"What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away."
-Roger Ebert in his final blog post, 'A Leave of Presence'
Did Roger Ebert know how influential he had become to the point where the above quote is, at this time, wholly accurate? In many ways, this sort of resonance is at the heart of the documentary, "Life Itself," directed by the amazing filmmaker, Steve James, who Ebert propelled into the limelight twenty years ago when he hailed Steve's landmark film, "Hoop Dreams." That premise, itself, seems way too romantic to even be real but it is and it is only one strand of the colorful life that manifests itself on the screen, the colorful life of the film critic who embodied the romantic aspirations of moviegoing as an indelible experience. Indeed, what Steve James has put together is not just a film about Roger Ebert but a film about the fragility of life, where death is something inevitable because life exists in the first place. This is how one man has come to terms with this perplexing fact. Like the whole second half of Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece, "Ikiru," which means 'to live' in Japanese, there are many testimonies given out by many people that express many sorts of perceptions on Ebert.
This film is constructed mostly by conventional means. It glides through the life of Ebert from his humble beginnings to many of his momentous episodes including writing the script for "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," which induces one of the film's funniest moments involving friend and producer of this film, Martin Scorsese, as he recounts his thoughts on the strangeness of the bizarre film. The film also explores his fascination with the Cannes Film Festival, his love for Chaz Ebert, and of course his collaboration with Gene Siskel. There is an appropriate amount of time in the film dealing with the bolstering and tumultuous friendship between Siskel and Ebert. Many of the interviewees outline voracious characterizations between the two and how their seemingly polarizing life narratives could coalesce into an achieving and profitable partnership on (and off) television. The approach by James employs sharp editing but also predictable formatting in terms of laying out how Ebert’s episodes in life will be told and with what pace.
Yet, underneath this conventionality is an unconventional contemplation of both an individual’s life and life, in general. James injects footage of Ebert’s hospital stays and rehabilitation amid the chronology of his life, punctuating the fragility and inevitability that we all face when we live our life, no matter the paths we take. The potency from this aesthetic and formal choice is highlighted by the alignment of Siskel’s narrative and Ebert’s narrative who both eventually come face to face with cancer. Moreover and more crucially, James and Ebert allow an intimate, albeit slightly cringing, look into the daily struggle Ebert and Chaz must undertake. This footage at once displays the boundless courage to remain living, the comical stubbornness the film critic possesses, and the quivering nostalgia that lies beneath such courage as the viewer continues to learn of Ebert’s incredible life, only to see him in such an immobile state. The scenes almost work so perfectly in a cynical tone as a cinematic analogy; the artifice that is cinema is pulled off and the words and feelings expressed by Roger in his reviews dematerialize into the harsh reality of his present state.
But, really, his word and feelings and his character never dematerialize, even if his body is showing decrepitude few of us could live with. No, “Life Itself” makes sure to not only illuminate Ebert’s struggle but to retain what made him a legacy in the first place, his love for the movies. There is an important aesthetic choice made that provides a perfect visualization to how readers read his reviews. The film shows snippets of films (“Bonnie and Clyde” and “Blue Velvet” to the name a few) and within these snippets is text that fades in and out that are taken from Ebert’s review of the film being shown. It is a visualization of the organic and wonderful bridge Ebert made between movie and reader through elegant prose that combines profundity with simplicity. Yet, this connotes more than just Ebert’s knack for understanding movies. His ability to caringly write out his ideas transcended movies and into life, as shown by his blog posts that were mentioned later in the film. If there was one thing, though, that I wished was lingered upon was why he originally wanted to review movies (the film states how he almost spontaneously got the Chicago Sun-Times job but moves on).
It is strange that Ebert’s life parallels great films; there is the aforementioned similarity with “Ikiru” and Ebert’s electronic voice is reminiscent to the determined Stephen Hawking in Errol Morris’s film, “A Brief History in Time.” But, ultimately, that makes sense; Roger always drew parallels between his own life and the movies he encountered. What “Life Itself” achieves is a wondrous excursion in a man whose life can be both familiar and extravagant, a life where we can remain awestruck or shed heavy doses of sympathy. The film is about life and it is about death and all the monumental feelings, thoughts, lusts, and love that come in between. Steve James manages to elevate this film from a mere standard bio-documentary by expressing care and sympathy towards the main social actor and by understanding the nuances to a life that was nowhere near perfect but nothing short of life-affirming. Just as important, though, is that “Life Itself” manifests the reason why Ebert loved the movies; we get lost in the empathetic experiences that are so joyous to lose yourself in.