As a film critic myself living with a chronic illness and having lived well past my life expectancy, I must confess that I've pondered on more than one occasion how I could possibly find enough will to continue living should something happen to one or more of my senses.
As I sat watching the rather remarkable documentary Life Itself, I both laughed and cried as I watched the story of Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert's life unfold in such a way that I fully realized that sometimes the human spirit, even to the point of death, simply cannot be conquered.
Arguably one of the few remaining film critics to hold any sense of true sway over public opinion, Ebert's life is magnificently captured by documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams), himself not so ironically a filmmaker whose career Ebert likely cemented when he championed James's Hoop Dreams and pretty much singlehandledly took it from languishing in a few indie theaters to getting it to the point where it's now recognized as one of the greatest sports docs of all-time.
James nicely captures THAT Ebert, a man who could be absolutely convicted and even arrogant when it came to his opinions on film. While his infamous battles with Gene Siskel have long been well known, James beautifully incorporates that part of Ebert's life into the film and brings to the forefront the many battles and outtakes spotlighting Ebert's inexhaustible willingness to fight over films long after the closing credits had rolled on another episode of Siskel & Ebert.
It has always seemed almost unfathomably cruel that Ebert lost his voice to the cancers that spread throughout his body over the last 10 years of his life, because Ebert's voice was easily one of the most recognizable and respected when it came to film journalism and film criticism. There are those, of course, who thought that Ebert crossed that criticism line when it came to his writings. He had a fondness for films and filmmakers and there were some, acknowledged in this film, who not so silently wondered if those friendships impacted his reviews.
Heck, I'll even acknowledge having mumbled to myself on more than one occasion in his last years of life that it seemed like his reviews had softened and become a bit generous with his trademarked "two thumbs up" rating system.
With very few exceptions, though, there's hardly any other film critics whose writings I enjoyed more and whose opinions I respected as much as I did and still do Ebert's.
Adapted from his 2011 autobiography of the same name, Life Itself captures precisely what Ebert, I think, would want it to capture as he'd invited James to be a part of his life over what would be his last several months of life. With relentless and even uncomfortable authenticity, James and Ebert share his struggles with cancer including some procedures that are stunning in their honesty and intimacy while capturing that absolutely inspiring life spirit that Ebert seemed to possess.
I will even admit that I've found myself, at times, wondering about the true depth of Ebert's relationship with Chaz, a woman whom he married at the age of 50 and a marriage that ended a rather long period of Ebert's life where he was more than a little bit known as a player. In this film, there's a sense of "Ah, I get it now" as I watch their relationship and their interactions that are just breathtakingly beautiful to watch.
It is well known that Ebert began writing even more prolifically in the last year of his life, including more writing outside the realm of film but with his strong as ever opinions that would not be silenced. James captures it all, though at times it does feel just a tad formulaic and predictable in terms of the film's cinematic structure and content.
As a resident of Indianapolis and a devotee of Ebert's beloved Steak n' Shake restaurants, I find myself unable to visit a Steak n' Shake drive-thru without thinking about the devastation that cancer placed upon Ebert's body and his most beloved activities of life. Ebert, hosted a reinvented version of his television show even after he'd been stricken of his spoken voice and forced to use audio adaptive equipment, lost the ability to speak, to eat without a G-tube, and to enjoy his treasured mealtime conversations. It was a particularly cruel way for Ebert to have to experience his medical crises yet he continuously did so with tremendous dignity and appreciation of life.
There are so many scenes running through my mind even as I write this review that I'm honestly having trouble staying in focus. I'm remembering words from Scorsese and Herzog. I'm remembering accounts from friends of his young adult years, years when Ebert partied too much and drank too much. I'm remembering his reviews, both controversial and embraced. I'm remember those epic battles with Siskel, battles that would never be rivaled again no matter how much he tried to discover a renewed spark for his show.
Mostly, I remember my own distant relationship with a man who showed me that I could write with both a critical eye and a devotion to my own experience of a film. I remember being inspired by his starting EbertFest and being awed by the many accounts I would hear from peers and friends of a man who would share his time, opinion, and thoughts generously.
I remember the day I practically cried tears of joy when Ebert began following my work on a film site.
I remember being grateful when I realized that I could be a film critic, a film writer, and a true lover of the film industry and everything about it.
Life Itself is a film, I'm guessing, that Ebert himself would appreciate and it's hard to imagine that he'd be bothered by the fact that we're remembering his life this way and with these images and through these words.
Life Itself is a reminder, I suppose, that when the human spirit lives on we never really lose our voice.
"I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state ... I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting." -– Roger Ebert
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic