sun 15/12/2019

Life Itself | reviews, news & interviews

Life Itself

Life Itself

Two thumbs up for Steve James's moving tribute to film critic Roger Ebert

Two thumbs up: Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert engaged in fierce film debate

In keeping with his impressive body of work, acclaimed documentary filmmaker Steve James approaches the details of the life of film critic Roger Ebert with honesty and the utmost respect. James was granted unprecedented access to Ebert in the final stages of his life in December 2012, just after he had been admitted to hospital for a hip-bone fracture. Though James didn’t realise it at the time his celebration and documentation of the life of the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic also marked the last few months of Ebert's life. It is a raw, moving and fitting tribute to a passionate journalist who dedicated his life to writing about film for 46 years following his appointment at the Chicago Sun Times in 1967.

James has wisely chosen to include opposing views on Ebert’s career, making it as much of a discourse on the man himself and the evolution of film criticism as it is a tribute. He includes a talking head interview with Werner Herzog who describes Roger Ebert as “a soldier of cinema”, and also recalls fellow film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s hostility to the now famous “thumbs up, thumbs down” rating system employed by Siskel and Ebert on their TV film review shows. Indeed, the rivalry between Siskel and Ebert themselves makes for extremely amusing viewing, especially the out-takes from the show where you watch the two bickering and throwing tight-lipped, increasingly scathing remarks at one another. What this documentary also manages to do is throw light on the different ways people deal with death. When Siskel was diagnosed with a brain tumour he chose to only tell his close family and none of his colleagues. Siskel’s passing in 1999 led Ebert to vow to live and die in the open and here every viewer bears witness to his illness.

roger ebert life itselfHospital-bound Ebert is seen determinedly typing up his film reviews and updating his twitter feed – he embraced the changes with the arrival of the internet which also helped him have a voice when he literally lost his to Thyroid cancer in 2006. Ebert insists James continue to film him when he is having his throat drained by suction which is difficult to watch but also an important document of the realities of his sickness.

James whisks the viewer through different points in Ebert’s life according to their frank email conversations and twins these with quotes from Ebert's memoir, Life Itself. His memories of the early days at the Chicago Sun Times are accompanied by colleagues' recollections of both work life and Ebert's drunken lifestyle. James doesn't hold back in this section and in fact neither do his co-workers. Their wild stories alongside James's canny inclusion of the grand architecture of the city and jazz accompaniment superbly evoke that moment in time and the spirit of the Chicago newspaper man. Ebert took his last drink in August 1979 and joined AA to help him along his way. It is revealed for the first time in this documentary that he met his wife Chaz in an AA meeting and their relationship is a focal point which delivers moving moments as they battle through his illness side by side. As with much of James's work this film allows the viewer a peek into the ebb and flow of life and it's a warts and all depiction handled with a deft hand.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Life Itself

A warts and all depiction handled with a deft hand

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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