Published on July 25th, 2014 | by Dan Nicholls0
Roger Ebert had immeasurable effect on movies as a critic, but also as a booster; Life Itself explores this, but also his love of life.
Roger Ebert has been an important influence on my life since I started developing a genuine interest in movies at a young age. I grew up in a small town, which limited my access to quality films that our local theater wouldn’t show or our tiny video store wouldn’t stock. But at the beginning of my adolescence, my weekly habits included tuning in for each and every new episode of Siskel & Ebert. My dissatisfaction with my access to the quality movies that Gene and Roger endorsed resulted in my parents allowing me to join the Columbia House Video Club with free reign. After months and months of hearing about it from the iron-thumbed duo, one fine summer morning a VHS copy of Fargo landed in my hands. I popped it in the VCR, and my life as a true lover of film began. Years later, and although he’s no longer around to share his words and his passion, Roger Ebert is still a presence in my cinematic consciousness.
I have to believe that if it wasn’t for Ebert I would have suffered through my teenage years gorging myself solely on fast food blockbusters — though he was also instrumental in teaching me the difference between good and bad cheese on the big screen. Ebert, as we all know, was a champion of every film he loved or believed in; it wouldn’t be unfair to say that he brought countless hidden gems to the attention of movie lovers that were being underserved by the mass media. And now Steve James, the director of Hoop Dreams, one of the very movies that Ebert championed, has crafted a remarkable documentary about the life and legacy of a man who loved the movies, but loved life even more.
Life Itself is an endlessly entertaining film comprised of archival footage, anecdotes from friends and loved ones, and interviews with past colleagues and esteemed filmmakers (Martin Scorsese, also an executive producer of the film, doesn’t hold back from expressing his admiration of Ebert). The film is candid and emotionally raw at times, and the less sunny moments of Ebert’s life are acknowledged with honesty. A considerate amount of time is given to Ebert’s complicated (and endearing) relationship with Gene Siskel, but the real core of the film rests in the details about his life and love with his wife, Chaz. There are some beautiful and tender moments shared between the two that are shown in the film, as well as heartbreaking scenes that show just how boundless their love for each other truly was, even during the toughest of times.
I was fortunate enough to see Life Itself on the big screen — surrounded by my film loving brethren — and I’d highly recommend even the remotely curious to take in a viewing while it’s playing at the Roxy Theater in Saskatoon (see it on opening night for a special introduction by The Feedback Society’s own Craig Silliphant!). However you choose to see it, Life Itself is essential viewing for any movie lover. I’m sad that a new generation of film fans won’t have the direct exposure to Roger’s words that many of us followed online, in print, and on TV for many years, but even those only remotely familiar with the man’s legacy will find something in the film that will move them. The film’s celebration of Roger’s life — the good moments as well as the bad — serves as an honorable tribute to a man who made an immeasurable impact on the movie-going world, using only his words, his thumbs, and his gigantic damn heart. Roger once said that the movies were a machine that generated empathy, and I watched the film with my heart wide open and my feelings on my sleeve. I laughed a lot, and cried a bit too, but I embraced every second of it.