Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Life Itself [2014]

MPAA (R)  ChicagoTribune (3 1/2 Stars)  RE.com (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (A-)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) reviewRE.com (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Life Itself [2014] (directed by Steve James) is a documentary released earlier this year about the life and, as it poignantly turned out, the last months of the life of life-long Midwesterner, world renowned Chicago film critic Roger Ebert [wikip]

As I wrote on my blog at the time of his death, I grew up watching regularly, almost religiously, with my family the "Sneak Previews" / "At the Movies" movie review show hosted by Roger Ebert of the Chicago SunTimes and Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune in its various incarnations first produced by PBS, then by Tribune Entertainment and finally by Disney

To its credit the documentary was neither a "puff piece" nor a "hagiography." 

First, the documentary noted that Ebert entered the movie review business actually as "a newspaper man."  His original dream was _to write for a major newspaper_, which AS A MIDWESTERNER growing up in the _college town of Champaign-Urbana, IL_ meant eventually working for one of CHICAGO's major newspapers -- then the Daily News, the Sun Times or the Tribune.  After college, which he spent at the the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he served as the editor of the Daily Illini during his senior year, he got a job as a reporter and feature writer at the Chicago Sun Times.  Only after getting the job at the Sun Times in 1966 did the job of being the newspaper's movie reviewer open up and then only by accident.  In 1967, the newspaper's chief movie review ... retired.   Being both young and still a relatively new hire, Ebert was offered the desk and it proved to a good fit and neither the paper nor he ever looked back.  (Now why would it be a "good fit?"  Well, in 1968, the Hollywood Production Code finally collapsed and with it a came a whole new generation of film-making.  And who best to review those new films but someone who was young / of a whole new generation of film critics...).

Second, while most Americans of my generation would remember Siskel and Ebert as household names in the 1970-80s and into the 90s, thanks to the TELEVISION SHOW that they appeared on TOGETHER, most of us would not have appreciated just how much the two "really didn't like each other," especially at the beginning.  Having grown-up in Chicago myself, I've certainly understood the rivalry that's existed between the more "patrician" Chicago Tribune and the more "working class" Sun Times.  However, I honestly didn't appreciate how much the two reviewers, hired by their respective newspapers in good part because they already fit in well into their institutional cultures, didn't like each other: Siskel, though born in Chicago was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants and studied at Yale.  Ebert, Catholic, though interestingly an only child, grew-up downstate in Urbana, the son of an electrician and went to U of I.  Both, came to their show, every show, especially at the beginning expecting to be "on top."  It did make each week's show _interesting_ ... but I honestly didn't appreciate that a good part of why their show was so _animated_, was because the two were so competitive and that (at least initially) the two really didn't like each other.

Third, while in his later years Ebert would regularly refer in his reviews to his experience of being a recovering alcoholic, this was an aspect of his personal life that until he "outed himself" was not a visible part of his public persona, and yet it certainly informed it and on many levels.  Roger Ebert probably would not have met or married his wife Chaz if he had remained living life with the view that "the night begins, _every night begins_ at some drinking establishment ... and _certainly_ ends at (the then Chicago journalists' hangout) O'Rourke's."

Finally, while most Chicagoans would have appreciated that in the closing years of Roger Ebert's life he was suffering as a result of (and was significantly disfigured by) throat cancer.  In the closing years of his life the cancer took his jaw.  As a result he was no longer able to speak (except by means of typing on a keyboard) and he received nourishment by means of a tube.  It was _not_ an easy life, and the documentary makes it absolutely clear that he found the closing years of his life very, very difficult at times. 

And yet, he also made the best of it.  Up until his death, he continued to review films for the SunTimes.  His blog www.rogerebert.com where those reviews were made available online became enormously popular.  The blog as a website featuring now some excellent young reviewers continues happily to this day (reviews that I continue to cite at the beginning of my own reviews to this day ;-)

Most of this is covered in the current film.  The picture that emerges is of a human being who did have both gifts and limitations, who did at times have an ego but also proved generous to others, especially to the young, and one who I do believe used the gifts that he was given well.

It all makes for a very nice tribute to a man who did a lot for both film and for the Midwest / City of Chicago during his lifetime.  It was a life that had been worth living through to its end.

So good job folks -- director Steve James, Chaz Ebert -- and most of all good job Roger!  You did leave this world a better place.

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