Review: Life Itself

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Life Itself

The Pitch: The greatest movie evangelist of them all.

The Review: I will have been writing this film blog for five years in April. Five years that have already seen me take in over 800 films, visit cinemas all over the country and generally try in my own way to encourage people to brave the loud popcorn eaters and the texting teenagers and to see films the way they were intended to be seen, in cinemas. I started this blog as a simple attempt to make productive use of the time I was spending in cinemas, which up to then had been entirely for my own benefit, but it’s expanded over that time in ways that I couldn’t have even dreamed of. But I am a lone voice sitting in the ether, allowing my opinions to gently settle and to be scooped up by anyone who finds then useful. We live in a world of mass communication and social media, where any two bit hack with a computer can offer their opinion, and where most of them do as often as possible. At its best, film criticism transcends critical judgement and becomes an art form in itself; it’s sometimes one that thrives on venom and bile, where mean-spiritedness becomes a form of entertainment for the masses and we are quicker to tear films down than to try to build them up, but it can also be a productive outlet for reflection and analysis. Anyone looking for a benchmark for what can be achieved in the realms of film study and critique should look no further than Roger Ebert.

While watching the documentary by Steve James about Ebert’s life and work, I found very much a kindred spirit, and someone who coincidentally seemed to end up in the world of film by accident. It almost feels wrong to describe Ebert’s film reviews as criticism in the traditional sense, for he found the positives in so much of cinema, and James interweaves an analysis of Ebert’s style of film reviewing throughout the film. Clear demonstrations of his style are littered throughout the film, but the one which immediately struck home with me was an excerpt from his review of Terrance Malick’s The Tree Of Life. I’m not a fan of Malick in any sense, yet hearing just the first couple of paragraphs of Roger Ebert’s review made me immediately want to revisit the film to see what I’d missed. That insight, the simple but powerfully effective use of language and the enthusiasm for what he saw as a master of his craft at work also saw Ebert expanding on his love of film at conferences, in books and, for what may have made him the most familiar face in American film criticism, his collaborations with Gene Siskel.

A large part of Steve James’ documentary focuses on the two newspaper critics who gradually conquered the world of television criticism and became synonymous with their “Two Thumbs Up” rating system. Having followed Ebert’s rise at the Chicago Sun-Times to heading up the film desk – a rarity in those days that one person would be writing all of the film reviews – Life Itself tracks his expansion into television that put him into regular conflict with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel on their At The Movies show. Using archive footage, including outtakes and behind the scenes squabbling, James shows the competitiveness between the two, but also the grudging respect and eventual affection that the two men shared. Both had strong opinions and neither would ever back down, but James’ use of footage expertly captures just why these two slightly crusty, unpolished newsmen became the definitive view for a generation of American film lovers. We also see testimony from that generation, which extends deeply into the very film-making community that Ebert studied, and luminaries from Werner Herzog to Martin Scorcese line up to pay tribute to a man who helped to inspire and nurture the next generation of filmmakers through his work. The variety of talking heads from Ebert’s friends and contemporaries are plainly honest about his life, and much like his relationship with Siskel there’s a rough honesty that carries admiration without sugar-coating it. The documentary isn’t afraid to explore his early drinking, or to shy away from the base reasons why he may have been compelled to write Roger Corman’s Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, and the effect is to completely humanise Ebert in a balanced manner.

But what Life Itself captures most is the sense of warmth and humanity and the spirit of Roger Ebert, and it’s in the framing device of the documentary that this is strongest. We start with footage of Ebert being cared for in a Chicago hospital, recovering from yet more surgery, the surgery to treat various neck cancers leaving him with no lower jaw and much of the lower half his face detached. What might initially appear to be a grotesque image is actually far from it, for the upper half of his face shows that the glimmer in his eye from his youth has become a beaming smile, that of a man loving life and the opportunities it afforded him and taking those together with its challenges. Ebert was, by the time the documentary started, no longer able to talk, and his communication with James is via text and e-mail, laid out in the film in an onscreen manner we’ve become very much accustomed to. That spirit which fired Roger Ebert shines through, and James shows his determination to keep working via the internet and to keep watching films for as long as his failing body would allow; a spirit reflected in the warmth of his love for his wife Chaz and her family that seems to sustain him past what many others would have failed to endure. A famous football manager once claimed that his sport was more important than life or death; what Steve James’ documentary captures so brilliantly is that film is the essence of both Life Itself and life itself, and Roger Ebert through his work may just have been the finest encapsulation of that essence that we have been privileged to know.

Why see it at the cinema: I can’t speak for him, but I think it’s what he would have wanted. In this case, rather than the opportunity for expansive sound or visuals, a chance to immerse yourself in the life and process of a man who loved the movies, and wanted you to love them too.

What about the rating: Rated 15 for infrequent strong sex, sexualised nudity, violence. There are a variety of movie clips in the film, and they embrace the full range of every pleasure about the movies, even the guilty ones.

My cinema experience: Seen at the Curzon Soho, a cinema in the news in 2014 for its staff taking industrial action over their wages. We tend to forget that a lot of people with a love of film end up working in these establishments and aren’t always well paid for their efforts. Since I last visited this cinema, there’s certainly been some money spent as the bar area has had a significant revamp; I only hope some of that money has made its way into the staff’s pockets as well.

Even though this was a Saturday in a London cinema, the early bird price saw me get in for £9, less than I’d pay for a full price ticket on a Saturday evening in a local cinema. It was a half-full cinema, but one which was reacting well to what what on screen. My only real grumble with the Curzon, which has very good projection and sound and doesn’t go over the top on trailers and ads, is that the screen I was in has seats with very low backs. I’m 6 foot 3 and I like to be able to rest my head back while I’m watching a film, which sometimes sees me adopt some very strange positions. I just about managed to make myself comfortable for the two hour duration.

UPDATE: Good news, everyone! And good news for the staff at the Curzon Soho. I’ve been contacted by a member of staff at Curzon who informs me that the reported decision to pay staff the London Living Wage is being honoured, so that money has made its way into the staff’s hands as well. It’s good news for me as well as them, as there are apparently also plans to address the chairs! I look forward to my next visit with a clear conscience and less of a stiff neck.

The Score: 9/10

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