“A film like Hoop Dreams is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and make us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.” —Roger Ebert, 1994
There’s a really clever reflexiveness at play with the last two words in that sentence—”life itself.” Ebert used it in his review of director Steve James’ Hoop Dreams—arguably the film Ebert is most famous for championing over his nearly 50-year career as the Chicago Sun-Times film critic. He then wrote a memoir and titled it “Life Itself.” Now, James is sharing with the world his documentary about Ebert, his life, his career, his marriage, his illness, his death. It’s called Life Itself. It’s appropriately titled.
Part of life is finding your passion. Ebert sort of stumbled into his. A whip-smart journalist who romanticized about the film noir version of the reporter’s life through his formative years, Ebert was given the job as the Sun-Times film critic, more or less, because it was available and because he could form coherent sentences. Where he went from there is almost impossible to fathom, but he transformed the profession, helped up-and-coming filmmakers break through, and spawned thousands of imitators, especially during the internet age.
Part of life is falling in love, and Ebert fell hard. Roger and Chaz met in AA, and while they weren’t exactly spring chickens when they were married, they were inseparable and raised a pretty incredible family.
Part of life is overcoming obstacles, and in Ebert’s last few years, he faced challenges most of us could never fathom. Cancer robbed Ebert of the ability to speak, but his voice—his writing, his influence in criticism—only grew stonger as his body broke down.
Part of life is death, and Roger died with dignity. It doesn’t play out onscreen the way the rest of his life does. James’ storytelling here is tasteful and understated. We see their final few lines of correspondence, and Chaz walks us through the rest. After years of smiling (and writing) through the pain, Roger succumbed to it in April 2013.
It is a little hard to separate one’s personal connection to Roger Ebert from one’s desire to review Life Itself as any other documentary, but Ebert would be the first reviewer to say it’s OK to write about a film from a particular point of view. Movies, he said, were our great “empathy machine.” Good ones reach out to men and women, who all have different experiences, biases, and values, and make them see the world from the point of view of another.
Life Itself’s “open-book-ness” makes it the best empathy machine of the year, no matter what your experiences, biases, and values are. A lot of time is devoted to Ebert’s often contentious relationship with the late Gene Siskel, and Ebert, like a lot of others, were totally in the dark about Siskel’s cancer. The pain he felt after his friend’s passing—not just because Siskel was no longer around but also because he wasn’t confided in—was enough for him to make a vow to his wife: if something like this happens to me, I’m going to be open about it. Quite clearly, he is.
And one can’t help but think this is a very different-looking film in the hands of a documentarian other than James. His willingness to turn his camera on himself and his process lends an extra layer of truthfulness and easy-going candor to the entire picture. It’s an underrated quality—the ability to make a documentary that feels calm and free-flowing. Life Itself takes the unaffected qualities of a film like Leviathan and applies them in a way that makes it feel less impenetrable. It’s as easy a film to embrace as it is to admire—something a lot of narrative films fail to achieve, nevermind documentaries—which earns it a guaranteed spot on my year-end top ten list, as well as two thumbs way, way up.