Saturday, July 12, 2014

Life Itself Review

Full disclosure: I grew up on the film criticism of Roger Ebert. Living just outside Chicago my entire life, when I wanted to read a print review of a new release I would turn to the Chicago Sun-Times and soak in the words of Ebert. Every chance I had to watch At the Movies, I would find myself in front of the television to hear the wonderful banter and debate between Siskel and Ebert. In a world before I could rely on various websites that would simplify the process, grouping hundreds of reviews in one location to form a consensus, I only knew of those two gentleman and their opinions. Whether or not their thumbs went up or down was a major influence on my young mind.

I felt the need to clear this up right off the bat because I will admit, this bias entering the experience of the film Life Itself may have enhanced my overall opinion of it. However, please understand that just because I loved and looked up to Ebert doesn't mean I held his word to be gospel. Often times I would disagree with him and wonder what in the hell he could have been seeing or not seeing in a film, but even when I felt like he and I were a million miles apart with our opinions, I never stopped appreciating his passion for film. Ebert wasn't cynical, he never acted like he was above anyone and he never came off as snobby. He broke down a film in a way that I could understand even at a young age, he loved what he did for a living and you could feel it in every word he wrote.

Life Itself is a documentary made by Steve James, the man behind incredible works like Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, and I found so much joy within these two hours I am taking my time coming up with the proper words to do the feelings justice. Even at its most heartbreaking given the fate of the beloved subject, at its core this is a film that celebrates a life rather than mourns the loss of it. We are allowed into not only the life of Roger Ebert but also the various relationships that shaped him throughout his existence, and the emotional words from the people he was closest to resonated deeply with me.

The aspect of this film that I was most impressed by was the fact that James knew he couldn't merely throw together a giant love fest for Ebert, he couldn't just paint a picture of perfection that may have been what people wanted to hear but it wouldn't be real. The film is mostly positive, and it should be considering what an example of warmth and optimism the man was, but it isn't afraid to delve into topics such as his battle with alcoholism, his taste in women (and even the occasional prostitute) prior to meeting the love of his life, and the ugly moments between himself and his on screen partner Gene Siskel. It's important to understand that just because someone appears on television and seems to have their shit together doesn't mean they are perfect. Nobody is perfect, and even the most famous people on the planet fight their flaws and their inner demons. When you honor a life, you must honor everything, the good and the bad. It was his life, and even when things weren't perfect, Roger Ebert truly lived.

Everything I had hoped for when I first learned of this documentary came true. I got to experience nostalgic warmth but also learn something new about a man I admired deeply. I laughed repeatedly but I cried only once, but trust me, it was a good cry. As I said in the beginning, it is important to note my strong feelings for the man and what he has meant to be and my love of cinema, but I don't think it would have changed a whole lot even if I barely knew him or his story. The real reason Life Itself works is because of its storytelling, its honesty and ability to shower love onto the life of a man without pandering. This is a marvelous testament to the powerful potential of the genre.

Whenever I see a new film, whether I love it or hate it, I always wonder what Ebert would think if he were still alive today. It makes me sad to know that he never got to see some of the films either currently released or the ones that will be soon. I can't help but wish I could read his review of Boyhood prior to my entering the cinema, for example, and as morbid as it sounds for a relatively young man like myself to even entertain these thoughts, I couldn't help but consider the fact that someday I, too, would pass away and leave behind people I love and the opportunity to experience wonderful films going forward. I could dwell on this, sure, but that would suck all of the fun out of living, seeing, experiencing, and loving. Instead I choose to make sure I don't take for granted what an incredible gift it is to wake up each day and cherish life itself.

If I can live half as good as Roger did, I will consider myself lucky.


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