Daily | Steve James, Roger Ebert and LIFE ITSELF

Life Itself

The new cover

First there was all the joyful noise about the crowdfunding campaign, then the Sundance premiere, the celebratory screening at Ebertfest, another in the Cannes Classics program with a special additional chapter on Roger Ebert‘s relationship with the festival and now, finally, a July 4th release in theaters and VOD. Whether or not you’ve already seen Life Itself, whether or not you think you’ve had your fill, you simply must read Ray Pride‘s cover story for the new issue of Newcity.

“Chicago’s own Steve James seems like an inspired choice to capture the competitive, complex years of Roger Ebert’s life,” he writes, but as we learn in his interview with the director of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, getting Life Itself made was no slam dunk. The interview is threaded through a moving and often quite funny collage of personal and professional memories of Ebert, the colleague who, by example, taught Ray a crucial lesson about reviewing movies as well as how to “commit television.” As for the film at hand, James “packs seventy years into a swift, swinging two hours, a dense, vivid impression of the Sun-Timesman’s will and destiny to be a newspaperman from the earliest age, but also the many overlapping eras of his eventful (and competitive) life. Editor-in-chief at college, appointed film critic almost by accident at a callow age, the drinking, the rivalry with Gene Siskel, Chaz, the loss of voice alongside the gain of a virtual pulpit, the ornery Midwestern strength in the face of debilitating pain in his final days…. There’s a lot between the covers of Ebert’s fugue-cum-memoir that gives the film its title and some of its territory, but for a movie made in just over a year, it’s a compact feat of determination and legerdemain. Life Itself is a proper, not wholly reverent remembrance.”

“In 1978 my company, Landmark Theatres, took over the rundown Parkway cinema in Chicago and fixed it up to offer daily changing double features of classic films.” In the first installment of a two-part remembrance, Gary Meyer recalls Ebert giving him a boost in Chicago and further encounters in Cannes and his own hometown, San Francisco. Also at EatDrinkFilms, Errol Morris and Philip Kaufman share their memories of Ebert and Frako Loden and Dennis Willis both review Life Itself.

A.A. Dowd at the AV Club: “In the half century he spent writing about movies for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert gave the field of film criticism some of its most useful principles—arguing, for example, that a picture’s value lay in how, not what, it’s about, and introducing the Law of Economy of Characters, an amusing tool for dissecting transparent big-screen mysteries. But his most profound insight into the medium may have been his belief that the movies, at their very best, operate as a ‘machine that generates empathy,’ helping viewers understand people of all different cultures, creeds, and backgrounds…. Few will get through [Life Itself] not feeling as though they know and understand the author a little better, a little more deeply, a little more intimately.”

Life Itself is often moving,” writes Chuck Bowen at Slant, “but it doesn’t feel finished. The continual disjunctions between the soft heroic sell and the acknowledgements of professional opportunism keep the film thrumming along, but they also foster an impression that James is rushing and dutifully covering all his bases to evade accusations of creating a puff piece. The intention is obvious and theoretically sound, as James wants to emphasize that the good and bad of Ebert’s legacy are intertwined like anyone else’s. But the tensions, primarily between Ebert, the crusading critic, and Ebert, the shrewdly hobnobbing, celebrity-courting consumer reporter, are acknowledged but left hanging, and many of the interviews feel needless and obvious when compared to the revelatory stature of the footage with Ebert and Chaz.”

David Poland: “What haunts me about Roger is the ways he coped with a really difficult time of failure in his remarkably successful life… how he dealt with legacy… how he was shackled by his success and how he was freed (though not always) by his mortality grabbing him by the throat.”

“James’s film is less like a eulogy than a wake, a commemoration of his living spirit rather than a meditation on his loss,” writes Sam Adams in the Philadelphia City Paper. And in the East Bay Express, Kelly Vance adds: “What emerges is more than a tribute to an influential cultural moderator. It’s more of a testimony to an insatiable hunger for life.” More from David Edelstein (New York), Jesse Hassenger (L), Robert Horton (Seattle Weekly), Genevieve Koski (Dissolve, 4.5/5), Ned Lannamann (Stranger), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York, 4/5) and Dana Stevens (Slate). See, too, the collection at Critics Round Up.

At Criticwire, Sam Adams picks out the highlights from James and Chaz Ebert’s Reddit AMA. More interviews with James: Brian Brooks (Film Society of Lincoln Center), Andrew O’Hehir (Salon), Ben Sachs (Chicago Reader), Anne Thompson, Keith Uhlich (TONY) and Leonard Lopate (18’21”).

Update: “Deep currents of love and sorrow flow under the succession of often funny recollections of a busy life,” writes Geoffrey O’Brien for the New York Times. “But it is a wake where the departed is still present. This is not only a film about Roger Ebert but also a film very much with and by Roger Ebert… A friend describes him as having been, early on, ‘not just the chief character and star of the movie that was his life, he was also the director.’ Life Itself is indeed broadly shaped by Ebert’s own interpretation of his life and clearly marked by his sense of what kind of film it should be.”

Updates, 7/4: “I’m writing this review of the Roger Ebert biography Life Itself in a hospital waiting area, so that my typing won’t wake my dad.” Whew. So begins Matt Zoller Seitz‘s review at Further in, having explained that opening, Matt writes that “when critics review films, they bring the sum of their intellectual capacity and life experience to bear, along with whatever drama (or comedy) they’re going through at that moment in time. Life Itself gets this. Life itself, that loaded two-word phrase, is what Roger really wrote about when he wrote about movies.”

More from Paul Risker (Film International), Lisa Rosman (Word and Film), Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times), Alison Willmore (Buzzfeed) and Max Winter (Press Play). Stephen Saito interviews James, as does Adam Schartoff (59’22”). More listening (40’38”). James and Chaz Ebert are guests on Fresh Air.

Updates, 7/5: Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn talks with James “about his initial reservations with the material and how he managed to construct a satisfying narrative out of it.”

And Mark Olsen talks with Chaz Ebert for the Los Angeles Times.

Update, 7/7: Sam Adams puts another question to the Criticwire network: “What effect did [Ebert] or his writing have on you, and how do you see his influence on the culture of criticism as a whole?”

Update, 7/8: Jason Guerrasio talks with James for the Dissolve.

Update, 7/10: Director Nancy Savoca (Dogfight, If These Walls Could Talk) at the Talkhouse Film: “We can see from the earliest moments of Ebert’s story the potential for the influential cultural voice that he would become. Yet as the film moves to its conclusion, it becomes clear that, in the end, Roger Ebert was also a remarkable teacher.”

“I don’t know about the rest of you, but the man was there for me more in my life than my father (whoever that sumabitch is),” writes Craig D. Lindsey in the Nashville Scene. “Considering how much Ebert has meant to me over the years—and I could say the same for James, who has yet to make a doc that’s wasted my time—I’m starting to think it was a bad idea for me to review Life. I sat through it twice, and I can’t find fault with it.”

In the second part of his remembrance of his days with Ebert, Gary Meyer looks back on the festivals and the days and years after Ebert lost his jaw—and voice.

And the latest interview with James comes from Jordan Raup at the Film Stage.

Update, 7/11: The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody: “For Ebert, movies were human, social matters, and he makes sure that James’s film shares that trait; ailing and fatigued, back in the hospital, Ebert turns to the camera with a look of serene and humble love.”

Updates, 7/19: Marilyn Ferdinand: “I owe my inspiration and approach to film criticism to him, more public acknowledgment than I might otherwise have gotten to his very occasional mentions of my work, and my absence of Second City Syndrome to the widespread love and influence he wielded as a critic who lived, worked, and died in my home town.”

Dan Lybarger talks with James for the Nashville Scene.

Update, 8/2: In Houstonia, Joe Leydon looks back on his long friendship with Ebert.

Updates, 11/13: “The strongest parts of the movie are those that deal with the sometimes radioactive relationship between Siskel and Ebert, the latter looking like a ball of dough, the former as stiff and upright as a rolling-pin,” writes Ryan Gilbey for the New Statesman. “In out-takes of the pair recording and fluffing TV spots together, the enmity comes off the screen with an intensity that makes you wince. Both wanted to win every argument. Neither would give any quarter. The critic Richard Corliss correctly described their show as ‘A sitcom about two guys working as film critics.’ But in the latter stages of Siskel’s life (he died from a brain tumour in 1999), the warmth that had always bubbled under in their double-act took precedence.”

In the Financial Times, Antonia Quirke finds the doc “undercooked (we’re not even told what movies he loved as a child) and a clip of the great New Yorker critic Pauline Kael speaking made me sit bolt upright thinking ‘Now you’re talking.'”

Updates, 11/15: For Jason Anderson, writing for Sight & Sound, “one of the most fascinating aspects of Life Itself is how it becomes a catalogue of Ebert’s various speaking voices… Along with the familiar sound of its subject in the many archival clips—which chart the critic’s transformation from the skittish nerd introducing Ingmar Bergman films in his first on-camera gig in the early 1970s into the tuxedoed jetsetter hobnobbing with Robert De Niro in a Cannes report for his TV show in the 1980s or holding court at Boulder’s Conference on World Affairs in the 1990s—there’s the Mac-generated version of his last years, in which he refused to allow his disfigurement to prevent him from continuing his life as one of cinema’s most impassioned and most public advocates.”

“His prose may not be pored over in the same way as Bazin or Kael’s, and he may have neglected to leave us with any great cinephile tomes that encapsulate his project as a critic, but his legacy was a legion of fans who he managed to make feel like friends,” writes David Jenkins at Little White Lies. More from Henry Barnes and Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian and Tim Robey in the Telegraph.

Update, 11/16: The Observer‘s Mark Kermode: “I laughed, I cried; I was inspired and uplifted. Thumbs Up!”

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