Life Itself (2014) Film Review
Roger Ebert is the person who first got me to both understand and love movies. His words spoke to me greatly and got me to see movies as something more, to let them really have an effect. His words flew off the page and allowed me to experience so much through them. That was when I really learned the power of words, because his words changed my life. I clung on to that and wanted nothing more than to express the same understanding in such a beautifully vivid way. Since then I have always reveled in the challenge of putting together the puzzle pieces of thoughts and emotions after a film ends and it’s left a mark on you one way or another. Ebert awakened something in 14 year-old me, something that has become such a vital part of me. He inspired me then and he only inspired me more throughout time. Ebert touched so many lives, some I’m sure he realized, while some of these people he never met. Life Itself will offer closure for those of us who he had this impact on. It’s a heartfelt goodbye and one more chance to remain connected to this one of a kind film critic and man. The film reminds us how lasting his impact will remain through his memory, his work, and his infectious spirit. Even viewers who may not be Ebert fans will get a captivating story of one man’s legacy and they’ll begin to understand why many of us regard him so highly.
Life Itself is everything a film on legendary film critic, Roger Ebert’s, life should be. It’s gripping, honest, heartbreaking, inspiring, and even has comedy sprinkled throughout, matching Ebert’s wit. Most importantly it’s a movie that really hits you and makes you feel such raw intense emotion. Ebert held the classic films in high regard and was very analytical with a film’s technical and intellectual aspects, but what was even more important to him was the unique experience that a particular movie held and what it made him feel. Life Itself truly is an experience; one with gut-wrenching emotion on many different levels throughout.
The film hits all angles, not just on the emotions and thought it invokes in the viewers, but showing us so many aspects of Ebert’s life. We are taken from Ebert’s childhood, becoming an editor by age 15, to getting a job at the Chicago Sun-Times right out of college and falling in to the open position of film critic 5 months later. The film follows his life as he became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize and reflects on more troubling times like his battle with alcoholism. Life Itself spends the bulk of the time on Siskel & Ebert and the love-hate relationship between the two critics that might have initially been more hate, but over time stemmed in to a mutual respect and adoration for one another. Siskel’s replacement, Richard Roeper isn’t mentioned at all in the film however nor is there a single interview with him, which does feel a bit odd. I would have liked them to touch on this stage in the show and Ebert’s life, but for whatever reason they excluded this from the film.
The film wonderfully showcases just how large of an impact Ebert had on so many people’s lives, a few mentioned in the film include Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Errol Morris among many independent filmmakers who credit Ebert for drastically changing their careers and touching their lives. Scorsese talks about how he was at such a dark, low point in his life, ready to give up when Siskel and Ebert presented him with an honorary award at The Toronto International Film Festival, which he sites as a major turning point that drastically changed his life. Ebert saw the artistry, talent, and depth in Scorsese’s films, although he wasn’t always a fan of every film and didn’t hesitate to make clear just what he expected from him as a filmmaker. Scorsese says that at times Ebert seemed to recognize something in him that it took him years to discover about himself.
Life Itself is a very honest film. We are shown the true impact of Ebert’s outlook on film and the bigger picture, but we also see both Siskel and Ebert’s ego and relentless arguing (on and off screen) among their other flaws and complexities as individuals and together. Ebert didn’t want to portray anything but the truth about his life with this film. In an email to the filmmaker, Steve James, Ebert writes, “It would be a major lapse to have a documentary that doesn’t contain the full reality. I wouldn’t want to be associated. This is not only your film.” I think most of us will only respect him more for this. We are shown each chapter in Ebert’s life mostly in chronological order with various levels of Ebert’s fight with cancer weaved throughout.
Ebert sites his wife, Chaz, as the main reason he was able to go on fighting and still have such joy inside of him even when so much of the life he knew was being ripped away from him. Chaz is right there with him every step of the way with nothing but love and encouragement. We see a lot of lighthearted moments between them, clearly embracing each moment with the other and determined to keep the other’s spirits up. The film goes in to Roger and Chaz’s story, from when they met and how their love flourished from there. They saved each other in a way and their love is evident and completely heartwarming to witness.
There are so many wonderful little moments in Life Itself. It’s difficult to watch Ebert in the hospital and witness the struggle he faced. Some of these moments are the most touching though. This shows us his true character by allowing us to see him at his worst and there still being such a life to him. He never lost his love for film or his passion for writing and sharing that treasured cinematic experience with others. You can tell how much it killed him to leave his show, something that had become such a constant in his life for so long, but he didn’t let that defeat him. Ebert turned to his blog as his outlet and to his readers that were on this journey with him as the viewers of this film are. He acknowledged how difficult everything he was going through was, but we see such a spark of excitement when he got the chance to watch a film again. He explains how writing allows him to go in a zone, to escape from his troubles, and put his energy and spirit in each shot of a film he took in and each word he typed thereafter.
I’ve always respected that Ebert didn’t have the cynicism or prejudices towards certain film genres like other mainstream film critics. He still had a way of appealing to the masses. Ebert had such a vivid and emotional response to movies that you felt that much more connected to him, almost as if you experienced the film through him. He judged films for what he saw in them and what they made him feel even when it wasn’t a popular opinion or what others expected of him. Ebert was also fiercely loyal to the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago as a whole, which is nearly a character in the film itself. As he became more and more prolific he was given job offers left and right for the most well respected publications in the country. No matter how much money was thrown at him he never even considered it. He found his home and his colleagues were his family, there was no reason to look elsewhere.
Ebert could appeal to film scholars just as much as the average American; his reviews connected to people, spanning all ages and walks of life. A very important part of this is that he had a genuine love of cinema which is wonderfully celebrated in Life Itself. He wanted to like a movie going in to it and he was the first to recognize it when a film presented something of value, whatever it might be. He fought for the films he believed in. Ebert made friends with many filmmakers he respected, yet wouldn’t let these friendships cloud his judgment and his responsibility to give his audience an honest review. His voice would never falter or be compromised.
This made his work and perspective stand out from others, gave a new life to film critics, and even spawned a wider appreciation for film. This genuine love and voice that became such a vital part of Ebert never left him no matter how grim things became. He couldn’t talk, eat, or walk, yet he still lost himself in the movies and his craft again and again. In the film Ebert says that in his last year through his blog he became a stronger writer than ever. Most people would have lost the energy and drive, lost the passion, questioned why fictional character’s problems and the world they lived in mattered when their reality seemed so hopeless as their world was quickly ending. It would be so easy for him to flee from a medium that could likely remind him of his pain and suffering rather than giving him a way to fight through it. Not everyone is Roger Ebert though. His passion only became stronger, giving him something to hold on to dearly. He kept on writing and threw so much of himself in to it. Whether you admire Ebert’s writing and perspective as much as many did or not, his relentless determination to keep up with his passions, diving in to them even further, and letting his voice linger on for all those that cared to listen as well as for himself, is one of the most inspirational things I can think of considering all that he was up against. Ebert lost the ability to use his voice in one sense, but he never let his literary voice die. He had great strength and never lost that. Witnessing this is truly breathtaking. Life Itself is a moving cinematic experience I highly encourage all to engage in.
“The soldier of cinema, a wounded comrade who cannot even speak anymore but he soldiers on. That touches my life very deeply.” – Werner Herzog in Life Itself