Life Itself (2014)

Director: Steve James
Cinematographer: Dana Kupper
Composer: Joshua Abrams

I’ve been a big fan of Roger Ebert for quite some time now.
In my late teens I started to gravitate to the world of movies with a voraciousness that was only matched by my curiosity. Growing up film wasn’t completely absent from my home, but it mostly revolved around Disney and family friendly fare with very few exceptions. Any time we gathered around to watch something or on the rare occasion we ventured to the cinema my family’s picks always won over my incessant requests for something a bit more involved… I just did not want to go see Jamie Foxx in Bait (anyone remember that one? no? that’s because it was awful) or anything with Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, or a movie with a number attached at the end of it. These movies did nothing for me. I knew that they entertained many and their box office proved it – but for me they were of no consequence. I longed for something deeper. I wanted to feel the way I did when watching Schindler’s List in middle school and was overcome with emotion when confronted with the horrors humanity was capable of, or the thrill I felt when my mother allowed me to watch Jurassic Park as long as I didn’t tell anyone she was making this exception for me. That was twenty years ago now. I knew that there were more, better, movies out there but I didn’t know how to uncover them, and then I came across Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies at my local Books-A-Million in 2002.

I had found the source I was looking for to delve into and experience those movies that I knew were out there – those nameless tapes that contained other world that were not my own that would allow me to travel, imagine, and feel all that to me felt intangible. I had previously and briefly worked at a Hollywood Video and had burned that bridge, which made going there out of the question – I also was ashamed that I hadn’t taken advantage of the opportunity to binge movies during my stint there. So I armed myself with a Blockbuster account and began my cinematic odyssey. I discovered the works of Woody Allen, Charlie Chaplin, Jane Campion, Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick, Krzysztof Kieślowski and many more. No genre was out of the question: documentaries, dramas, etc. I gobbled them all up (as much as my local small town video store allowed for). I then discovered that Ebert wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times and began relying on his reviews for my days off of work and school in which I would spend hours at the multiplex trying to catch the films he recommended most. I would even travel over a half hour away with my banged-up 1986 Cadillac Sedan de Ville to the nearest art-house cinema just to sit and experience those films that rarely, if ever, made it to my own town. I basically owe a lot of my love for cinema to Mr. Ebert.

When he passed two years ago, after a long illness due to cancer, I was upset and mournful – someone that had affected me, yet I’d never met, had passed and to me it was a loss. I knew of his illness, his inability to speak, but his words and voice hadn’t diminished: he still wrote his reviews, in which his love and awe of movies never diminished. Ebert was a lot of things, but jaded with film never could be said about him.

Life Itself is a documentary by Steve James and it traces the most important moments in Ebert’s career. From his upbringing, to his early days in print and newspapers, to his eventual success as a television critic. Ebert was not always likable or easy-going; people with passion and drive rarely are. He was opinionated, short-tempered (especially with Gene Siskel) and had a problem with sobriety in his youth which led to AA meetings – a fortuitous event because it led to his sobriety and the meeting with Chaz, the woman that would become his wife and a solid foundation of love and support for the rest of his life. The movie is well made and captivating, a true bildungsroman of Ebert’s life as a man and critic.

I will always have a soft spot for his work and his influence on cinema and my own understanding and education. Thank you Mr. Ebert. I’ll see you at the movies.

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