Life Itself (2014)

Two thumbs up.

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This documentary on the life and death of Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert (1942-2013)  is alternately joyous, fascinating and deeply sad. Ebert was one of the US’ most beloved, respected and important film critics, and Stateside he was best known for his long-running ‘At the Movies’ TV show with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel. Their ‘thumbs up/thumbs down’ rating system is synonymous with an era when film criticism experienced its most powerful social influence, and looking back on the footage of old episodes makes me yearn for a heavyweight film review show to get a primetime showing on television once more – well, I say once more, for even in the UK, our erstwhile most esteemed critic Barry Norman’s show was usually buried after the late night news back in the nineties when I used to watch it. True, we had the odd early evening show like Channel 4’s Moviewatch, but that came and went sadly. Ebert’s legacy – a remarkable, engaging and honest take on cinema (thankfully preserved online) – is a resource I never take for granted. His reviews are personal but not self-indulgent, gleefully cutting (when the film truly deserves it, not as a rule of thumb) and at times as exciting as the film itself. Check out his vivid reviews for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or Aliens, they’re brilliant. He was never a snob, but loved his high and low art in equal measures – obviously I haven’t always agreed with his opinions (his zero stars for 1986’s The Hitcher is nevertheless a fascinating take on what is a pretty nihilistic film), but I always value them. When he could no longer speak (see below), his voice was still heard by many through his transfer to the internet (Ebert was an early champion of online criticism) and he still kept on reviewing.

Director Steve James follows Ebert in the last few months of his life – Ebert had been battling cancer on and off for eleven years and we join him as he recieves further treatment, accompanied by his wife Chaz, who also provides interviews and shares the experience from the viewpoint of a carer, partner and friend. These scenes are unflinchingly emotional – the removal of Ebert’s lower jaw has changed his physical appearance and resulted in his inability to speak aloud – and bravely matter-of-fact. Ebert and his family’s journey in these portions of the film is a sad but positive one, yet ultimately doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality of life’s end. These present-day moments are interspersed with Ebert’s life and career, touching on his stint as screenwriter (for Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), his alcoholism in the 1970’s and of course, his team-up with Siskel for the TV show that would bring film criticism to a widespread television audience. As well as their background differences (Ebert worked for the salt-of-th-earth Sun-Times, Siskel for the high and mighty Tribune), their occassional bickering and disagreements over film did genuinely spill over to hostility (some of the outtakes where they fluff lines or critique each other over line delivery range from hilarious to uncomfortable), but what does come across by the end (Siskel himself died in 1999) is a partnership that was based on respect and admiration despite their differences.

A celebration of his life this is, but not a hagiography – Ebert’s ego is called into question during those halycon TV days, while his friendships with filmmakers is something that other critics admit they couldn’t have pulled off themselves, although Ebert’s attack on The Color Of Money, directed by one of his heroes (Martin Scorsese) proved that he could be in with the in-crowd and yet not fawn over everything they made – cut to present-day Scorsese lightheartedly cringing over this slating! Yeah, the whole thumbs up, thumbs down thing is pretty limited, but given the time constraints of the medium and the necessity for primetime impact, I think Siskel and Ebert maximised this potentially compromising rating system and didn’t dumb themselves down in the process. I can only rate the show myself through viewings on Youtube – unsurprisingly we never got At the Movies here in the UK, and it was our loss.

So for fans of film criticism and Ebert himself this is a great watch, but even for those not so interested in that sort of thing, this is a brilliant documentary on a life lived and a life ending. Very sad, and tough to watch at times, but there’s a lot of heart here, as well as a lot of humour, and ultimately it’s a beautiful thing, this film.

Thumbs up.

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