Friday, July 4, 2014

Review: "Life Itself" is a Wondrous Origin Story of Film's Most Powerful Thumb

Roger Ebert
Roger Ebert was a titan in film criticism. Along with winning the Pulitzer Prize, his long and storied career has come to be the iconic portrayal of a film critic. More-so than his contemporaries including Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, or even Gene Siskel, he made the art of film discussion accessible in ways that are most likely formative to every film fan with a blog to this day (myself included). It wasn't just the words that he wrote, but the passion and sincerity that he brought to his work that made him so tangible. In director Steve James' documentary Life Itself, based off of Ebert's self-penned biography, the writer's life is explored in great detail with help from Ebert as well as family, friends, and even a few celebrities. The results are a loving tribute not just to one of film's most recognized fans, but to the power of optimism and using your influence to better other people's lives.

What probably helps Life Itself to have a unique perspective is that James worked closely with Ebert in his final months on the documentary. The project itself could be seen as an act of gratitude from James, as Ebert's enthusiasm for James' basketball documentary Hoop Dreams remains storied. Following the removal of Ebert's lower jaw and recovery from a hairline fracture, the story focuses on a man who for every reason should be cynical. Through exploitative hospital footage, the contrary is proven true as Ebert's wife Chaz Ebert laughs, cries, and opens up to James about their personal history as well as personal fears regarding his health. To some, it is likely to dissuade the myth of Ebert's power. For others, it will be a testament to his ability to persevere even in the toughest conditions. But no matter what, his iconic thumbs up is there as a universal sign for optimism.

Despite being a straightforward biographical documentary on Ebert, it does feel like it is more about the story of a thumb. From his early years working at the Chicago Sun-Times where he frequented bars to the infamous feuds with Gene Siskel, that thumb created a legacy. It defined Ebert often more than his reviews. He has traveled to Cannes and even allegedly saved Martin Scorsese's life, all with that thumb in tow. For many decades, the phrase "Two thumbs up" meant a seal of approval. Beyond being an origin story for the appendage, it is impressive how it took on another meaning, especially as his health was failing. It was a very simple gesture, but beyond being the approval of film, it became a symbol for life itself.

For the most part, the early story of Ebert is rather predictable: a hard working journalist with an enviable gift for editing. Presented through talking heads and still photos, the story is pieced together in ways that aren't necessarily new, but serve some purpose. The only real revelations that likely influence everything to come is the depression. Presented with Ebert's own commentary (via the "Life Itself" audio book), there is a vulnerability that grows. It is then that things make sense as to why he embraced other people's work. Maybe it was empathy, but it was simply that he saw another passionate cinephile doing something that they loved. It may be controversial that he frequented celebrities' presence, but as evident with his camaraderie with Scorsese, he wasn't afraid to criticize them when necessary.

More than the words or the thumb, Life Itself is about being unashamed to do what you love. For Ebert, that was film. Along with writing risque skin flick Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, he had a surprising career that catapulted him to an unprecedented level. No writer, including A.O. Scott (who appears frequently here), has reached his level of popularity or even name recognition. Of course, the real success is that Ebert was selfless. The stories that resonate here aren't the ones of Scorsese, Werner Herzog, or Errol Morris getting his help. It is the stories of Ava DuVernay and Ramin Bahrani, who are still making names for themselves. The sincerity and appreciation is unfiltered and it is in a jigsaw puzzle story that Bahrani tells that Ebert's true magic comes through. These are candid moments that reflect a man who, while being populous, wanted to promote promising talent. More than the latter day struggles or feud with Siskel (which appropriately takes up majority of the documentary), his influence on filmmakers is his ultimate contribution.

Life Itself hits all of the familiar beats of presenting an iconic man's contributions to society. By the end, there is no doubt about how influential he was. He was a flawed man, but he made film criticism a normality in ways that continue to inspire. With a plethora of candid moments and a unique perspective, the story of Ebert manages to come full circle within a two hour run time. Is there a desire for more? Yes. However, it is an economic documentary that may overlook a lot of details (not a single mention of Richard Roper, who replaced Siskel after his death), but succeeds in focusing on the important moments. Even as Ebert's voice-over transfers from the familiar to his latter day computer generated voice, the sentimentality and poetic beauty of his never ending optimism remained. It may be too conventional in execution, but Ebert's life transcends the medium in inspiring ways that makes this not only a really strong biographical documentary, but a testament to what film appreciation should be able to achieve.

Left to right: Ebert and Gene Siskel
It isn't a shocker that Life Itself will likely become the mandatory viewing for film critics and fans alike this year. Depending on your perception of latter day Ebert's health conditions, it may be a little off putting. Even then, when looking at the deeper themes and goals of James, it all makes sense. It is easy to make a documentary about Ebert while focusing specifically on his biggest achievements. It would even be easy to make a two hour "Best of" montage with him spouting movie reviews. The trouble is showing a well rounded portrait of a man, which is where things will become complicated. Do the latter day scenes play a little too sentimental? Maybe. Even then, it gives us a chance to hear Chaz Ebert express her thoughts on her husband, which is an invaluable contribution that is necessary to fully get Ebert's achievements.

However, the real question is if the Academy will recognize Life Itself at the Oscars. For starters, Steve James hasn't been recognized in the category before. Also, for the powerful subject matter, it does feel a little too conventional. The techniques are executed beautifully, but it does often play more like a history lesson. The only real benefit is that much like this past year's In Memoriam at the Academy Awards, there is a certain respect that Ebert gets. He may have never actually earned an Oscar, let alone done much to work towards that, but his impact on film is phenomenal. Then again, compared to other film critics in his lifetime, it does seem ludicrous to see if this could happen to anyone else ever again. It seems like the film and film criticism communities are too segregated now to care.

Even then, Ebert can play a sympathy card with the best of them. If Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet From Stardom could win as feel good films, it is likely that this could get in on more personal bias. The Academy is an embrace of film culture, which is also synonymous with Ebert. Since the documentary looks to be receiving universal praise, there is little chance of this backfiring. Considering the talent behind the project, the results likely play too much into their wheelhouse. Will it win? That has yet to be seen. The only issue now is to see if it meets any disqualification. Otherwise, it stands a good chance because if nothing else, it wins the popularity vote for 2014.

Will Life Itself get a Best Documentary nomination? Is Roger Ebert's contribution matched by anyone today? Will the conventional execution hurt its chances?

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