Steve James is one of the best filmmakers of his generation, and his latest documentary is a deeply insightful portrait of the life and legacy of US film critic Roger Ebert.
A US film critic might sound like an unlikely subject for a full length feature, but as James Joyce once wrote:
“In the particular is contained the universal”
This quote rings especially true here: a cornucopia of experiences and emotions compressed into a moving narrative via through the lens of an individual life.
Using Ebert’s 2009 memoir as a platform, the basic outline involves: his formative years in Urbana, Illinois; a long career in print at the Chicago Sun-Times and subsequently on television with Gene Siskel; it concludes with his final years, where he lost his old voice to cancer but found a new one online.
Peppered throughout are startling scenes of the ‘other’ Roger: the screenwriter who co-wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) with Russ Meyer and a never-made project with the Sex Pistols; the prodigious journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, but nearly drank himself into oblivion.
He was also an early champion of directors such as Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, all of whom talk warmly of him, even when he disliked some of their work. (Herzog even ended up dedicating his 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World to his fellow ‘soldier of cinema’.)
There are also some hilarious outtakes from the TV show he presented with rival Chicago critic Gene Siskel. Whether it was squabbling like a married couple over Full Metal Jacket (1987) or whose name should come first on the title (Siskel won out), both found the Yin to the others Yang.
Crucially though, the rich archival and interview material is skilfully weaved in with the personal: his beloved wife Chaz who provided critical emotional and practical support in his later years.
Diagnosed with cancer in 2002, his condition eventually led to him losing his lower jaw and ability to speak.
However, as an early adopter of the web, he eventually found a new audience through his voice-activated computer, an extensive website and on Twitter.
It was in the medium, which almost seemed invented for him, that he wrote deeply powerful meditations on not just the latest films, but his own existence and, by extension, ours.
Four years before his death in 2013 he wrote:
“I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting.”
These words are used at one point in the film and I suspect they have special resonance for director Steve James. His documentaries, which include Hoop Dreams (1994) and The Interrupters (2011), are often fascinating, humane explorations of people’s lives in Chicago.
The Windy City is an almost tangible presence in this film, it was the place where Ebert penned his reviews at his beloved newspaper (The Sun-Times), where he married his soulmate Chaz and where he found a nationwide platform to champion films like Hoop Dreams.
For James, Life Itself feels like the culmination of an unofficial Chicago trilogy, but it is also seems to be the most personal of his works: a joyous celebration of a man who loved movies, people and life.
> Official website for Life Itself and Twitter feed
> Get local listings via Dogwoof, pre-order the DVD or rent or buy via iTunes UK