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Life Itself

Posted by martinteller on July 7, 2014

I grew up in Chicago.  In our household watching “Sneak Previews” — featuring Chicago critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert — was a weekly ritual.  Often we’d watch it over dinner, and it was an entertaining as any sitcom or drama.  It was always best when the two of them disagreed.  I was more of a Siskel guy.  Maybe that’s because I thought he was smarter or more discerning, or because we were a “Tribune” family and not a “Sun-Times” family, or maybe I just liked his barbs more than Ebert’s barbs.  As time wore on and I stopped watching their show regularly, Siskel and Ebert meant less and less to me.  As I got more into movies — and writing about them myself — I even grew to resent them a bit for dominating the world of film criticism.  After Siskel died, it felt sometimes like Ebert was the only critic in the world who had a voice… people wanted to know what Ebert thought, and his thumbs up or down was all that mattered.

And so one of my favorite aspects of this film was that this was addressed.  Although the documentary is mostly tribute, director Steve James doesn’t shy from criticism of the critic, including what some perceived to be a dumbing down of film commentary.  Now the web has, to some degree, democratized film discussion.  There are still some voices that ring louder than others (Maltin, Scott, et cetera) but the proliferation of movie blogs (mine is one of thousands upon thousands) and ratings aggregation sites like Rotten Tomatoes have widened the field.  And this process has also given me some distance from Ebert and allowed me to see him as the fine writer and influential figure he was.  I don’t always agree with him — to me, Bonnie and Clyde is underwhelming and Blue Velvet is a masterpiece — but I almost always find him worth hearing out.  You could certainly pick worse voices to be the most prominent.

The documentary is frequently hilarious, often touching and always entertaining.  There are lively anecdotes and heartfelt tributes, including the likes of Scorsese and Herzog.  There’s some good-natured ribbing of the “Tribune”, and everything related to Siskel & Ebert’s relationship is golden.  For the cinephile, there are references to and clips of many great films, films Ebert championed.  I was thrilled to see a bit of El Norte in there, and I think I even let out an “Ooh!” when a scene from Cries & Whispers started playing.  I nerded out over the story of Ebert just hangin’ out with Erland Josephson at Cannes.

I had a few issues with the structure.  James’s documentaries usually have a strong arc to them, but this one was kind of all over the place.  Certain facets of his life are covered in chunks, broken up by scenes from his final months in the hospital.  There isn’t a thematic or even a chronological through line.  I wondered if, perhaps, the film is too close to his death… I wondered how James might have edited it differently with some more distance.  It feels like it needs someone to take a step back and examine the whole.  But with such a public figure, maybe everyone has a different version of the story they want to see.  I would have preferred to hear more of his thoughts on film criticism, and others’ thoughts on his film criticism (and where is Richard Roeper in all this, by the way? he’s not even mentioned).  I could probably do with less of his illness, not because it’s uncomfortable but because there’s quite a lot of it in a film that’s supposed to be about his whole life.  On the other hand, it’s the hospital scenes where we see the relationship between Ebert and his wife Chaz.  It’s discussed to a small degree in the film, but seeing it happen in front of you is what leaves the strongest impression.  There was clearly so much love and devotion between them, it’s very moving.

Though the film is a bit scattershot, it is consistently engaging.  A fine and entertaining tribute to a man who, no matter how much you agree with him, played a major role in how movies are perceived, analyzed, evaluated and discussed.  Rating: Very Good (85)


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