Life Itself

July 13, 2014 4 Comments

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Spoiler Alert:  This is NOT  an attempt at an “objective” dissection of Steve Jame’s bio-documentary film “Life Itself”  which focuses on the career of Roger Ebert, shot in the final five months of his battle with cancer, before his death in 2013.  It is an invitation to re -experience the passion for movies that he shared with us for decades.  Ebert’s unique voice was literally silenced by an aggressive cancer in 2006, but he continued to embrace and discuss movies via his ever-accessible writing (and electronic speaking device) until shortly before his death.  Those of us who were first introduced to film criticism through the weekly banter between Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert (and yes, I know that some haute-critics denounced the style and content of Siskel and Ebert as “light weight-studio pandering,” and not true film criticism.)

I am applauding Siskel and Ebert’s weekly invitation  to  to  think  more  intellectually about movies AND permission to feel  very personally about them.  It was  suddenly exciting   to agree and disagree with  intensity (and who demonstrated this better than they did?) in order to fully embrace the film experience.

Life Itself, which has yet to be released in distribution wide enough to hit our Detroit screens, IS available for downloading on itunes.  Although it seems only fitting to have an opportunity to share this final episode with Roger Ebert in a real movie theater, I am so grateful to have  had the opportunity to sit and feel my way through a deeply personal, loving tribute to the individual who inspired me and helped me understand why I loved movies.

Although James adapts a fairly conventional structure for his film, interspersing talking heads, archival footage and direct interviews with Ebert and his wife, he deftly provides an opportunity to revisit the experiences that made Ebert’s contribution so compelling.   Sunday morning with Siskel and Ebert was a  must see nearly-religious experience   in my home from 1994-1999 (a late start to their program for me).    After watching their show for years, I clearly recall discussing concerns with my teenaged- cinephile son in 1999 that Siskel’s reviews  suddenly seemed eerily “too nice,” only to learn a short time later that he had been battling a brain tumor which killed him that year.    Roger Ebert’s  POV did not appear to suffer the same impairment, despite extraordinary obstacles created by his cancer.  It is an incredible feat that he continued to write until his final days.  It is a gift that he agreed to share this with us.  Voyeuristic?  Maybe.  Narcissistic? Perhaps.  But how fitting for a man who has watched more than 15,000 hours of film in his lifetime.

Keep looking for any local screenings and don’t forget about itunes!

Thank you Roger Ebert.

Jolyn Wagner

 

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4 Comments to “Life Itself”
  1. Robert MacDonell says:

    Jolyn,

    This is a very thoughtful and heart warming review of what I also think is a wonderful documentary. Both the film industry and we the audience lost a great fellow traveler when Roger Ebert left us.

    It is at once difficult to watch Roger Ebert’s deterioration during the last five months of his life, and also impossible to come away from the film without a sense of admiration for him and his determination to put meaning into his life until the very end. It reminds me of something Viktor Frankel once said: “To ask what is the meaning of life? is to ask the wrong question; the right question is how do I put meaning into my life? “.
    Roger Ebert certainly did that.

    By the way, anyone reading this who has Brighthouse Networks as their cable provider can see this delightful film on-demand now. I saw it on Saturday night (July 12). The same may be true for Comcast on-demand though I’m not certain of that.

  2. Roger Ebert’s book “life itself” is also a worthy read. It’s a reminder that he was also a beautiful writer (of course that’s why he won the Pulitzer!), but the way he used his writing to express his love and knowledge of film is just plain MAGIC. Take a look at some of his archived reviews!
    Wonderfully accessible but equally smart and always from the heart.
    Jolyn

  3. Bruce Russell says:

    I just watched Life Itself at a nearby movie theater in a city of about 150K. I enjoyed the film a lot, but I wondered if it soft-pedaled the Ebert who was not always smiling. We heard about some of it (the tyrannical editor of the student newspaper at the University of Illinois, his grabbing a cab in front of Gene Siskel’s pregnant wife, etc.), and we saw some of his not so nice outtakes with Gene Siskel. But what about those times when he told his wife to kill him? What’s behind his drinking and eating too much at various points of his life? Why did it take him 50 years to find a wife?

    Still, Ebert is someone I admire. He wrote clearly and simply in ways that helped the reader better understand a film. You didn’t have to be a film critic or have a Ph.D in film studies to gain insights into the films he reviewed.

    At the end the director asks Ebert why he called his book “Life Itself.” He didn’t have the energy to answer. Perhaps it is because the book and film shows what life is really like for all of us: triumphs, defeats; virtues, vices; loves, disappointments. In the end, all we have left is life itself, and that is not enough. Perhaps there is immortality in ones writings. But like the body, that also gradually fades away.

  4. Kendra says:

    Hi Bruce – read his memoirs and the answers to all mysteries will be revealed!

    Kendra

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