"I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting. My lifetime's memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris." - Roger Ebert"
What makes Life Itself compelling? Or more to the point, why should it exist? Of course the obvious answer is that Roger Ebert was a public figure, an icon, a man who first with his writings at a pivotal time in cinema in the late 60's/early 70's in the Chicago Sun-Times won a Pulitzer and got paired with a rival at the Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel, for a public access show, is worth doing a movie about. But I think for Steve James, as well as for me frankly and I'd hope many others, the film is about love and survival and perseverance.
Roger Ebert is seen in the "present tense" at the time of filming - he died on April 4th, 2013, while James was still in production on the documentary - and is still battling cancer following multiple surgeries. We see him in a hospital bed, his jaw flapping though his face and eyes still intensely alert and, yes, often times happy or making jokes. We see him in rehab struggling to walk on a treadmill. We see him trying to - or just about to approach - climbing stairs in his home with his 'other half' Chaz encouraging him when he's not really up to doing it. And at one point when he is getting a medical procedure done he insists on having music, so we hear Steely Dan's "Reeling in the Years" as he is getting 'suctioned'.
For James, this is what the movie is really about, and just on these terms Life Itself is certainly compelling. What Ebert did first and foremost was write as a journalist - a newspaper man - but if it was just about that it wouldn't be compelling and emotionally absorbing enough. Nor, frankly, if it was just about a man battling cancer and trying to stay alive (though there is certainly enough to hang on to for a little while with that subject matter, in small doses as here it does just the thing to make one always on the verge, or fall over, into tears). So, it's this and so much more. It's what the title says and what Ebert's 2011 memoir was about, the full LIFE and how it is lived.
I read the book some months ago - I felt like I missed "Papa Ebert" as one of my film critic friends call him in affection, like he's Papa Christmas or something - and was pleased that the film had some things and anecdotes the book didn't have, and the book went into more depth about things (such as Ebert's childhood and Catholic upringing, though the latter is certainly touched upon) the film doesn't quite get to. This is more than fine, it's a good thing.
And naturally James' film, which has the structure of telling a full life story beginning with Ebert becoming the chief editor of his college newspaper and having the balls to do such things as "Stop the Presses" when that just wasn't done (a JFK assassination will do that to an attentive journalist), and ending with Ebert's passing at the age of 70 and all the memorials that went with it, has the flow of that. But as with a memory of a person, things don't flow completely linear. This is good, it's springs surprises on you, passages that balance out so much weight and gravitas with wallops of humor.
The thing to know about Life Itself, by the way, is it's a very funny movie through much of it. Hell, Old Man Ebert, unable to talk and needing to write out on notepads or, sometimes, through his Stephen-Hawking-Computer-Vocals, is sarcastic and witty and has his wife and those around him laughing. The anecdotes from his friends and colleagues also don't paint a man who was a saint 100% of the time.
On the contrary, one of his fellow reporters and/or bar-hoppers (I forget who) says, in so many words, "Yeah, he could be a nasty guy," this even when asked by the director that people say he was a good person deep down. Of course, he had the brains to back up his ego even back to his college days, and it's this sense of self - the kind of self worth that made Chaz fall in love with a man who, at 300 pounds, loved how he looked and loved himself just the way he was - that could put him on a level playing field with a guy like Gene Siskel.
Oh, and uh, Ebert also wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for Russ Meyer. "BEYOND the Valley of the Dolls - BEYOND it, now... that's a title," remarks Scorsese, one of the side filmmakers here along with Errol Morris (who, he admits without any hesitation, got his career in part thanks to the At the Movies segments on his masterpiece Gates of Heaven), Ramin Bahrani (recipient of a mysterious puzzle, gift of Hitchcock to Marilyn Monroe, that Ebert gave to him, one of those little moments in a movie I just love that's full of admiration and mystery without too much), and Werner Herzog (a man who never dedicates any of his movies to - but to Ebert, Encounters at the End of the World made him change his mind). And why did he write that insane, delirious, massively entertaining movie? No one shies away from the answer, and it humanizes the man more than I thought was possible: Boobs.
A good chunk of Life Itself, naturally, is devoted to the Siskel/Ebert partnership (so named, as with all decisions ala Harvey Dent, because of coin toss), and this is delightful, bizarre, heart-breaking (the brain cancer story that took Siskel, an affliction Ebert didn't know about until his partner's own death), and just continuously funny and engaging. These were two guys who could take it as hard and good as they gave it, and they were not quite a-like in their tastes (Ebert's favorite movie, for example, was Citizen Kane - Siskel, it was Saturday Night Fever... yep), nor in how they necessarily approached a film, with Siskel more for the Tribune's, according to the movie, upper class/NY Times-type taste, and Sun-Times' more working-class, emotional sensibility.
... After seeing this movie, naturally, I went to Youtube and marathoned a shit-load of their reviews. Needless to say, actually, they really agreed more than they didn't, and as fun and funny as it is to see them bicker like in their outtakes reel, the pleasure I think and their phenomenal, towering, intimidating and sometimes controversial success, came from having good chemistry and knowing things about movies people didn't know and relaying them without high-faluten speak. James' documentary gets to the heart of that friendly rivalry, or rivalrous friendship, and how that, like so much else of the film, was about love and an understanding of something they only really knew about.
I can't stress enough the 'love' portion either. Ebert's love of movies, books, music was one thing, and for a time until he quit in 1979 and joined AA his love of alcohol was another. The love with Chaz, too, was something else and the real cornerstone of the movie. The quote that opens the film from Ebert is about movies being an 'Machine that creates empathy', and for a raised-Catholic-turned-Athiest like him that must have been one of the major attractions to continuing so long as a film critic (and, by the way, with the same paper, despite, something I didn't know by the way, so many offers to go to the Big Boy newspapers in NY and Washington and elsewhere - but, needless to say he wasn't about to learn "New streets" as he put it, but I digress).
Ebert was full of empathy, as was/is his wife Chaz. The bond that James shows us here, in those hospital scene and in cars and at home, is the emotional bedrock of this picture. Without it, or those insights like the questions Ebert answers - and, most especially, those near the end when he was without much hope - Life Itself would be entertaining and interesting just by the nature of the man's work.
With everything included, this is just a massive, heartfelt, tremendously empathetic picture, and tells the story of a good man who lived a multi-dimensional life first and foremost, and knew he was afraid in those final years, wanted to give up at times, but just couldn't, and wouldn't, until it was time to go. Damn.
Like Hoop Dreams, the great film that brought James to Ebert's attention in the 90's (and called it the best of the decade, above the likes of Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction), Life Itself is about the movies as much as it's about basketball - it's the profession, but a profession can't completely make a man. The times one is raised in do that, the decisions one makes, the relationships forged and/or broken, the adversity felt, and the good times that are savored. The power of Life Itself is you can go in being a hardcore every-book-is-signed I-watch-every-video-100-times-and-comment-on-all-the-blogs fan, or not knowing the man from a hole in the ground, and get something profound out of it, maybe even more for the latter.
And on a personal note, I miss this man so much; I felt for a good long time, first through the reviews that introduced me and nurtured me into worlds of cinema and a style of writing I didn't know I could do until I saw it and absorbed it, and then through his even more personal blog, that he was one of our great populist philosophers, more mainstream than some of my other heroes (i.e. George Carlin, Hunter S. Thompson), but with the sorts of direct insights and strong, plain but beautiful language that makes one feel as if we know this person even as we never meet them personally. There will always be those reviews - his final one was a 3 1/2 star review to Malick's To the Wonder - and this film, and for a little while it's enough.