Life Itself (NF 2014) Steve James
Magnolia Pictures Blu-ray
Many people may not know that Roger Ebert had been working as a journalist for the Chicago Sun-Times for five months before he was told he had just been appointed the paper’s new film critic. I’m not sure that’s a position he would’ve necessarily sought out, but that new role changed his life and ultimately took him to places he’d probably never imagined. Life Itself is obviously about Ebert’s life, but it’s also tangentially about the wonder of life and how – when it’s near its end – we can look back on it in utter amazement.
Life Itself (which is also the title of Ebert’s 2011 memoir) is an all-too brief look at Ebert’s life, starting with the last months of his life in a Chicago hospital. These opening scenes from 2013 are often difficult to watch, but they’re also inspiring. Director Steve James isn’t placing these scenes here for our sympathies, but to show us the dogged determination that Ebert displayed throughout his life, a determination that frequently astounded even his wife Chaz.
Throughout the film, we get many still images, clips, and words from Ebert’s family and friends, which we expect. We also get the full spectrum of Ebert: his early drinking days, his writing, his Beyond the Valley of the Dolls screenplay, his rivalry with fellow critic Gene Siskel, his marriage to Chaz Hammelsmith, his cancer, his blogging, and his legacy.
For anyone who never saw Siskel and Ebert in action, I urge you to search for some of their best (and even their worst) moments on YouTube. These guys were both so brash, so confident, so arrogant that each thought the other completely unnecessary to their famous TV show. Several examples of their disagreements are captured in Life Itself and you get the idea that – to be perfectly honest – these guys probably hated each other. One of Ebert’s friends notes, “You couldn’t make Siskel and Ebert if you were Dr. Frankenstein.”
Yet the relationship changed both men. I think you can safely say it took Ebert’s life in a direction he’d never imagined. So did his relationship with Chaz, a woman who literally saved his life.
Ultimately Life Itself shows us that our lives don’t always go where we think they’re going. We can resist and assert our will as much as we want, but there’s only so much that we can control. If you believe there is a God (as I do) that’s ultimately in control, you can either resist that control or find a way to rest in it. I don’t know much about Ebert’s spiritual beliefs, but I think once his determination had reached its limit, he found a way to rest.
One of the films that meant the most to Ebert in the final years of his life was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), a beautiful film that ponders some of life’s most puzzling questions and makes us think long and hard about our place in the universe. It’s one of those films you can view as a young person and it may not mean much to you, but as a middle-aged (or older) viewer, you can’t stop thinking about it. I know what the film means to me and can only speculate what it meant to Ebert. Perhaps he drew strength from it. Perhaps it helped him in his determination to keep fighting his cancer. Just before he died, Ebert reviewed his final film, To the Wonder (2013), another Terrence Malick film. Ebert concluded his review:
“Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren’t many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren’t many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn’t that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?
“There will be many who find ‘To the Wonder’ elusive and too effervescent. They’ll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.”
The film includes many wonderful moments including scenes with Ramin Bahrani (whose 2005 film Man Push Cart was championed by Ebert), Martin Scorsese, and many others. One of my favorite moments is a reflection on a gift Laura Dern gave to Ebert, a puzzle which was originally given to Marilyn Monroe from Alfred Hitchcock. Ebert later gives the puzzle to Bahrani, instructing him to one day give it to someone else who deserves it.
Again, Life Itself is often difficult to watch, but Steve James (who also directed Hoop Dreams and the criminally neglected film The Interruptors) manages to chronicle and celebrate a life that celebrated life itself. We should all be so fortunate.
(Photos: Magnolia Pictures)