Life Itself

By Casey Tourangeau

Mailed on July 12, 2014

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Dear Steve Stanton
Roger Ebert's Narrative Voice

Dear Steve,

I was going to start this letter by asking you if it was intimidating to stand in for a voice that has meant so much to so many. But a quick perusal of your resume shows me that supplying such voices is your professional calling. It's a testament to your ability that, while watching Steve James' documentary Life Itself, I simply assumed you'd been chosen because you were a natural fit with Roger Ebert's voice.

Instead of aiming for outright mimicry, you capture the essence of Ebert--his cadence, that midwestern accent--so that it never becomes distracting to hear you paired with clips of the real man. A bit of remove is a good thing. And while it's entertaining and touching, Life Itself could have used more choices like this.

Of course, this choice was one born of necessity: Ebert famously lost his voice to complications due to thyroid cancer in 2006, well before the publication of Life Itself, his autobiography (which, besides provides many of the passages you recite, as well as the much of film's structure). It's is portrait of a life lived large, and director Steve James does particularly fine job when focusing on Ebert's early years and his rise to become one of the most influential voices in the history of film criticism; he transitions between a series of photos of Ebert in which the people around him change while he stays fixed at the center. This is Ebert's story, after all.

Life Itself is told mainly through two relationships in Ebert's life: his partnership with fellow critic Gene Siskel and his marriage to Chaz Ebert. Scenes with Chaz are used mainly as a framing device, but are also some of Life Itself's most powerful moments. We see the couple dealing with Ebert's declining health; as he comes to accept that he is near the end of his life, his wife stays a strong, calm presence.

Ebert was known for having close relationships with some of the filmmakers he reviewed. As he became a more powerful voice in the world of film, he used his influence to champion films he knew the general public might otherwise never be exposed to. A few of his favourite filmmakers are present in Life Itself, most notably Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and Ramin Bahrani--all of whom discuss, at length, how their careers owe a debt to Ebert's enthusiasm.

But the thing is, some of these same names are involved in the production Life Itself as well (Scorsese, for example, is an executive producer). Unlike you, Steve, these aren't simply hired guns applying their craft. There's an emotional connection to their subject which clearly informs their subjectivity. Much of the shots taken at Ebert and Siskel - that they simplified criticism to a binary system that left no room for nuance - are given only the most cursory attention. Sure, a damning Film Comment piece by Richard Corliss is referenced (and read by Corliss himself), but it is presented in a way that makes Corliss seem apologetic for it (one might infer that Corliss regretted the piece's tone more than its content, but James cuts away before any elaboration is made). Likewise, the years following Gene Siskel's death are omitted almost completely. According toLife Itself, At the Movies died with Siskel. (At this point, I've mentioned Richard Roeper - Ebert's co-host for 8 years - as much as the film does. Now I've mentioned him more.)

The post-Siskel years focus more on Chaz and Roger's relationship. Her influence on the man was certainly life-altering, but it feels incomplete to celebrate Ebert's critical legacy without fully addressing its critics (and believe me, I'm aware of the dangers of film criticism rooted in simplified gimmicks). This is a film made mainly by people who owe Ebert a debt of gratitude. The love that comes through is infectious; most of my own issues arose in the days after seeing Life Itself. It succeeds on an emotional level that carries us away from the nagging questions we may have. But Roger Ebert famously said that the movies are a "machine that generates empathy" for our fellow human beings .That's why I'm giving Life Itself a thumbs up.



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