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Jul 9, 2014

Review: LIFE ITSELF (2014)

           Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel (archival footage), Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrani, Ava DuVernay, Marlene Siskel, A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss, Stephen Stanton (voice - as Roger Ebert) and others.

                    Steve James

                 I don't know how to begin my review for "Life Itself", a biographical documentary directed by Steve James. The greatest film critic and champion of cinema, Roger Ebert's influence has always been a significant one among us fellow cinema enthusiasts. Whether you are a blogger, a respected film critic, casual film fanatic or a journalist, Ebert has touched our lives in so many ways. This documentary brings back those feelings, memories and basic appreciation that one used to attach with this figure in the best way possible. When Mr. Ebert died last year, I couldn't bring myself to write anything about him. Somehow my emotions and memories of his were all over the place, scattered and no way to be summed up in words very easily. I thank Steve James for making this documentary and for giving me a fantastic opportunity to not only write about what Ebert meant to me but also his own life which I was mostly unaware of. To start off, I have always loved films. From a very young age, the idea of watching movies was fascinating to me. I come from a country and family where cinema isn't given the kind of appreciation that you find in the West. But my school initially, the onslaught of Bollywood films on TV and then later on, the exposure to more international films really brought forth the cinema geek inside me. So that way, I have always loved movies despite my lack of understanding of the more mature themes or language but my real passion for cinema is fairly recent. My love affair with movies began with the Oscars and then evolved into an undying search for more cinematic experiences from around the world that would challenge me, educate me and put me into many shoes, characters, emotions, situations and so on. "2001: A Space Odyssey" was that life-changing event which opened the flood-gates of cinema for me. When my thoughts and imagination multiplied and I could finally see the world around me in a new way, when I would actually start thinking for the first time. Movies by Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini or movies featured in several high-profile critics/magazines/institutions lists of the greatest films of all time became my guideline.

                 But it is not just the passion for cinema which I somehow inhibit but a real dependency on writing as a form of expression which I developed from my school days. I have never been perfect at it, the language barrier. Despite the great education and exposure to films, media and Internet now, I still find myself looking for the right words to express my thoughts, anguish, admiration and gratitude. But it's not that great of a problem now since I feel more confident than ever to write about what I think and feel. Writing has always been my way of communicating. A shy and reserved person that I am, this is how I give myself 'the voice'. But how does Roger Ebert fits into my journey? I am an outsider, I lived and grew up in Pakistan. Internet has always been the source for me. In the last 5 years, I have been more infatuated by and respectful to the writing of Mr. Ebert than any other critic. Never did I saw any of his film reviewing shows with Mr. Gene Siskel like millions of other people have while growing up. Never read any of his older reviews during his press days. Initially, it was just the idea of Roger Ebert, the sole voice of us normal film geeks. He was somebody who I could trust to provide a deeper and more truthful analysis of a film. He was the one to follow while others were mostly 'the showy ones'. That way, the idea of Ebert's opinion on this film and the other one and the next one was engraved in my mind. I never read his reviews in abundance but would always go back to check his thoughts on the films which I would instantly fall for to get perhaps a more definite idea of what it is that I find so significant about them. It was the clarity of his words, the precise description of why and how a film clicked with him that one would find amazing. But after I learned about Mr. Ebert's adverse health issues and the fact that he couldn't speak anymore that he had his blog to do that for him is what really touched me and those final 2 years is where I grew to respect him even more than ever.

                 Some may find it selfish of me to talk about myself in the first two paragraphs of a review that should solely belong to Ebert. But it does isn't it? Roger Ebert was also the champion of common people appreciating and opening themselves to the art of cinema. He believed in the idea that everybody can understand a film and can have a personal experience with it. He was a figure who was not only important to me personally and what I was doing or wanted to do but he shared my passion and my feelings for something that is more dear to me than anything else. In talking about myself, I am going to talk about Ebert and talking about Ebert I would end up talking about the movies. Life Itself is based on Ebert's memoir of the same name from 2011. This film was announced in 2012 by Mr. Ebert himself. Steve James, a filmmaker whose work Ebert himself praised and supported would make the film while Steven Zaillian, Martin Scorsese and Michael W. Ferro, Jr. would be executive producers. Ebert's death did not stop the project and basically gave more of a reason to tell his story. Indiegogo campaign, CNN Films acquiring the rights for television, enthusiastic premiere at Sundance Film Festival this year followed by a screening at Cannes Film Festival and now the theatrical/VOD releases. I was looking forward to Life Itself primarily to get to know Mr. Ebert more, it seemed like a great opportunity for that. I ended up watching it two times and got so much to ponder on. Life Itself is a moving and passionate tribute to the man, his life, his work, his family and his final days. An utterly inspiring and joyous work which beautifully shows a great and complete life lived by the man we all love. You get to know the man behind those words and critical opinions a lot more. A very intimate and up-close portrayal and something that leaves you on the verge of crying and painfully so because of his final days and how that has been shown in the film.

                 Life Itself begins with one of the many beautiful things Ebert always used to say and promote about the films. How he used to see cinema and its impact on our lives. That is followed by some beautiful photographs of his family and then Ebert as he was when this documentary was filmed, in the hospital. After several Cancer treatments and many painful medications, he was left without a lower jawbone. Which meant he couldn't speak. James introduces the subject of this film in his actual condition, he is at the hospital again after fracturing his hip. It is a definite shock to see him in such a condition and all the treatments that he is given for that. Most of all the suction part which looked so painful as clear through Ebert's own expressions. But he wanted to show all of that, not a half-picture but a complete one. It is a shock which you get over pretty soon. What ends up speaking volumes about Roger Ebert is how even during that time, he was full of joy and had a strong sense of optimism and strength. He would make jokes, would be aware of everything around him, enthusiastic about his blog and online work. He is surrounded by his family, step-daughters and step-grandchildren. This film also served as my introduction to perhaps the most important figure in his life, his wife Chaz Ebert. I would always hear about her and how she was managing everything. But now I have seen it for myself. The love of Ebert's life, his strength and his angel. To be surrounded by your family who loves and supports you, to have so many people around the world remembering and keeping your philosophies alive and having lived such a fruitful, cherished and complete life, is a job well done. This documentary captures that in a way that gives so much soul and honesty to the 'celebrity' we knew about and now we have seen it for ourselves.

                 Roger Ebert was a born writer from Illinois. His parents were Annabel Stumm and Walter H. Ebert. From very early on, he was engaged in his passion that would go on to become his identity and a part of his existence. His parents had an influence on him and they were very supportive of his talent. During his newspaper days at such a young age, he became the voice of people. Voice of ordinary people and their problems before cinema. The film features interviews from his colleagues and friends from those days who praise his showmanship and maturity, the way he used to control such adult situations and write things that no one would expect him to write. That section is quite interesting to see and hear about, the newspaper man before the critic he went on to be. The reporter days, the hangouts, the women and then the alcohol. That went on to become a problem for him but he regained control of his life by deciding to quit booze. Steve James during such revelations which plays out more like basic life excerpts, gets to the very heart of his subject. He doesn't feel the need to make a squeaky clean picture about a hero and a saint but an ordinary man with issues and flaws. "He was a nice guy but not that nice", a friend says during the film. Roger Ebert too promoted the idea of getting to the heart of things and looking beyond the surface. Of not judging something or writing something off immediately. He would not just critique but tell a story. He was a storyteller, a great intelligent writer and somebody with a knack of being extraordinary but coming across as more earthy and understandable to us. There is a rather amusing section about how he got involved with director Russ Meyer. His film "Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" Ebert ended up watching after noticing the actresses on the poster with big breasts, something anyone of us would be attracted to. But then what I and many others still can't wrap our heads around is how Ebert ended up writing for one of Meyer's films, the even more infamous "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls". A film I personally haven't seen but the footage which is shown and the bits about what Meyer demanded to see in the script pretty much says everything about it. A loud, satirical, sexy, rock infested, funny melodrama featuring women and more naked women. Wild days! Martin Scorsese and critic Richard Corliss also speaks about the film.

                 Roger Ebert was a great speaker, somebody who could talk about anything. He could give a scene-by-scene analysis passionately. He became the only critic to ever win the Pulitzer prize. A great honor and achievement, something that shows the impact his writing had and how aptly deserving it was to award him with something as prestigious as that. Roger Ebert's reviews for Chicago Sun-Times were followed and appreciated by many. A critic with abundance of love for cinema and through his writing, he made it possible for people to open up about cinema as well. The most important mainstream critic who went to become a cultural phenomenon alongside Gene Siskel through the different shows they did for television. They became TV personalities, odd-looking and such unlikely figures. Both Siskel and Ebert were such different personalities, they had different lifestyles and different approaches. Opposing forces who'll collide every week and their energy and intellect would become a source of entertainment and information for many. People used to read critical opinions, now they could see them come alive on television. These goofy looking guys with weird personas but when they spoke, clashed, agreed, disagreed, sparks would fly. There used to be times when they would both get fed up of each other. Ebert would want things his way, Siskel would expect something else. But in that frustration and numerous disagreements, the two men became more than friends. Like brothers fighting it out for things, to play a certain game one of them wanted to or to want something the other one was having. Mutual respect and brotherly love, their relationship is one of the best things explored in the film. That period was probably the most life-changing and fulfilling for both of them as well. They used to do shows for Chicago but then there were bigger markets and platforms in LA and NY. Those places had tougher, more philosophical and opinionated critics there. Film theorists to be exact. The time period when Paulene Kael and Andrew Sarris were respected for doing so much for the art of cinema and cinema theory. The commercial aspect and the mainstream popularity of Siskel and Ebert... the 'thumbs' mania, pissed off some people as well. These guys were doing shows for ordinary people, basically telling them what was showing out there and whether if it was good or not. Thumbs up and thumbs down. Those shows weren't in-depth analysis of films, they weren't elevating anything and nor did they needed to. What they were doing would exactly go on to become a source of inspiration for many. I think art form loses its spirit only when it is not given an importance by an individual. It doesn't matter to what degree. Nor does the idea that popularizing something would lead to the downfall of what makes the very thing so special looks anything to me.

                 You see, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel weren't only battling it out with mainstream films or 'art' films of accomplished filmmakers but they also became the voice for new and upcoming talents. I mean Errol Morris, an amazing non-fiction filmmaker. His career won't have been what it is now if they hadn't introduced and talked so well about his "Gates of Heaven". Little seen and indie films, the gems that would go on to be more polished in the future. Look at Martin Scorsese, his debut film was loved by Ebert and he claimed that in 10 years, Scorsese would go on to become a definite American filmmaker. Imagine the career trajectory of Scorsese without the appreciation by Ebert. Scorsese himself speaks in great length about how Ebert influenced his life and career. There was so much respect there as well. Ebert gave new life to Scorsese when he was going through a rougher patch in his life. That is the kind of film critic people these days would never be. They'll rather trash the ten films they get to watch so comfortably than look a little beyond what that might do to the filmmakers. It is their hard work, it always is. Filmmakers leave behind a piece of themselves with every work. Flaws are always going to be a part of any artistic endeavor in various forms, human beings are flawed as well. Ebert supported the idea of looking at somebody's work as theirs and trying to get to the very soul of what may have inspired them to come up with that. Opinions everybody has but respect and good-nature, not many. Life Itself also examines how Ebert touched the lives of Ramin Bahrani and Ava DuVernay in particular. I will not go into much details about them but it is so effective to watch them talk about Ebert. You fall in love with that figure all over again for the generosity he used to show to filmmakers. Werner Herzog was deeply touched by the determination Ebert showed in his final days. So he dedicated his documentary about an inspiring ordeal to Ebert, something Herzog never does.

                 Ebert loved films, he loved going places for them, Cannes, festivals, getting to know the industry and people behind the curtains. Everywhere he would go, Ebert would spread the joy. His infectious nature would win the hearts of many. People in the industry loved him, he had a reputation that not many critics get to have. None these days. As I mentioned earlier, his reliance on blogging really made me feel more closer to him. Despite his health issues, he didn't stop writing. He understood the importance of Internet, what it can do and the reach it has. It is like a worldwide community and embracing its idea for your own passion is heard and felt far more than it ever used to. I absolutely loved how James would always come back to the Ebert then. His career achievements, personal stories and interviews shown and discussed, how the bedridden Ebert would look even more of an accomplished figure. His resilience during those days is something only a powerful person could have. Or somebody with a realization that they have done everything they have and as Ebert says too in the film... that this is just another phase of their life. He would be the most happiest guy around the family, caretakers and visitors. A face brimming with glow, brighter than ever. Roger's health kept getting worse and then the time came when he said goodbye to this world just like his dear friend Siskel had... just like every one of us would. Death was always a reality to Ebert or rather he exhibited the understanding of life coming to its inevitable end. Maybe that is why he was so passionate about what he used to do and how he lived his life? A dream life which is nothing short of a fairytale for us even though it is so basic at its heart. Ebert loved "The Great Gatsby", American dream, American life... a well-lived and accomplished one. Enjoyed the beauty and lived it at the very end to its fullest.

                 Ebert's dismissals for certain films also had a story behind them as the film talks about briefly. There was nothing that could reek of superficiality with this figure. Life Itself is a celebration of that person, his life and what he left. His ideals are a source of enlightenment for us to cherish, accepting them would do a lot more good. This film is both epic and intimate, it is both revelatory and deeply profound. It leaves you emotional and also revitalized. More than Ebert's life, his unbelievable strength and the dignity he showed during his final days is something to take away with us. It is not always that I react to a film so personally but this is my hero we are talking about. My superhero, my Ebert!

Grade: A-