‘Life Itself,’ about Roger Ebert, plays at Aspen’s Academy Screenings
December 27, 2014
Filmmaker Steve James never got the chance to conduct a traditional interview with Roger Ebert while making "Life Itself," a documentary about the popular film critic.
The movie, which plays Tuesday at Aspen Film's Academy Screenings, opens with Ebert in a hospital room, in the midst of the 11-year battle with cancer that had already taken his lower jaw and his ability to speak, and would eventually kill him. James is there with him and Ebert's wife, Chaz. Ebert rarely makes it out of the hospital in the course of the film, which flashes back to outline Ebert's colorful life.
The sections in the hospital – by turns funny and heartbreaking – transform the film from a by-the-numbers profile into a stunning look at death and dying, which celebrates life in the process.
Ebert's candid reflections at the end of his life come largely in the form of e-mails to James. Their e-mail exchanges are the narrative voice of much of the film.
James didn't begin the project with the intention of making himself a part of the film, he said in an interview last week. But with Ebert's health declining, he was left with little choice.
"Roger passed away in the course of making the film," James explained. "And when he did I realized that a substantial part of both my relationship to Roger, and what he had to say, was contained in the e-mails, because we never got a chance to do the formal sit-down interview we had planned to do once he was free and clear of the hospital."
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Ebert is remarkably unprotective of his image in the movie. A memorable, if hard to watch, scene early on shows a nurse clearing his airway with a suction tube. Afterward, Ebert celebrates the footage in a note to James, writing, "I'm happy we got a great thing that nobody ever sees."
But, James said, Ebert and Chaz, were hands-off about what the final cut of "Life Itself," based on Ebert's 2011 memoir of the same name, would look like.
During early discussions about the project, Ebert formally gave up any editorial control of it, though James still encouraged him to be a part of the creative process.
"I think about the process more as making a film with someone than on someone," James said. "I think he took it to heart, and felt free to offer his thoughts and ideas. I never thought of it as just my film."
Ebert's long-standing connection to Colorado – the Conference on World Affairs, in Boulder, which he attended annually for more than 40 years – became a platform for Ebert as a thinker and public intellectual on topics beyond film. "Life Itself" uses the irreverent conference as a window into Ebert's wide range of interests. The University of Colorado-Boulder gathering helped feed the curiosity that brought him into journalism and fueled his prolific career as a critic.
"The great appeal of it was that he could go there and he didn't have to talk about movies," James said. "His breadth of knowledge carried him far and wide and he was a great talker – the conference is full of great talk, and nobody was better than Roger."
But "Life Itself" is no puff piece.
As the editor of the student paper at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the early 1960s, Ebert is described by one colleague as "tactless, egotistical, merciless and a showboat." The film gives an unvarnished portrait of his hard-drinking, womanizing days in Chicago before getting sober in Alcoholics Anonymous in 1979.
The film also deals head-on with Ebert's detractors, like Time magazine's Richard Corliss, who claimed the signature "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" judgments Ebert doled out in movie reviews on television with Gene Siskel treated the cinematic art-form reductively.
Ebert's complex, competitive, and loving relationship with Siskel is vividly captured in "Life Itself. A series of outtakes from a TV promo shows the pair bickering hilariously.
A facile writer, Ebert began his career as a part-time reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times. When the paper's film critic retired, he took the job and found himself covering movies as the New Hollywood movement took hold in game-changers like "Bonnie and Clyde." In reviewing Martin Scorsese's rough-hewn 1967 debut "Who's That Knocking at My Door," Ebert presciently called him "the American Fellini."
Scorsese and other filmmakers who Ebert championed – Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani and Ava Davanay among them – discuss his impact on their careers.
Though James and Ebert were not close before embarking on making "Life Itself," Ebert was a vocal and prominent champion of James' early work. James' acclaimed 1994 feature documentary debut, "Hoop Dreams," which Ebert named the best film of the year, became one of those rare documentaries that crossed over to mainstream audiences. When it failed to garner an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, Ebert vocally criticized the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the oversight, leading a successful campaign to change the documentary nomination process.
Appropriately enough, "Life Itself" was recently short-listed for the Academy Award for Best Documentary. James has had films short-listed before, but none has been nominated.
"A nomination would be something new for me," James said, "and I can't think of a more apt film for that to happen with than this one, given the significant role Roger played in launching my career by championing 'Hoop Dreams.' There's a beauty in that, if that should happen."
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