Tuesday, July 8, 2014

"Life Itself" review

It's quite fitting that someone would make a movie about Roger Ebert. After all, the beloved critic loved movies so much that "Roger Ebert loved movies" is the epitaph on his website. It's even more fitting that it would be made by Steve James, director of the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, which Ebert adored and championed endlessly. It's just a shame, though, that it would not be produced until after his death, although he did live just long enough to participate in its production.

The film opens in - of course - Chicago, Ebert's beloved home, where we see the city in full memoriam mode for the critic, and meet a number of people we'll be conversing with over the course of the film- friends of Ebert, associates, people familiar with him. These include Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog, his longtime close friends and among his most admired filmmakers. The credits roll over a series of photos of Roger from his childhood through his many years as a critic, with the title card being paired, significantly, with a photo he took himself in 2006, just before having surgery for his thyroid cancer that, he knew, would change his face significantly.

Then we finally meet the man himself in person, sometime around late 2012 or early 2013, mere months before his death. He is, as he once admitted himself, not a pretty sight. His lower jaw is completely gone, his bottom row of teeth completely missing, leaving nothing but loose flap of skin that he casually bounces up and down whenever he types. The first thing we see him doing is suffering through a cleansing of a hole in his throat, through which he is fed. His discomfort is painfully obvious. )Then we remember that he went through this once every day, at least.) He is completely incapable of speech, having to use a text-to-speech program on his laptop to communicate, and as the film later flashes back to 2009, or 2007, it is clear that he is deteriorating. And yet, there is still joy on his face. He seems to have a permanent smile, as comedian Doug Walker once put it; not by physical limitation - over the course of the film, we see that he can also muster a neutral or negative expression - but by choice. Whereas before, he often appeared reserved when on camera, remaining something of a stone-face while his voice expressed all of his emotion, now he always seems to be grinning, even in those painful moments of throat-cleansing; whenever anyone asks him, "are you alright?", his answer is always another smile paired with (what else) a great big thumbs-up. Even as he was dying, his spirit was alive.

After the introduction, we flash back to the early years of Ebert's life, mostly glossing over his childhood and skipping to the juicy beginnings of his journalism career, starting as editor of his local college's paper before moving on to the Chicago Sun-Times and having the job of movie critic more or less fall into his lap. We see that he quickly became a major voice for the new, young generation of critics by daring to give Bonnie & Clyde a good review. There's a very hefty section of the film devoted to, of course, Siskel & Ebert, the show that solidified his career, with Gene Siskel's wife Marlene acting as the mouthpiece for Gene's point of view. I found the editing very fascinating in this portion. In a documentary, the editing generally tries to avoid bringing attention to itself, so as to seem more natural and real, but in Life Itself I found myself struck by several ingenious moments of cutting. When we learn that Siskel and Ebert were on Johnny Carson 3 times over, this isn't told through words; instead, we see Carson introduce them, and watch them walk onstage - and then we see Carson introduce them, and watch them walk onstage - and then we see Carson introduce them, and watch them walk onstage. It's a very unique and evocative way to explain it, much more interesting than a flat voiceover, and everyone can understand what the clip means.

One of the few subjects in the film that we don't see enough of is, ironically, the subject we see more than any other aside from Roger: his wife, Chaz. She is a constant presence in his life during the footage from 2013, and the love that they have for one another is clearly deep and unbreakable, but not enough attention is paid to the woman herself. Tantalizing bites of her history are dangled in front of us - she briefly mentions having marched with Martin Luther King, and confesses that she met Roger at an AA meeting (the first time, so she says, that she has ever publicly admitted to being an alcoholic) - but they are forgotten about as soon as they are brought up. Little is even suggested as to what initially attracted her to him (or him to her), or what made them decide to spend their lives together. Their early courtship (for lack of a better term), which is actually a very sweet story, is never brought up. Much attention is paid to Siskel's joy that his friend was getting married ("now he'll have to pay mortgages- he'll never leave the show!"), but Chaz's discussion of the big day is limited to remarking on her family's surprise that she'd marry a white man. This is Roger's film, not hers, of course, but a person's spouse says a lot about them, and Life Itself does not say enough about his.

A scene late in the film, where Roger has finally arrived back home after several months of physical therapy, is impressive in its honesty. Chaz, clearly quite tired, expects that he will walk up the stairs to the front door, but Roger disagrees. He makes an erratic "writing" motion, trying to ask for some paper and a pen, and slams his fist in anger when he's denied it. Chaz raises her voice, he moves about wildly, desperate to express himself, and when he's finally given the paper he writes frantically and angrily. He wants to be moved up the stairs in his wheelchair. Chaz refuses, adamant that he can do it himself, as he'd spent several months in physical therapy preparing for. If only he could talk, it's very easy to see that Roger would be screaming back at her. It's always commendable to see this sort of honesty in a biography, even - hell, especially - in the most fawning and approving of memorials, because it shows a person as all people are: flawed. Other flaws of Ebert's are explored throughout the film, and rather than tarnish his legacy, they enhance it; they show us that, great though he was, he made screw-ups as all of us do, and importantly, that his good qualities ultimately outweighed his bad. It's shown that, in his younger years, he was something of a swinger; when asked why he was so fond of the schlocky films of Russ Meyer, so fond that he would write the only screenplays of his career with Meyer, the answer from his friends is a unanimous, flat "boobs", and his drunken escapades (which ultimately led to a membership in Alcoholics Anonymous, where, as mentioned before, he met Chaz) were apparently a sight to behold. Without this honesty, James would certainly be accused of sugarcoating Ebert's life story. With this honesty, he's enhanced it.

But the deepest honesty, the most beautiful truth, is the final scene, when Roger has passed and we've moved on to the mourning. The nationwide memorial is poignant by itself, but the most wonderful moments are those that seem like something right out of a movie, payoffs of inadvertent foreshadowing that seem to confirm Ebert's claim, in the opening line of his memoir, that he "was born inside the movie of [his] life". An old friend is shown carrying a homemade umbrella covered in decorations of remembrance, and underneath, a pair of plastic Russ Meyer-esque 'boobs'. All the people we've seen interviewed are there at his funeral, shown in quickie close-up shots just like any movie funeral. At the close of his "Celebration of Life" held at the Chicago Theater, the audience stands and gives a salute of thumbs, just like the thumbs he'd used to say that he was okay. He is okay.

It was often said, in Ebert's final years after his surgery, that although he had lost his speech, he had not lost his voice. Now he has lost his life- but his voice still remains. Life Itself is a wonderful tribute to that voice, and the amazing man it belonged to.

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