Sunday, July 6, 2014

"Life Itself"

 3.5 / 5 

When I was about five years old, my parents took me to the movies for the first time, and for the next decade or so, my father made sure we saw a movie every week.  He introduced me to movies like The Seven Samurai, Casablanca and Citizen Kane.

In college, when I thought (as do most boys who grew up in Southern California, I suppose) I wanted to be a filmmaker, and took a class in film theory taught by a French professor named Alain something-or-another, who made us watch a single scene from Jules et Jim over and over and over until it lost every meaning except the purely compositional, which I imagine was the point.  That separated the dreamers from the doers with enormous speed.

I remember the influence those two men, my father and that French professor, had on my understanding of film, but if I'm honest no one was more influential for me than Roger Ebert.  It was my father, no surprise, who first got me watching Sneak Previews when it was still on public television.  More years passed before I realized that "the fat one" actually wrote, too, and had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his words, the things Roger Ebert said on TV drove me to realize that there is no shame in simply enjoying the movies.

Everyone, including Gene Siskel, knew Roger Ebert was the one most people listened to, because it was impossible not to pay attention to him.  Life Itself, a documentary about Ebert and his passion (not just for movies, but for the title subject, too), is well aware of this, and spends a great deal of time elaborating on Ebert's gift with the English language.  It turns out I wasn't the only one who couldn't stop listening to the guy, because he cared so much about being heard.

That isn't a disparagement -- from his wife to his colleagues, from filmmakers like Martin Scorsese to the nurses who took care of Ebert after he fell ill with cancer that disfigured his face but not his mind, everyone in Life Itself acknowledges that Ebert was a forceful, sometimes irritating, personality.

Life Itself is an appreciation of Ebert and the profound public and personal impact he had on both the film industry and on those who knew him.  It's a beautiful movie, framed by the last days of his life, when he lost his lower jaw and the ability to speak, but not the ability to communicate or inspire people.  It seems fitting that despite the scowl he inevitably wore on TV and in photos, the extreme measures taken to save his life left him looking as if he was perpetually smiling.

The joy Ebert took in his life and his work pervade the movie -- but in amounts that are equal to his honesty about alcoholism and the fear of loneliness that dissipated only when he met his wife, Chaz, a strong and vibrant woman whose ability to love a man who was painfully aware of his weight, his drinking, and his overpowering nature.

The most entertaining parts of Life Itself are the discussions of his rivalry with Siskel (who died in 1999) and their complex relationship.  Perhaps because it has been made by a filmmaker whose admiration of Ebert is well-known -- Siskel and Ebert's intense admiration for James's 1994 film Hoop Dreams helped propel that movie's success -- it lacks a bit of perspective.  If you walked into this film with no idea of who Ebert was or why he mattered, you might learn a little bit, but not too much; it's a movie made for people who loved Roger Ebert and his talents, and want to pay respect to them.

I'm one of those people, and Life Itself both amused and affected me, but I came away wishing I had learned a little more about how Ebert developed his views and his uncanny ability not just to like movies as varied as Cries and Whispers and Benji the Hunted, but to persuade other people to like them, too.

There might be a deeper exploration of Ebert's work and his impact waiting to be made, but not quite yet: His death still feels fresh to those who admired him so much, his loud, midwestern voice still thunders in our head, and we still wonder what he would think of the movie we just saw.  Ebert's contributions deserve greater study, but later -- for now, Life Itself lets us remember and appreciate him, which seems exactly the right thing to do.

I'm forever indebted to my father for instilling a deep love of movies in me, and to Alain-what's-his-face for showing me that they're made in a language I never came to know.  But only Roger Ebert reminded me, over and over again -- and still does -- of the simple truth that movies are meant to be enjoyed.  You like what you like, and you shouldn't be embarrassed to defend your truth with intelligence and humor.  Kind of like Life Itself.

Viewed July 6, 2014 -- Laemmle North Hollywood 7


No comments:

Post a Comment