Day Fourteen: Life Itself (MotM 2017)

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For a time, Roger Ebert’s opinion meant the world to me. A possible future suddenly fulfilling my every desire my junior year of high school, I went and read every review for every movie that came out, but took special notice of anything written by one Roger Ebert. He had the sophistication, the charisma, and the expertise of writing as a utensil to bring new life to the old, repeated words of his reviews. I was obsessively fascinated by his opinion and what he found characteristic of a good film. Right up until his death, I followed the man’s ratings every week as updated by Rotten Tomatoes (where I would write my own reviews at the time). I’ve never dreamed of being Roger Ebert, but should I be able to accumulate the impact he’s had on others and reach even a hint of the type of quality and effort he put into his writing, I’d be able to take pride in knowing I’m headed down a sufficient path.

Life Itself is Ebert’s movie, dedicated to his life and his accomplishments. Life was something that he knew very well, as shown in this documentary, and something that always seemed to be something he reveled in taking part of. It makes me, as hermit-like as my habits are, feel as though I’m missing out on all that life can provide me should I ever take the plunge into the outside world. Not only does it take on all of the joy in his life, but the amount he had suffered because of it. Showing the good in the bad, and vice-versa, Life Itself is a documentary that submerges the audience both in melodramatic tragedy and sparkling sentimentality.

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With each documentary I see, the more I become accustomed to the things it incorporates to cement itself as a documentary. For a little more context, take A Football Life for example, which is a series of a hour-long documentaries on players or associated subjects of the NFL. I have seen at least thirty episodes of this documentary series, so the structure of “Insert photo of subject in the past here, have a personal friend talk about their character or impact there,” is not lost on me in the slightest. For me, a good documentary should be able to paint a story about its subject, something that makes them real, makes them seem human or revolutionary in the sense that they deserve a documentary about them. And in that way, it becomes easy for a documentary to become dull based on the amount of praise one can receive with each and every speaker or flip of the photobook turnstile. The most boring episodes of A Football Life either don’t mention any sense of drama or negative input on the subject or gloss over them as “bad mistakes” in an altogether perfect life. One doesn’t need to have imperfection to make them more interesting, but it is the flair of personality that breaths life into this horribly clichéd set-up. Roger Ebert has enough gusto to keep the picture at the very least interesting.

An entertainer, a once problem drinker, an intellectual, a lover of all things cinema, an uppity snoot, a man of wit and social charm, and strong determination. These are all things that can be used to describe the man that was once Roger Ebert, with every negative and positive stereotype that comes with it. Life Itself isn’t just a film that creates the legend of Roger Ebert the critic, but Roger Ebert the human being. It teeters the fine line between creating an idol in his image and breaking him down to be as real as any other person. While I feel there’s far more positive relishing of his success and personality, that’s to be expected in a tribute to his life, rather than an act-by-act retelling of cynical objectivism.

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Of course, the structure of the film is little different than documentaries created throughout time. People come in and speak about his greatness, his contributions to the field, and every so often the things that may not make him seem so good a person. A slideshow of photos from his past, along with miscellaneous tapes of his past endeavors (which may have been the highlight of the film) litter Life Itself as though it came straight out of PBS. Even present (at the time of filming) events occur that chronicle his battle with many of his medical setbacks very late into his life. In this sense, the documentary has a tendency to run into the same structure of passing scenes that are only relieved through occasional stories of intimacy from others or Ebert himself. If not for these things, there would be little that differentiated it from that of, say, A Football Life; subject not specified, of course.

Those who know Roger Ebert’s television career are also familiar with one Richard Roeper, who’s mysteriously absent from the film, despite co-lining Ebert’s television program At the Movies for a number of years. Some research shows that based on the direction of the documentary’s narrative, any and all mention of Roeper and others after Gene Siskel’s death was cut to give further focus to Ebert’s struggle with his health. I’ll provide a link to a Screenprism article here in case anyone is interested after watching this film. With that said, I don’t see why they couldn’t have at least gotten him in for an interview, as cutting him out completely seems to be skipping over a turbulent period of Ebert’s life. Coping with the death of a longtime partner and friend could have made for some interesting potential.

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In what Life Itself does right, it does so with excruciatingly excitable detail for any and all fans of Roger Ebert or his work. Even without the bias, anyone can sit down and appreciate the type of commitment one must have to do what Ebert had done in his life. At its core, it’s the type of movie that inspires others to do what they really wish to do, while providing the knowledge to have one think for themselves. It’s a very poignant love letter to the bright sides of stardom and the artistry of making and reviewing films. A deeply personal and human aspect to a seemingly cold and calculative world that is critiquing finds a great balance within Life Itself. It certainly takes a deeply fascinating character to make that possible. Roger Ebert was perfect as its ambassador.

Final Score: 7.5/10

The rating for all other films can be found on my IMDb account.

For more, check out the March of the Movies Archive!