“So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.” – Final words from Roger Ebert’s last blog entry, “A Leave of Presence”
There has never in the history of American film criticism been a figure as influential and widely recognized as Roger Ebert. He was the man who redefined what it meant to be a film critic, not just because he was the first person to ever win a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism or receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, or even because of the celebrity status that resulted from the success of his TV show with Gene Siskel, where that iconic catchphrase “Two Thumbs Up” was coined. No, what made Roger different was quite simply, his voice. His writing was highly personal, with an understated simplicity that was both informative and poetic, and a unique power to reach out and touch just about anyone who came across it. As his wife Chaz Ebert stated while introducing the new documentary about his life – appropriately titled Life Itself – at the TIFF Bell Lightbox last week, “he didn’t just write about films, he wrote about life.”
Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) originally began this biographical documentary as an adaptation of Ebert’s own 2011 memoir of the same name, however the project quickly transformed when the renowned writer passed away several months into production. His gruelling struggle with health complications and physical deterioration, stemming from his lengthy battles with cancer, eventually took its toll in April of 2013, claiming his life in the process. The resulting film paints a picture of the man from his early days as a sharp young newspaper editor through to the second life he crafted for himself using his online blog once he lost the ability to speak. It contains several interviews with Roger’s friends, family and colleagues, the most surprising of which are a pair of memorable stories from acclaimed Hollywood filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. The film remains a touching tribute to the man who shared his love of cinema with the world for nearly half a century, inspiring generations of young writers through his own work as well as his notable influence as a film professor and mentor.
The true success of Life Itself however is not the praise it offers its subject, but rather the way it humanizes him. It addresses his struggles with alcohol addiction, offers glimpses of the egotistical side that emerged whenever he butted heads with friend and adversary Gene Siskel (accompanied by some truly hilarious outtakes from their television program), and showcases a great deal of footage from his final few months of life, chronicling the many physical hurdles that he faced on a day-to-day basis as his health gradually worsened. These difficult scenes become crucial to our understanding of what made Roger such an inspirational person, as we see him endure gruelling medical routines and still respond with an undying sense of life. The lens through which he viewed the world was simply too thick to shatter, and the poignant reflections that emerged in his final days are simultaneously heartbreaking and life-affirming, reminding us not to take anything for granted as we navigate like blind protagonists through the films of our own lives.
Life Itself is currently screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. Additional info, showtimes and ticket info can be found at the official TIFF website.
5 / 5 S T A R S