It’s impossible to talk about Life Itself without discussing the passing of America’s most loved film critic, Roger Ebert. When the film version of Roger Ebert’s autobiography began production a few years back, he was cancer-free and assumed he would be around for its completion. That was, of course, not to be, leaving the film, in a sense, as much more than an exploration of the man’s work, but an exploration of his death. The filmmakers, at Ebert’s behest, chose to continue filming and document perhaps the most painful moments, as well as some of the most joyous, of Ebert’s life.
In a sense, this means the film bears a heavier burden, while it also bestows upon it more possibility. Many will undoubtedly say the film is more touching as a result of the predicament of its making, but this has as much to do with the nature of the filmmaker as the subject. The film is directed by Steve James, famous for his striking and stirring documentaries about inner city life in the US. The movie that “broke him” was the passion-project Hoop Dreams (which was filmed over several years and, by definition of its focus on two teenagers growing up in the inner city, had no finished narrative structure when the filming began). As with many documentaries (before the genre’s explosion in the past decade), Hoop Dreams could have languished into obscurity had a certain film critic not fallen in love with it and spent just about every second he possibly could walking, talking, and breathing the story of two Chicago youth and the director who wanted America to hear their story. That critic was Roger Ebert, then, along with his partner Gene Siskel, the most important film critic in America in terms of popularity and influence. Hoop Dreams exploded overnight and took the world by storm, and clearly, Steve James never forgot Ebert’s kind words when he optioned Ebert’s autobiography for the central focus of a film.
First and foremost, James doesn’t white-wash Ebert’s life. As he’s depicted, Ebert is obsessive, demanding, controlling, and almost oppressively egotistic. Of course, he’s also extremely compassionate, caring, and deeply concerned with humanity, in addition to his more intellectual, literate strengths know to anyone who has ever read one of his reviews. His relationship with Siskel is handled with nuance and care, representing them as the combative and often bitter rivalry composed of equal parts love and hate that America came to see them as over the years. James goes beyond the superficial though to explore how their public personas were deeply linked to private traits. Rather amusingly, Ebert’s personality traits, particularly his more domineering ones, rather closely reflect the assumed personalities of many famously controlling directors. Indeed, this is perhaps James’ way of getting at the implicit links in all forms of art, as well as bridging the differences between the critic and the artist.
If the handling of Ebert’s life is tell-all, so too is his death. It’s hard to tell, but it seems as though James was given virtually full and complete open access to Ebert’s final moments. And they are anything but pretty. It’s no Cries and Whispers, but the film does not paint the immanence of death in the conventional “glowing” light it often takes on in art – dying from cancer is a harrowing, painful, difficult experience, and James’ fly-on-the-wall camera does not sacrifice anything. The film’s lone true masterful moment, where Ebert has his neck suctioned for a minute or-so to the tune of “Reelin’ in the Years” by Steeley Dan (which Ebert insists on playing), is scary, disconcerting, and subversively backed by the bitter-sweetness of the song’s commentary on aging. Through it all, though, Ebert’s optimism and humanist streak shines through – the film is, if often difficult viewing, profoundly uplifting.
Ultimately, the only real issue with Life Itself is that it lives and dies on its content. Beyond Ebert’s life, it has the appearance, honestly, of a paint-by-numbers biopic. It’s not anything special in its formalism, nor does it try to be; we get mid-shots of people talking in chairs conspicuously constructed to look like they’re in the comfort of their own home, lots and lots of full text plopped up on the screen with no real nuance, and all the other old tricks used in paint-by-numbers documentaries. Those looking for the next F for Fake or Night and Fog(or, more appropriately, the next Hoop Dreams) will be disappointed; James has no interest in challenging the idea of the documentary, or exposing the genre’s limits. He is only interested in talking about how great a person Ebert was (the film is also, at times, gushingly sentimental, and it would be a lie to say it has the tenor of a balanced, even-handed, perceptive analysis).
At one point in the film, when James considers taking out certain more disturbing aspects of Ebert’s life and his cancer specifically, Ebert responds he wouldn’t be comfortable with anything taken out – for honesty’s sake, he responds “this is my film too”. He was right in more sense than one: this is a work of Roger Ebert more than it is by the cinematic voice of Steve James. Or, in other terms, it is a film that succeeds more because of Roger’s life than because James does anything truly noteworthy with his life. In a sense, it may be that James, so close to his subject personally, felt uncomfortable doing anything with the film other than training the camera on him and his friends and letting them do the talking. Thankfully, the subject is so compelling that it’s less a flaw than a display of care and focus, and a further commentary on Ebert’s own controlling nature.
Issues aside though (the film also doesn’t much work as an exploration of film criticism, for it desperately wants us to think Siskel and Ebert are the end all be all of the medium), Life Itself is a touching and insightful commentary on life, death, art, and criticism, capturing in its simple, direct, conversational tone the unforced, playful charm Ebert himself brought to his love of film. Perhaps its greatest success then is that it apes its subject’s style – relaxed, even slight – to uphold the power of that style. As such, it captures in its own construction why more than one generation fell in love with a man who only ever found one thing he loved more than film: sharing his love with the world.