Life Itself (Steve James, 2014)

Writing for the first time in 2008, I remember the initial advice I was given: read Roger Ebert. Of course, I knew of Roger Ebert. Unlike our friends across the Atlantic, watching Siskel and Ebert wasn’t easy and my knowledge of him was primarily through special features on DVD’s I’d seen. Nevertheless, the more I read, the more I realised how important his voice was. His writing was personal, yet profound. He managed to weave into his work talk of literature and drama seamlessly into film discourse. That’s not to say that his writing required an informed audience – film was accessible and fun, and so was his words. Cinema didn’t have to be high-brow or elitist, but it said something about humanity. Life Itself, a sensitive and pertinent documentary about his life and final years, battling cancer, captures his humanity. By the end of its succinct two-hours run-time you feel like you are closer to Roger, and only wish you could sit with him longer.

It was February 2010 when I first heard of his illness. His first surgery for thyroid cancer was in 2002 and he had undergone relentless surgery since then – to the point that both Roger and his wife Chaz had lost count. My knowledge was through the arresting, brightly-lit portrait Esquire magazine proudly included within a revealing article. This was not the rotund, bolshie person I saw on those bonus-interviews many years before – and I couldn’t believe that this was the same person I was reading so often. Roger had undergone a major operation to remove his jaw completely. Life Itselfgoes one step further than the formal face in Esquire magazine. We witness ‘suction’, as tubes deliver his food straight into his neck. His mouth, a permanent warm smile, hangs gently where his chin was before. It is shocking, but as we listen to his choice of music and his type-activated voice, we pick up and feel how strong he truly is.

As the documentary uses his autobiography of the same name as a starting point, director Steve James wisely chooses to focus on key moments in his life. His upbringing. His fractitious relationship with Gene Siskel. Siskel’s death due to a brain tumour, and its impact on Roger. It includes details about Roger’s marriage to Chaz at the age of 50, and his own battle with alcoholism as a young journalist. Indeed, Ebert was no saint. As a young man, he was argumentative and pushy in the offices of The Daily Illini. We are told he could back up his demands with a genius-wit and an intelligent-insight, unlike others in the press. It doesn’t surprise us when we are told he won a Pulitzer prize. We are told his opening lines to an article regarding the death of six children in Birmingham, Alabama. Even then, he knew what to say and how to say it (I won’t reveal it hear, it’s worth waiting for). One day, the day after JFK was shot, a paper was in production. When Ebert noticed an advert across the page showing a gun directly pointing at Kennedy himself, he immediately ensured the papers didn’t hit the stands.
These were brash and defiant moves, but Ebert had the confidence and clout to make things happen. His friends, discussing his fight with alcohol explain his slow slide into addiction as he held court at the bar, with a strong drink in hand. Life Itself touches upon the controversy surrounding the simplicity of the thumbs-up/down grading system, but it is clear that through it all, this was a man whose use of language and words could only be admired – and the thumbs-up was merely a way to engage others. He could write a fully-formed film-review within thirty minutes. He could be friends with filmmaker such as Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog, but honestly criticise their art in the most brutal fashion (Check out his take-down of Scorsese’s The Color of Money). He even made a soft-core porn film in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls with Russ Meyer (of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) – To which Scorsese uses his own cinematic-knowledge to reveal his own opinion.
As a writer who aspires to analyse film throughout the years ahead, he remains an inspiration to me. I will dissect and vainly try and understand his process of writing through visiting his blog, that remains active today as a literary monument to the man himself. Roger was a man who exclusively wrote his thoughts in his final years – and his loss is still felt as it is clear that no-one, even now, can match his talent. Six years since I began writing, I can only offer one piece of advice myself after seeing the film: watch Life Itself and read Roger Ebert.

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