Life Itself

Life Itself

2014, R, 115 min. Directed by Steve James.

REVIEWED By Louis Black, Fri., July 11, 2014

Softcore-porn filmmaking king Russ Meyer, who really admired Roger Ebert, used to tell me stories about wining and dining him, as well as setting Ebert up with some of his zaftig friends (zaftig, not surprisingly, was one of Meyer's favorite words). Russ lived in an A-frame where he would be upstairs cooking while Ebert was downstairs working on the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. As Meyer cooked, Ebert typed. Whenever the typing stopped, Meyer would scream down, "Ebert, keep writing!” until the typing started again.

Possibly the best known, most widely followed popular film critic in America, there Ebert sat in Meyer's carefully crafted shrine to the overwhelming ampleness of female breasts, writing one of the great underground classics of mainstream-American studio filmmaking. Rather than a contradiction, this is an indication of the extraordinary range of interests and talents Ebert possessed.

This deeply loving documentary by the gifted Steve James (Hoop Dreams), evokes the man, husband, friend, critic, TV celebrity, and writer, and captures and celebrates an extraordinary human being.

Ironically, Ebert – the movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times – first found a national audience with a biting attack on George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, just two years before he authored Beyond. In 1975, he joined Gene Siskel reviewing movies on TV and changing the course of his career and American film criticism. Although decidedly mainstream, the bottom line was that both critics loved movies, with Ebert invariably embracing the more ambitious, obscure, difficult, and independent productions.

This documentary, intimately detailing the last years of Ebert's life, doesn't only inspire and entertain, but really presents a more fully realized portrait of Ebert than I'd ever encountered. It is in love with its subject, it's hard not to be. Being a study of Ebert it is, by necessity, also a film about movies.

Eloquent, it is surprisingly moving and beautifully structured. There is a scene in which the filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, whose work Ebert championed, is talking to him in the hospital and relaying Werner Herzog’s compliments to Ebert. As Bahrani imitates that familiar German accent, the film cuts to Herzog himself talking about what a soldier for film Ebert was. It is a purely cinematic moment that sent chills running down my spine. Appropriate to this man who lived his life for films is this movie that transcends subject and form to get at a portrait that is not just intimate and revealing, but cinema-loving, life-affirming, and inspiring.

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More Life Itself
DVDanger: Advice to Young Journalists
DVDanger: Advice to Young Journalists
What cinema tells us about what we expect from the news

Richard Whittaker, Feb. 14, 2015

More Steve James Films
The Interrupters
The Hoop Dreams filmmaker, Steve James, has a new documentary about a group working to halt crime in Chicago.

Marc Savlov, Sept. 30, 2011

Reel Paradise
This documentary shows what happens when famed producer’s rep/author/gadabout John Pierson convinces his family to move with him to Fiji, where, if all goes according to plan, he can leave behind the indie-film rat race, immerse himself in a completely foreign culture, and, best of all, screen all sorts of movies for the natives.

Marc Savlov, Sept. 30, 2005

More by Louis Black
Page Two: Row My Boat Ashore
Page Two: Row My Boat Ashore
Louis Black bids farewell in his final "Page Two" column

Sept. 8, 2017

Page Two: The Good Songs We Need to Sing Together and Loud
Page Two: The Good Songs We Need to Sing Together and Loud
Celebrating love and resistance at Terry and Jo Harvey Allen's 55th wedding anniversary

July 14, 2017


Life Itself, Steve James

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