In the beginning of Life Itself, Steve James'
documentary of Roger Ebert adapted from his memoir of the same name, Ebert does a little role reversal with the director.
"The director cuts to a shot of himself filming himself in the mirror," Ebert says to James from his hospital bed.
Without hesitation — though Ebert seems to be only half-serious — James obliges, turning his camera to the mirror and getting the ordered shot. It's those kinds of moments that made Ebert fall in love with movies, or as he called them, "an empathy machine," in the first place.
It's no accident that James was called on to put the iconic critic's memoir Life Itself on film: In a way, he owes Ebert, who with his on-air punching bag/foil Gene Siskel, was responsible for spreading the word about James' ambitious, brilliant documentary Hoop Dreams, now regarded as a modern American classic.
So 20 years on, James was enlisted to capture Ebert at his most vulnerable, just as cancer was readying to win a fight Ebert had been battling for years. But Life Itself isn't a tragedy. Ebert knew his final days were near and accepted that. He had lived fully and got to do a lot of things many only dream of; he also found the love of his life, his wife Chaz (on one of Ebert's last days he describes her love "like a wind pushing me back from the grave"). Yes, at times it's difficult to see Ebert wasting away in a haze of physical pain, and it's emotional to see it through Chaz's eyes, but Life Itself isn't an obit, it's a celebration of a great American writer who forever changed the art of film criticism.
The film leaps back and forth from among archival footage, clips and interviews with friends and filmmakers and current Ebert footage that follows his day-to-day struggles (excerpts from the memoir are intertwined in voiceover) and small victories as he navigates through life without the ability to talk (he used a Hawking-like computerized voice synthesizer) and eat — after five years battling thyroid and salivary gland cancer, and then having his carotid artery burst as a complication of surgery, his jaw was removed. In 2012, Ebert suffered a hairline hip fracture — the cancer had spread to his spine, leaving him unable to walk.
Like all great documentaries, including Hoop
Dreams and others Ebert praised, Life Itself constructs a powerful dramatic narrative by capturing life as it happens, unscripted and unedited. In an especially moving scene, returning home after being in the hospital for weeks, Ebert is overcome with anger upon realizing he can no longer walk up the
stairs in his house without help.
Though Life Itself has many sad moments, it's not a sad story; it's about a triumphant life littered with tangents. Ebert was the first film critic to score a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, in 1975. Ebert penned the screenplay for the cult classic of all cult classics, Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. In the mid-'80s, Ebert helped change the face of film criticism forever with the syndicated television hit Siskel & Ebert and gave rave reviews to several young directors who later went on to become legends, including a then-25-year-old named Martin Scorsese. Gene and Roger actually trademarked their catchphrase "two thumbs up," used when both critics agreed on a film, a rare event.
For a man whose career was communication, Ebert found solace in his blog, where he posted reviews and thoughts after losing his ability to speak; he says it was the best writing of his life.
"There are no guarantees," Ebert wrote. "But there is also nothing to fear. We come from oblivion when we are born. We return to oblivion when we die. The astonishing thing is this period of in-between."