Among the refrains circulating the voluminous body of work generated by the late film critic Roger Ebert (and, yes, every working critic, this one included, has their refrains) was the desire to “see something I’ve never seen before” at the movies. So Ebert would surely have approved of the moment in Life Itself when director Steve James saddles his camera up very closely to capture Ebert, in what would prove his final days of life, having his G-tube suctioned. The scene is difficult, strange, interesting, unnerving. Mostly difficult. But the cancer that eventually robbed Ebert of his jaw and ability to eat was unable to prevent him from working until the very end. As testified by none other than legendarily adventurous filmmaker Werner Herzog, there’s something undeniably heroic and inspiring in this. But the profundities embedded in the story of Ebert and his health problems can also confuse the question regarding what Life Itself is trying to do.
This stylistically pedestrian documentary portrait is tremendously moving in the ways it chronicles Ebert’s struggle to make the most of his last years, writing like mad, taking to Twitter to stay in the conversation, and being taken care of by his wife, Chaz Ebert, a woman of almost superhuman devotion. (It’s Chaz’s appearances in the film that choked me up most.) But Life Itself is also an homage to a very particular career, and while it admirably strives to provide a balanced perspective on Ebert’s accomplishments, there’s the nagging sense that the filmmakers and fellow critics populating Life Itself, such as Martin Scorsese, New York Times’ critic A.O. Scott and retired Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, are, out of grief or goodwill, being rather generous in their praise. Me? What I truly admired about Ebert was his championing of independent, lesser-known, foreign or otherwise endangered films (such as James’s own Hoop Dreams) for a broad audience. He used his colossal influence and tireless enthusiasm nobly; everyone who values the survival of cinematic diversity is indebted to him. His writing meanwhile was prosaic, spirited, and added little to our understanding of cinema. He apparently loved to remind Gene Siskel, his sparring partner on the long-running, often entertaining PBS show that single-thumbedly reduced film criticism in the minds of millions to abysmal good/bad binaries, that he won the Pulitzer. Ebert could, it seems, be petty, and at times it came through in his appraisals.
Freighted with admiration, gratitude and loss, James’s solution to the question of what Life Itself is trying to do seems to have been to just do everything. Or as much as you can fit into 116 minutes. I don’t know that we needed the detour into Ebert’s doodlely Cannes memoir. I was intrigued by the allusions to Ebert’s troubled relationships with women, especially in his drinking years, but the film doesn’t have the time to properly explore this. Life Itself is oddly shaped, adhering to neither chronology nor thematic structures. It feels most driving and coherent when it stays focused on Ebert’s uneasy co-dependence with Siskel (and you have to love the bit where the pair gets into a heated discussion on Benji the Hunted). Life Itself feels most resonant when showcasing Ebert’s insistence on savouring life after an ailment that most of us mightn’t endure with half of his fierce tenacity. These two elements are so powerful that I can only recommend that you check out Life Itself. “A must-see!” Just don’t mistake this film, despite the notoriety of its subject, for any sort of definitive statement on film criticism or its role in the culture.
Sat, Sep 13 – Sun, Sep 21
Directed by Steve James
Metro Cinema at the Garneau