Monday, July 14, 2014

Life Itself

Alternate Title:  Plaudite, Amici. Comedia Finita Est.

One sentence synopsis:    A documentarian covers the last few months of Roger Ebert's life with retrospectives on his career, relationships, and personality.

Things Havoc liked:  When one thinks of movie critics, one thinks inevitably of Roger Ebert. A pulitzer-winning, populist movie critic without parallel, Ebert's influence on the state of film criticism, and for that matter film itself, is hard to sum up. Without Roger Ebert, I would probably not be writing this blog, but then that's true of a vast number of people. And for all the scorn I heaped upon several of his less-than-cogent opinions for movies like The Artist or The Flowers of War, there is a reason that it was his opinion, and not that of other critics, that I took to task. The most powerful movie critic in the world, the first, and to my knowledge, only one to ever win a Pulitzer, he shaped my tastes in ways I'm sure I cannot even begin to speak to. And now he is gone, and all we have are his reviews, and the memories of those who knew him.

Life Itself, by Prefontaine and Hoop Dreams' director Steve James, is a biographical documentary, nothing more, nothing less. Filmed in the main during the last four months of Ebert's life, as he was battling cancer, pneumonia, and the aftereffects of having his jaw amputated, it chronicles Ebert's career from college to the Chicago Sun-Times, from Cannes to Siskel & Ebert. Much of this stuff is standard biographical material, but the movie refrains from becoming nothing but a record of awards won and milestones achieved by relying heavily on the reminiscences of people who knew Ebert, his skills and his flaws, his giant ego and his manifest personability. We follow his career through thick and thin, from winning national awards and being courted by world-class newspapers such as the Washington Post or New York Times, to the travails associated with his alcoholism, to his ongoing love-hate feud/relationship with fellow critic Gene Siskel. All the while, there are intercut sequences with the Roger Ebert of "today", his face scarred by a series of terribly invasive cancer surgeries, and interviews with his wife and family, who are all putting on a brave front as they patiently await what they know to be the end.

And that's really all the movie is, and all it needs to be, as anyone who has the slightest interest in the subject of the life of Roger Ebert should find all manner of tidbits within this story to make them smile. One of the best sequences, in the midst of a discussion of their work together, involves several behind-the-scenes sequences of Ebert and Siskel trying to film a promo for their show, intercut after (and even during) every take with bitter, sarcastic sniping at one another that sounds like the sort of thing people tolerate only when they've grown so accustomed to such treatment that it's no longer worth fighting over. Yet a second clip, later on, has them embarking on a collective, extemporaneous rant about how Jews (like Siskel) and Catholics (like Ebert) are the only people who actually give a damn about their religion, and that protestantism and WASPs in particular are people who want "a little faith... maybe." In Ebert's own words, "we were killing each other for thousands of years before they showed up." Ebert remarked once that the answer to the question of whether he and Siskel hated each other and whether they were best friends were both Yes, and the hints of the greater relationship he had with his famous co-host are there to be seen for any fan of the great movie duo.

Things Havoc disliked: But only hints.

It was ludicrously hard to write this review (which is why it has been so delayed), partly because documentaries are always a difficult topic to write subjectively about, but also partly because there just wasn't that much to say, and that itself is the problem. The movie is billed as a biographical documentary on Roger Ebert's life and career, but what it actually winds up as is something extremely macabre, and the reason for that is that the film chooses, for reasons that I'm sure made sense at the time, to focus with almost laser-like exclusivity, on Roger Ebert's death.

I mean, I get it. Ebert died while the film was being made (we see his last, fleeting answers to the filmmakers' Emails as he was dying in the hospital), and his disability was so extreme as to exert an almost ghoulish fascination, and yet rather than resist this urge, the filmmakers decided for some reason to make Ebert's inevitable death from cancer and pneumonia the center of their film. Perhaps they thought they were replicating Citizen Kane, I don't know, but the movie, by the end, becomes almost morbid, as the filmmakers use all their considerable talents to try and wring pathos over the end of a great man. They succeed, of course, but the endless succession of sequences concerning Ebert's disability, his efforts to resume some fleeting fragment of his normal life, his decline and ultimately his death, accompanied by the tearful exclamations of his wife, led me, at least, to wonder if any of this was appropriate at all. Ebert, like all public figures, lived his life in the glare of spotlights, by his own choice as much as any, but to reduce half a film about a great man to the details of his final decrepitude seems almost voyeuristic, to say nothing of the notion that this is time that might be better spent regaling us with the stories of his works and deeds and thoughts and beliefs.

And part of the reason I am left wondering if we couldn't use more of those things is because, to be frank, we don't get all that much of it. Despite being produced by Martin Scorsese and featuring interviews from several major figures in cinema such as Werner Herzog, the movie is astonishingly light on details concerning a man who popularized film theory and film criticism for the mainstream audience. Precious little is heard from Ebert's actual reviews, the reviews that made him famous, won him a Pulitzer, changed the nature of American film, and serve as the reason we're watching the movie in the first place. We see him go to Cannes, go to Telluride, see movies and lead lectures about them, but we have no idea what his own personal theories were, what his perspective for criticism was, why he felt one movie was better than another. We are told that he was a fine lecturer and a witty storyteller, but not shown or given the opportunity to hear a single story or excerpt from a lecture of any sort, and when later in the film the filmmakers contrast his critical style with that of legendary New Yorker/New Republic critic Pauline Kael, we are presented the fact that his style and hers were different in a vacuum, without the slightest idea of what his style consisted of, or how it was different from hers. I appreciate that my tolerance for the ins and outs of film theory is probably higher than most people, but we are sitting in a documentary about one of the greatest film critics of all time, it's okay to talk shop. Worst of all though, not a single one of Ebert's biting, cutting negative quips, the ones so good that he compiled them into books, makes it into the film, denying us all the chance to admire the quality of the man's writing, even though we're watching a movie ostensibly about that very fact.

Final thoughts:  The irony of me reviewing a film about the greatest film critic in history is not lost on me, and yet I still have a job to do here. This movie is not badly made, nor is it an unfitting tribute to a great man, and yet is was, to me, deeply unsatisfying. It is arguable that the reason I found it so was because I have particular interests that weren't met, but I regard it as eminently reasonable to assume that a movie lionizing the life of a famous film critic might have a thing or two to say about film criticism. And while the material that IS here is valuable, there simply isn't enough of it to sustain my interest through the two hours that the movie runs. The obvious point of comparison here is last year's Iron Lady, a biopic that was so busy displaying the life of a great woman in her decline that it forgot to show her to us while she was actually in her prime.

For all that we did not agree, Roger Ebert was a great man, and a great critic. I can only hope to one day match the breadth of his skill, wit, and love of films. He deserved a better tribute than this. And the nature of film being what it is, God willing, he may one day receive it.

Final Score:  5.5/10

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