' Cinema Romantico: Life Itself

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Life Itself

“The movie lyrically and brutally challenges us to break out of the illusion that everyday mundane concerns are what must preoccupy us. It argues that surely man did not learn to think and dream, only to deaden himself with provincialism and selfishness.” This is what the late Roger Ebert wrote admiringly about “2001: A Space Odyssey”, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film that has inspired much divisiveness, not least because it so acutely resists the trappings of a traditional movie. But Ebert, as he so often could, saw outside those trappings, and saw not simply a movie but an experience, a sort of cinematic treatise on life and all that gargantuan, stupefying, beautiful subject entails. “Life Itself” is not “2001: A Space Odyssey”, of course, but while its subject is Ebert himself, perhaps America’s most well-known and beloved film critic, it is determined to peer outside the box of that groundbreaking criticism to – as the title implies – examine a man’s entire existence, and how that existence shaped and continued to shape the way in which he went to the movies.


Eschewing a chronological tale following its subject from birth to the end, the film grounds itself in the present. Steve James, the auteur of “Hoop Dreams which Ebert lauded, was tasked to craft a movie not simply looking back on its subject’s past, but looking at him as he lived now. He had suffered, of course, for several years from cancer, having his lower jaw removed, losing the ability to eat, drink and speak, and would be hospitalized for a fractured hip not long after James began filming. Five months later, Ebert would be dead. So while “Life Itself” works as a marvelous elegy and testament to a wide-reaching legacy, it is not simple sentimentalizing. It shows Ebert deep in the throes of sickness, and while it is comforting to think of him writing and watching movies up ‘til the tragic end, the film lets us know better. One of the toughest passages involves James recounting how near the end Ebert, his pain getting worse and worse, essentially went Email Silent. “I can’t,” is all one message says. Yet “Life Itself” is not just about the ravages of disease, but an honest account of human complexity.

Ebert’s alcoholism is addressed. His penchant for stubbornness and selfishness if he struggled to get his way is remarked upon. The dueling notions of his TV review show, Siskel & Ebert, and its Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down slogan becomes a crucial theme. While in real life Chaz Hammelsmith, who became Ebert’s wife, was likely the most vital supporting character, on film and in the public consciousness it was Gene Siskel, the Chicago Tribune film critic who passed away in 1999. The two were authentic foils, sharing intense dislike of the other, if not also a certain reluctant admiration, trading punches and trying to score points. Their relationship is not candy-coated but presented as it was – a stealth rock fight that unfolded on syndicated TV. And that rock fight gave birth to many questions about the validity of its format. Jonathan Rosenbaum, in particular, film critic at The Chicago Reader laments how it reduced the scope of his field to Good or Bad. This is true, though it is also pointed out how the format of television inherently resists nuanced approach. Which itself begs the question as to why they would do it, and the answer is that it allowed them to preach the cinematic gospel to so many more people and champion the causes of littler films.


One of those films was Ramin Bahrani’s “Man Push Cart”, a severe indie its maker begged Ebert to see. The critic did and gave it a rave and subsequently befriended Bahrani. This begets other movie business relationships, such as those with Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog, and illustrates how in spite of his stance as a critic, he fostered relationships with those whose art he was made to judge. That is another tricky issue from which “Life Itself” refreshingly does not shy away. Didn’t Lester Bangs say you can’t make friends with the rock stars? He did, and perhaps he was right. Perhaps Ebert’s critical eye waned a bit as he got older. The New York Times brilliant film critic A.O. Scott admits as much, pledging the opinion that Ebert was a tougher critic when he was younger.

I'm inclined to agree with that viewpoint, yet I'm just as inclined to suggest that as he got older, Ebert transformed into less of a critic than an ambassador, a notion that “Life Itself” quietly captures. He was an ambassador for cinema, absolutely, standing up for various films and filmmakers, but he was also an ambassador for aspiring film critics and for recovering alcoholics and for people coping with illness and for people who just dug putting pen to paper (fingers to keyboard). Everything he seemed to see in those last few years, and every word that came tumbling out, was reflected through the prism of his collective experiences.

At some point he stopped writing solely about movies and just started writing about life. Then again, isn't that what he was always doing? Aren't those two ideas interchangeable? “Life Itself” persuasively argues yes.

4 comments:

Kevin Powers said...

Good review! I recently reviewed it myself, but found that, because I always admired Ebert so much, I was very biased. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed what you had to say about the truths in this movie. Ebert seemed to want people to know the truth about his life and relationships, specifically that with Gene Siskel.

Alex Withrow said...

Great review here Nick. I was really glad that they included that soundbite by A.O. Scott as well. I do think Ebert got nicer as he got older, but I don't think he should be faulted for that. Hell, in a way, I've gotten nicer these past few years myself. I still dislike a fair amount of films I see, but I don't typically bother to review them publicly anymore. If Ebert had that luxury, maybe he would've done the same. Skip writing about the crap films and instead shed light on the great ones. But he had obligations and deadlines, and, well, that's the way it goes. Me personally, I'd much rather sing the praises of Boyhood than bash Transformers 4. Because really, does the world need another negative review of Transformers 4?

Candice Frederick said...

I still have to see this, but good point: Ebert was an ambassador.

Nick Prigge said...

Kevin: Yeah, it's hard sometimes with people we admire so much to remove our equations from our viewpoints, but I also don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. We are who we are and that's how we should review a film.

Alex: I know exactly what you mean. I do. I mean, I also understand the need for fair critical evaluation but....there's actually another post I'm working on that I'm hoping will address this very subject.

Candice: That had never so forcefully occurred to me until I saw this, his ambassadorship.