Thursday, September 11, 2014

Life Itself (2014)

The Wake of the Jolly Roger
They Told Me I Should Go to Rehab and I Said "No, No, No..."

A documentary about a film critic sounds like the dullest kind of movie.  It would be if the critic were not Roger Ebert, whose life-journey is so affirming as to be inspiring and is documented in Steve James' tribute Life Itself, filmed with the Ebert family's permission, while he was going through the last of a devastating series of rehabilitation's from his twelve year battle with thyroid cancer that left him speechless and without a jawbone, but, mostly, undaunted.

Ebert was a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of film criticism—itself singularly remarkable as such a prize has never been awarded for that lowly position, usually given to newspaper veterans about to go to pasture—before he became extremely well-known as half of the squabbling duo of Siskel and Ebert on the couple of incarnations of "Sneak Previews."  Of the two of them, I always favored Siskel, whose criticism was usually more along the lines of my own taste.  But, when Siskel passed after a year-long battle with a brain tumor, leaving Ebert alone in the balcony, he began to expand his horizons, both personally and professionally, embracing other media for his writing, championing young film critics on his show and establishing a blog, that, for me, was a fascinating display of how good a writer he could be, as he talked not only about movies, but also a veritable kaleidoscope of subjects, drawing from the well of his life, experiences and opinions.  It was like, having lost his voice, he was free to speak more freely...about anything, about nothing.  He could vent, sum up, dress down, celebrate and bloviate to his heart's content...and to his readers'.

I mean, what could they do to him...kill him?
That blog is amazing, and if you haven't looked at it, start at the beginning and go right to the end, the piece he published the day before he died, "A Leave of Presence." That's raw Ebert and those articles and the thousands of comments they generated (to which Ebert responded liberally) are one hell of a legacy and mark a place in the Universe that no grave-marker could hope to achieve.

As to Life Itself, the writing is given very short-shrift—some outstanding turns of phrase are alluded to—so there's a void in the film.  But, that's about all we're not given.  Ebert had a celebrated life for a newspaperman-critic (I doubt any newspaperman has been photographed more than him except Hearst) and his work on the TV shows affords hours of footage to cull from, including the hilarious out-takes that have been circulating on the web for years (see below). Perhaps there's a little too much attention paid to his screenwriting credit for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, but it's indicative of Ebert's early years when he lived recklessly and as if there was no tomorrow.

Plus, there is the extraordinary footage of him in the rehabilitation center, under the watchful eye of his wife, Chaz, whom he married at age 50 (and should be nominated for sainthood). It's remarkable that, despite the ravages of the disease that was consuming him, Ebert was forthright in his insistence not to hide from the public spotlight.* In fact, he encouraged it.  The footage is frank and unapologetic—there's a tough sequence of Ebert's throat being cleared of mucus in a process that looks quite painful, and he exults in a tweet to the film-maker that it was caught on video.

One might think all this latter day footage in the rehabilitation facility would be depressing. But, it's not.  Ebert's personality, which (it is well documented) could be condescending, sour, and even dour in good health, shines bright in poor health, and despite of it. Perhaps it's the inadvertent smile on his face imprinted as the result of his jaw's removal, but I think not.  His spirit is ever-present and up-beat (with few exceptions). The surgeons didn't touch his eyes, and one can't mistake the constant twinkle in them expressed just for being there, for being present...for being alive.

It's remarkable watching him, even in the worst of health.  The jawbone is gone.  But, there are still muscles in his jaw, and as his written words are generated by a computer, he can't help but speak along with it, his mouth moving with the words, boneless chin bobbing in rhythm, gesturing along with the computer, his eyes expressing the emotion, filling in the blanks of human contact for the unaccompanied voice. It's a performance.  It's mime but to his own words, disembodied from him.

One can't help but be inspired by him and the film.  Even in the face of a debilitating, transfiguring disease, Ebert keeps his face public and puts a public face on the challenges of cancer and displays the grace of showing how one can rise above.

It's a celebration...not only of Ebert's life...but of life, itself.

Life Itself is co-produced by CNN Films, so, no doubt, it will be showing up on that channel in the near future.

This one's not safe for work, by the way.

* The film makes the point that when Siskel was diagnosed with his inoperable brain tumor, he kept it a secret from everyone but a select few—even from his children, whom he did not want scarred by his illness—he did not want them to live in dread of his passing. And Ebert was not told, which the film takes pains to note affected him deeply, and was probably part of his decision to be so open and public with his own struggles.

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