Thursday, July 3, 2014

Life Itself

Life Itself
Dir. Steve James

4 out of 5

"I was born inside the movie of my life" begins the memoir of beloved writer and legendary film critic Roger Ebert.  That metaphor, three years after it was published, takes on a more literal meaning in Life Itself, a poignant documentary adaptation of said memoir from veteran filmmaker Steve James (The Interrupters).  Combining recollections from Ebert's friends and family, as well as candid scenes from his difficult recovery from a broken hip suffered just before shooting began, Life Itself is by turns inspiring and heartbreaking, courageous and cagey - a movie that finds the essence of its late subject in its captivating broadness.

Through archival footage and interviews, Ebert emerges both as a man of Falstaffian appetites - for culture and camaraderie; as well as food and drink, in earlier days - and intense intellect.  The many health problems that marked Ebert's latter years robbed him of his ability to pursue the former.  But the latter remains, and the movie's great revelation is in showing how intelligence evolves from justifiable, though perhaps insecure, claims on authority to an serene yet still scrappy sense of wisdom.

Life Itself is concerned, rightly, with the highlights of Ebert's 40-plus year career as a movie critic, tracking his progress from zealous young newspaperman to populist bellwether as public intellectual-cum-TV star to, finally, the emergent dean of American cinephilia.  James makes a convincing case that Ebert came along at just the right moment, when the oversaturation of pop culture and the rise of anticipatory film culture (with its attendant disappointment and shorter attention span) made the champions of challenging and quality cinema more important than ever.  

However, Life Itself cannot possibly find any more threads to unravel.  In a sense, Ebert stymied the actual movie of his life by writing it down first - not only in his memoir, but also in a lifetime of articles, reviews, interviews, and televisions appearances - and in his uniquely confessional and prolific style.  (The film is arguably more revealing about Ebert's longtime colleague and eventually friendly rival Gene Siskel, whom James treats with equal reverence.)  When you read an Ebert review, you learned as much about the reviewer as you did about the movie.  In his movie, we're allowed to contemplate much more than one man's career in journalism, for it encompasses so much more: the making of a national treasure; the sine wave of love and loss; the collective unconscious as projected onto a large screen in a dark room; and, indeed, life itself.

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