Sunday, July 20, 2014

'Life Itself': One of the Best Films of the Year

If only we all were able to experience life the way Roger Ebert did.  Steve James' documentary, Life Itself, celebrates Ebert's life and point of view so beautifully.  I don't think I have been this moved during a film in a long time.  

Ebert was always my favorite film critic, so, naturally, I am going to be affected by a documentary about him.  What James does, however, is portray Ebert's thirst for life.  I've always gravitated towards Ebert's reviews because he's such a joy to read.  His reviews never condescend to the reader, but he was always such an eloquent writer.  

I don't know how to write a review for this documentary, so I won't.  I had such an emotional reaction to it that anything I write will not do the film justice.  Please forgive me if my thoughts comes across unclear or jumbled.  All I can say is that the documentary affirms what I love about Roger and his work.  It's not a biopic but a celebration to everything in his life.  Ultimately, it's a love story.  A love story between him and his beautiful wife, Chaz.  A love story between Roger and the written word.  A love story between a man and film.  A love story between Siskel & Ebert.  It just goes on and on.  Life also chronicles his devotion to the Chicago Sun-Times, his struggle with alcohol, and his experience writing the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.  

I wrote earlier in the week about my personal relationship with my father.  My dad is a writer, and he was very encouraging when it came to me writing, no matter what the subject matter.  Roger Ebert became sort of like a second mentor even though I never met the man.  Ebert's voice was always so open, so welcoming.  I don't like to even call him a critic (even though he was the most influential critic of our time).  He was a true lover of cinema, and you wanted to love it more.  His enthusiasm for life was infectious, and that was evident in his writing.  

There are some truly beautiful moments in this film.  His marriage to Chaz radiates through the screen.  Their mutual love for one another can be seen by anyone.  For anyone who has seen Ebert clash with Gene Siskel over a film, it's like watching two uncles spar at a family reunion.  Both men were so different, and there is a behind-the-scenes look at them insulting each other while they attempt to film the opening to one of their shows.  You can't tear your eyes away.  Ebert's passion for burgeoning filmmakers is also featured.  There are interviews with Ava DuVernay (director of Middle of Nowhere) and Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart) that are very sweet.  

At the very beginning of Life, we see him speaking at his dedication for his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  He says, "For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.  It lets you understand a little bit more about the different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears.  It helps us identify the people that are sharing this journey with us."  It seems that Roger could take away something from everything he experienced in life.  Whether it is the joy of writing about film or it is struggling through a disease.  No matter Roger faced, it shaped him and became part of him.  His bravery and honesty regarding his bout with cancer is so refreshing and open.  If only everyone could be as open and honest as he was.  

Roger Ebert was a hero to me.  His passion and intelligence and love shine to brightly through Life Itself.  What a glorious film.  

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