Life Itself

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
> RogerEbert.com

The Future of Movies (1990)

The Future of Movies in 1990

Back in 1990 the late Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel hosted a TV special which featured directors Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese discussing the future of movies.

Spielberg and Lucas made headlines earlier this summer by predicting the implosion of Hollywood’s current economic model, but what did they feel 23 years ago?

The answer lies in this programme – recently discovered by Cinephilia and Beyond – where they not only discuss the future of movies but also their careers and a good deal else beside, including:

  • The possibility of a sequel to E.T. (1982)
  • Spielberg’s interest in a Howard Hughes project
  • Lucas on the Star Wars prequels
  • Scorsese on Goodfellas (1990) and commercial success
  • The sex scene in Don’t Look Now (1973)
  • HD television
  • Film preservation

You can watch the full programme here (along with the fast-forwarded ads):

> RogerEbert.com
> Find out about 1990 on film at Wikipedia

Ebert Kubrick Roundtable

In 1999 Roger Ebert hosted a special roundtable discussion on the films of Stanley Kubrick around the release of Eyes Wide Shut.

He was joined by fellow Chicago film critics Michael Wilmington, Ray Pride, Dann Gire and Jonathan Rosenbaum.

In the first part they discuss his career and in the second half they focus on Kubrick’s final film.

Although it only lasts twenty minutes, some of the comments are interesting, including:

  • The strange, contrasting words that often appear in his titles: Fear/Desire, Killer/Kiss, Strange/Love, Clockwork/Orange, Metal/Jacket, Wide/Shut.
  • The voyeuristic journey of Cruise’s character in Eyes Wide Shut
  • The film’s closeness to the Arthur Schnitzler novella that inspired it

> Stanley Kubrick at Wikipedia
> Ebert Presents
> Roger Ebert on Twitter
> More at the Siskel and Ebert archives

Roger Ebert at TED 2011

TED have posted the video of Roger Ebert’s talk from March, where the film critic describes the attempts to remake his voice.

After losing his lower jaw (and nearly his life) to cancer in 2006, he also lost the ability to speak but has since managed to communicate with readers online and even had a Scottish company digitally reconstruct his voice from hours of his television shows.

With the help of the voice program on his Mac, his wife Chaz and friends Dean Ornish and John Hunter, Ebert presents a powerful story, but also makes some profound points about the impact of technology and the Internet.

Among other things, we learn that:

> TED 2011
> Roger Ebert’s blog and Twitter
> Esquire profile from 2010

Ebert and Scorcese’s Best Films of the 1990s

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In 1999 Roger Ebert and Martin Scorcese teamed up to discuss their favourite films of the 1990s and the above video shows their top 4 picks.

Ebert’s Top 10 of the 90s were:

  1. Hoop Dreams (1994)
  2. Pulp Fiction (1994)
  3. Goodfellas (1990)
  4. Fargo (1996)
  5. Three Colors Trilogy (1992-94)
  6. Schindler’s List (1993)
  7. Breaking the Waves (1996)
  8. Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
  9. Malcolm X (1992)
  10. JFK (1991)

Scorsese’s Top 10 of the 90s:

  1. Horse Thief (1986 – Scorsese explains why an 1980s film is in the list)
  2. The Thin Red Line (1998)
  3. A Borrowed Life (1994)
  4. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
  5. Bad Lieutenant (1992)
  6. Breaking the Waves (1996)
  7. Bottle Rocket (1996)
  8. Crash (1996)
  9. Fargo (1996)
  10. Malcolm X (1992) / Heat (1995)

I’m down with a lot of these picks but it is interesting to note that the only films they both selected were Malcolm X, Fargo and Breaking the Waves.

But I guess a lot of people will be thinking ‘where can I buy Horse Thief on DVD’?

The answer is to get a Region 1 version from Amazon US.