Life Itself – A broad brushtroke over a fascinating life. (Film Review)

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When a man who devoted such a large and important part of his life to examining our relationship to the image, it is no small thing that he allows a documentary to be made that broadly and intimately exhibits his later-in-life deformity as a result of massive thyroid surgery. In fact Life Itself remains quite remarkably distant from the man who invites us to watch the suctioning of his lungs through a tube in his throat, choosing to remain poignantly in touch with the image and never forgetting the camera brings with it an audience. The implication from the film is that this is because Steve James, with all his admirable ambitions and Roger and Chaz Ebert’s collaborative spirit, without knowing, started the film just a little too late, so that it ends up being a long documented close-up of the last very painful, very difficult (despite an overwhelming optimism) months of Roger Ebert’s life. This, then firmly places the documentary into a story of Ebert’s physical struggles, and can’t help itself wandering back to prior physical issues with weight and alcoholism, always concentrating on Ebert’s appearance and the way he presented himself to the world physically.

Therefore, despite the generosity of spirit and the overwhelming likability of the subject, Life Itself comes off as a rather thin documentary, giving far too little time to its most interesting subjects, such as the impact of film criticism on film makers, and Ebert’s influence on the flow of armature criticism, and dwells for long periods of time on his relationship with his wife (unfortunately the film can’t help making a trophy of the fact that she was black – Oh how I kept wishing Steve James had just not mentioned it, giving it more power to be subversive and in line with Ebert’s views) and his relationship with Gene Siskel, which surely is one of the most fully and deeply explored love/hate working relationships ever. Life Itself becomes a light, broad brushstroke treatment of a man who was a true phenomenon, making silly, unsubstantiated statements like “Ebert the polymath” and yet reserving the impact of Ebert’s opinion on film makers to quaint anecdotal comments by great and promising directors. One gets the disturbing impression Steve James doesn’t actually think that much of his subject outside sentimentality, and is constantly searching for good, warm kind things to say to talk us all into the importance of the man and his work.

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It’s difficult not to take notice when Werner Herzog and Errol Morris are talking about a film critic in hushed tones. Werner Herzog dedicated to a film to Roger Ebert and Errol Morris credits his own discovery and subsequent establishment as a film maker to him, but we are never really told why they feel Ebert touched them this deeply. The question concerns the modern role of the critic and the astounding star burst of self-appointed critics (myself included) contributing their voice to the film conversation with the rise of the internet. No medium has attracted the writing attention of film, including music which has an equally, or possibly stronger ability to touch the soul and evoke potent opinion and yet about which there is remarkably little amateur writing. The same can be said for literature and art, which attract reviews on social media, or sales platforms, but these ‘reviews’ rarely amount to more than long comments.  It is true that film is the most modern of art forms and possibly therefore the most exciting, but outside of philosophy there has been little examination of this passion of the amateur.

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Life Itself does examine the link between Siskel and Ebert and the move to make film criticism a voice of the people. The team was often criticised for dumbing down film reviewing, the famous thumbs judgement being considered too arbitrary and random to be a proper barometer of value. A shamefully light-on examination of Ebert’s interest in Russ Meyer and the writing of Beyond The Valley of the Dolls left me feeling desperately disappointed, especially considering it revealed a prophetic awareness of the appeal of exploitation and B-grade cinema (to be further realised in Quentin Tarantino films) as it is reduced to comments on how much Ebert like boobs. That may be true, but it’s hardly revelatory. And yet, Steve James keeps it all as light and ephemeral as one of the famous duo’s criticisms, never getting into the important questions about why a man like Roger Ebert can touch us so deeply, except to say he had a great capacity for being loved.

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For all I know, this was Ebert’s request, although the time in the film devoted to a sometimes apologetic and at others semi-defiant stand against the film criticisms that dogged the television portion of Ebert’s career suggest it might not be. There is an amusing montage of lists of post Pauline Kael criticisms that are rebutted with the anecdotal comments from directors who felt they owed a debt to Ebert, but we never hear from Ebert about this incredibly interesting and important transition, only that he liked being on television, the subtext of which was, this is remarkable considering he was so fat. Life Itself hovers in this way over Ebert’s physicality, from his weight and dowdy appearance to his ‘black’ wife without ever attributing any kind of depth to the obvious correlation between Ebert’s self-image and his work as interpreting and deconstructing the image. Surely one of the most interesting and important public services Ebert contributed as a film critic was is frame by frame five hour film examinations, and yet these moments are glossed over with the light happy dance of a director who can’t imagine for the life of himself, why we’d be interested.

Given all the above, it is still difficult not to love a film about Roger Ebert, who genuinely is such a likable public figure. If Steven James is light on complexity and analysis, he is equally as light on schmaltz and honey, leaving us with a film that evokes great feeling and joy. If you have strong feelings of warmth and nostalgia, and a love of Roger Ebert’s film reviews, then this is a wonderful documentary that will warm your heart and justify your love. If you are deeply interested in film criticism, the way that film touches us and our response to it, this film is a frustrating paddle through deceptively shallow waters.

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