farewell speech at Yankee Stadium on a special Appreciation Day in his honor related to his retirement that previous June 21, 1939 because his ALS disease had ended his storied career (and would take his life on June 2, 1941). This video at mlb.com replays that speech, interspersed with lines from it repeated by all of the current MLB first basemen (Lou’s position; Derek Jeter gets to appear also despite being a shortstop, in that he’s the current captain of the Yankees—as was Gehrig in this day—and is retiring himself after this season, capping off his own 20 years with the Yankees, his only franchise, just like with Lou who played there for 17 seasons) in his memory. It seems fitting to me to link this to Ebert’s eulogy-documentary because both of these guys were outstanding legends in their chosen professions, both are being honored by those professions today especially, and both set standards that may be surpassed (Cal Ripken Jr. already broke Gehrig’s consecutive-games-played record—Ripken with 2,632 to Gehrig’s 2,130, although Lou will forever be the first baseball player to have his uniform number  retired, just as it’s doubtful that any other movie critic on TV will ever have the time in service and name-recognition that Ebert does) but their legacies are well-established, their contributions will always be referenced, and their abilities to help elevate what could be dismissed as mere pastimes will always be remembered by anyone who has any reasonable knowledge of the fields to which they were both so passionately committed. Thumbs up—millions of them—to both of these great men.
If you’d like to know more about Life Itself here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lM1Q4J7C16Y (14:23 discussion of the film with Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips and Tribune reporter Rick Kogan, both of whom knew Ebert quite well; Kogan especially felt that the many scenes of Ebert in his last days of sickness get excessive, at least for him given his personal connection with Roger; Phillips also gives some mini-reviews of 5 films in the final 2 min. of this clip)
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