Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Man Of The World In A World Of The Movies

Roger Ebert on his travels in a moment from "Life Itself", the documentary directed by Steve James.
  Magnolia Pictures

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Thursday, July 10, 2014

A personal note: Like many I had the sincere pleasure of knowing Roger Ebert personally, albeit for a short time.  He and his wife Chaz graciously selected me to be part of Roger's now-concluded PBS television show "Ebert Presents At The Movies", on which I appeared as a contributing critic in 2011.  I also wrote for Roger on his Chicago Sun-Times blog as one of his Far-Flung Correspondents.  Roger passed away on April 4, 2013.

"Life Itself" shines and fascinates with the openness, honesty, courage and optimism its subject exuded.  Documentary filmmaker Steve James, who chronicled the ups and downs of a Chicago basketball-playing duo in his 1994 epic "Hoop Dreams", now 20 years later captures another Chicago institution in Roger Ebert, the renowned U.S. film critic who became informally known as the People's Critic during his illustrious 45-year career. 

Based on Mr. Ebert's same-titled memoir, "Life Itself" takes us on an engaging and moving journey through Roger's life, from his meteoric rise as a whip-smart, mature 20-something in the Chicago Sun-Times newsroom to prominence as its first full-time film critic and the first Pulitzer Prize winner for film criticism, to the relationships Roger developed as an unofficial Bard of Chicago holding court with his Windy City bar tales and jokes.  This is a thoroughly entertaining film.

"Life Itself", sometimes narrated by Mr. Ebert's pre-surgery voice and other times by his computer-programmed voice, is an enjoyable, riveting ride through a life well-lived, traveled and experienced, from his Urbana, Illinois childhood to the ecstasies of his experiences with women, beer and song, to the days of writing the "Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls" screenplay for director Russ Meyer, to the tribulations of Roger's alcoholism, to the joys of reporting from the Cannes Film Festival, to meeting and championing filmmakers known and unknown, to his long fight with salivary cancer and multiple surgeries. 

Among the funniest aspects of Mr. James' documentary is the loving and highly contentious relationship between Roger and fellow film critic Gene Siskel, as they first battled figuratively for the heart of Chicago then later for the minds of nationwide moviegoers on their "At The Moves" and "Siskel & Ebert" weekly movie review TV shows.  Their caustic brotherly tussles were movie adventures in their own right, and "Life Itself" achieves greater heights when outtakes from their tete-a-tetes and jokes are shown and stories recited, including by Gene's wife Marlene Iglitzen.  The deep respect the two critics had for each other is seen in anecdotes and comments following Mr. Siskel's untimely death from a brain tumor in 1999.  This sad event marks a critical turn in Roger's own life, specifically in his public approach to living life with the inevitability of death.

Roger's worldliness and self-deprecation are on display in Mr. James' film, as well as his unassuming Midwestern film acumen and unwavering passion for movies, but "Life Itself" isn't solely about Roger's adventures in a movie world he embraced so abundantly.  "Life Itself" is about the passion of living, breathing and interacting with the world and living beings and recalling the memories from experiencing them all.  It is in this context that "Life Itself" shines most brightly and comes alive most vividly. 

We get candid and revealing insights from Roger's wife "the love of his life" Chaz Ebert, and from Roger himself.  We hear from Roger's family and long-time Chicago friends, one of whom has choice words for famed film critic Pauline Kael.  Mr. James covers an extraordinary breadth of material in two hours, executing it all efficiently and effortlessly.  We inhabit the world of an ever-curious film critic at his height as he discusses movies with a fervor, humor and spiritual energy.  "Life Itself" invites us to get to know Roger as a person all over again, intimately, unmistakably, and, sometimes, for the very first time.

Roger was a renaissance man, and everything about his work (including his nearly two dozen books and thousands of film reviews) is at least touched upon, except (to my mild disappointment) his cookbook The Pot And How To Use It.  I mention that specific book somewhat tongue-in-cheek, for Roger enjoyed food and wrote about cooking and his competency in it, among other things. 

"Life Itself" addresses film criticism, race (specifically the journey to acceptance of Roger's family to Chaz as his spouse), Chicago classism differences between the Sun-Times and Tribune newspapers, and almost ten years without speech -- Roger's, that is -- following a 2006 surgery that left him unable to speak, eat or drink.  It could be argued that in his life Roger wrote more than he spoke, and Mr. James' documentary cites the influence that the Internet and social media like Twitter had in expanding Roger's film criticism platform worldwide and broadening his written voice to thousands of film critics internationally who may not otherwise have been amplified.

"Life Itself" teaches us that appreciating life means embracing it one hundred percent, including its unflattering moments, which we get an unblinking view of.  Roger fearlessly embraces death, a subject of fascination he makes no secret of as he recovers from yet another surgery.  That said, there's an eternal sanguineness and realism about "Life Itself" that makes the film a poignant, uplifting experience, and a sobering one.  We are buoyed by Roger's recovery process and saddened by its setbacks.  "Life Itself" is as calmly paced and clearly and cogently presented as one of Roger's movie reviews.  The film never condescends or pretends, nor does it lionize or exalt Roger beyond the honest and down-to-earth person that he truly was.

Most of all, "Life Itself" celebrates Mr. Ebert's inspirational and unbreakable spirit.  His life was like a movie unto itself.  More than Mr. James, Roger is the documentary's clear-eyed authentic author.  Roger knew his life's beginning, its middle and its end better than anyone.

"Life Itself" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for brief sexual images/nudity and language.  Its running time is one hour and 57 minutes.

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