Craig's Screening Room: "Life Itself"
on 2014-07-17 16:36
One thing I miss terribly in this current film climate is the Siskel and Ebert show “Sneak Previews”. With television news comprised of all the talking heads arguing over every conceivable topic on the planet these days, it baffles me that we don’t even have one show any more that’s devoted to movies. People have tried and failed, others now broadcast themselves on the web, stare into their webcams or whatever and try their hardest not to look terribly stiff. But If there is one major career accomplishment for these guys among their many, it’s getting the TV thing right.
Of course Ebert had many though. He rose from his working class upbringing into being one of the Chicago Sun-Time’s best writers, writing eloquent and profound pieces on a wide range of topics. While he was given the job of being a film critic for the paper, he was a world traveler and wanted if nothing else to understand people from different walks of life. That wanting to understand, not just meanly condemning something, was what made him such a revered figure and I believe became the guideline for what film criticism is today. You didn’t always agree with him either, but he always made a good argument.
“Life Itself”, based off Ebert’s memoir of the same name and directed by Hoop Dream’s Steve James, also goes into other areas. Ebert’s alcoholism, his time working with B-movie filmmaker Russ Meyer (in which New York Times Critic A.O Scott explains that, yes, boobs factor into a critic’s love or hate of a film), and his terrible taste in women (gold-diggers, opportunists) before meeting his wife Chaz (who bravely states for the first time they met at an A.A meeting) humanize him. The best stuff here though is the competitive love-hate, almost brotherly relationship between himself and Gene Siskel. The behind the scenes tid-bits and how they both nurtured smaller films while also making criticism more accessible is film fan gold. That Siskel also died of cancer is not lost on Ebert later on.
Martin Scorsese, critic Richard Corliss, his wife Chaz and many more give surprising and sometimes even moving testimony to how Ebert touched their lives and James does a nice job of coming up with questions for Ebert to shed light on his own experiences, particularly his last act illness. Footage of his jaw completely missing, or a procedure basically named “suction” shows the strength of a man who never gave up or lost his witty attitude during this time. He was so respected as a critic but really this documentary is about a man who had a great passion for and love of learning about life, believing that movies are and still can be great windows into the soul of human nature. If you want any greater reason why this man will be so missed, check out “Life Itself.”