There is the frequently re-iterated question of what is the value of a life. The cinematic equivalent is the time given to telling a person’s life story. When you consider the time one expends personally and professionally, and in the case of former Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert who amassed hours of film screenings, pen to paper or fingertips to the keyboard, his life has seemingly been condensed down to a brief 115 minutes. This is by no means offered as a criticism of Steve James’ immersive documentary Life Itself (2014, based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name) that portrays Ebert’s journey from boyhood to death. Rather it signals the resignation of this writer to the fact that irony is a functioning part of the wheel of life or one dare say, life itself.
“We are all born with a certain package; we are who we are. Wherever we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We are kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilisation and growth is to reach out and empathise a little bit with others. And for me the movies are like a machine that generates empathy, lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” These are the words that open Life Itself, observations that betray the intertwinement of life and the movies. Perhaps if one is to love cinema it is impossible to not love the dream of life if not the reality, and for the 115 minute stage of Life Itself, these words echo its identity and purpose.
Actress Eva Green once remarked, “I have Algerian, Turkish, Swedish, Spanish blood: I feel like a citizen of the world. Life and cinema don’t have borders.” One of the compelling anecdotes of Life Itself touches upon this artistic idealism, as Siskel and Ebert were the champions of film criticism who stood for it not being geographically centred in major metropolises. James picks out Ebert’s story as the triumph of the in-betweener, the triumph of the underdog or even the outsider who went on to win a Pulitzer prize and become one of the stalwarts of film criticism despite being a critic who called Chi-Town his home.
Life Itself is not only the personal story of Ebert, but serves as a record of the social context of film criticism and journalism. One strand James pulls on is the harmonic relationship that exists between filmmakers and critics. He paints a picture that is far removed from the mentality of us versus them, and instead portrays a reciprocal collaboration between those who create and those who review, both of whom desire only to enrich the cinematic landscape.
The contributions from filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, who executive produced Life Itself, are fitting because of the life-changing impact Ebert (and Siskel and Ebert) had on them, while they offer intriguing insights into the valuable perspective a thoughtful critic can offer to artists. A critic does not only serve as a guide to the audience but also to the filmmakers themselves. As an important voice to help films and filmmakers discover an audience, the critic can also help filmmakers self-reflect on their work.
What is the reason for Life Itself to exist? Should it merely serve as a celebration, a remembrance, or should it look to the human experience of film criticism? James, in collaboration with Roger and Chaz Ebert, creates a documentary that takes us behind the written and spoken word, behind the image of the man to reveal a narrative of friendship, brotherhood, work, love, life and death.
Under James’ direction Ebert possesses the powerful and assured presence of a leading man, who physically and emotionally transforms before our eyes and captures the ideal of “helping us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” Life Itself offers a compelling, moving portrait that rivals the narratives of the films he reviewed, a story of an individual whose life was a journey of enlightenment, of overcoming personal flaws, from “a tactless, egotistical merciless and a showboat,” to become –as is the hope of all of us – a better human being with the passage of time.
Watching Johnathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013) recently there was a decided sense of dissatisfaction. The source of this feeling was not a film that uneasily swings like a pendulum between love and ambivalence, but because the realisation finally set in that Ebert’s pen has fallen silent and still to comment on such work, and that cinema has claimed the final word in their long running conversation.
Werner Herzog’s words echo louder now than ever: “He is a soldier of cinema; a wounded comrade who cannot even speak anymore and he ploughs on and that touches my heart very deeply.” Death robbed him of his ability to write, but what remains most evocative about this critic is the unwavering influence – immortality beyond death. He is no longer a wounded comrade or general, but a fallen one, and Steve James has merged the written word of Life Itself: A Memoir with the filmic image in what is undoubtedly a fitting and emotional tribute.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.