Life Itself: a Review

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I watched this documentary in a nearly empty theatre. Life Itself was a powerful, emotional, reflective journey about a fascinating and erudite man.

Anyone of my generation (that would be X) who has any interest in film knows of Roger Ebert, Pulitzer prize-winning film critic of The Chicago Sun-Times. He had a very popular TV show with Gene Siskel during my formative years. This was a show that I loved and tried not to miss. It changed movie critisism forever. Some would say that the change was not for the better. I must confess, after Siskel died (far too young at age 53 from a brain tumour), my enthusiasm waned. None of the rotating replacements captured the magic of what was revealed in this film as a complex yet touching relationship. And when Richard Roper became a permanent partner, I stopped watching. It was just as well. Before long, Ebert’s illness forced him to leave the show.

This seemed to be an honest, warts and all, production that I had been curious about. Yet, I entered the theatre somewhat apprehensive. I was familiar with Ebert’s life story. I followed his often autobiographic, somewhat philisophic blog since its inception and I listened to the audiobook version of his memoir of the same title as this film. Was this just going to be a rehash? No it was not. Steve James, the director, gathered many of Ebert’s contemporaries and colleagues. They told stories and shared insight into the man he was. He could be arrogant, petulant, kind and wise. His marriage to a remarkable woman (Chaz Ebert) in his later years changed him for the better. He knew it and appreciated it.

Ebert was a gifted story teller and knew well enough to choose a director who was up to the challenge of stiching together the story of his life. Watching his failing body towards the end was a shocking contrast with the image I had conjoured from his eloquent blog. This blog began when he literally lost his voice to cancer. That Roger Ebert suffered many health problems in his later years was no big secret. An excellent Esquire cover story detailed the illness that left him disfigured, unable to speak or eat during his final 7 years. But to see him being suctioned by his caregiver really made it real. His discomfort was palpable, difficult to watch and profound. I do not want to make this film sound grim. There were many funny aspects that had this small audience chuckling in unison. I particularily enjoyed the revelatory outakes from Siskel and Ebert’s TV show.

I can’t think of the last time I spent two hours with a lump in my throat fighting a losing battle against tears in a public place. I wasn’t really sad, I just missed him. But there I was in Cinema 4 at the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), thankful that I had a full packet of tissues. Boy did I need them for this wonderfully moving documentary about a man I admired for over thirty years. Roger Ebert had, what I joked, was my dream job. Watch movies, have opinions, get paid, what could be better than that? He was a gifted writer who was my go to guy when it came to choosing a movie. I can’t think of a celebrity death that has hit me harder.

Roger Ebert continues to be an inspration to me. His online presence is a great gift. Thank you Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert and Steve James for sharing.

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