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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Sean Kelly

Doc Thoughts: Life Itself

LifeItselfFrom Academy Award-nominated director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) comes this tribute to the life and career of film critic Robert Ebert.  Framed around excerpts from Ebert’s autobiography of the same name, narrated by sound-alike voice actor Stephen Stanton, Life Itself covers Ebert’s entire career from his early days as a critic for the Chicago Sun Times, his battle with alcoholism, his fame from the television series he co-hosted with Gene Siskel, his marriage to his wife Chaz and his latter day battles with Thyroid cancer, which resulted in the loss of Ebert’s ability to eat or speak.  The film captures Ebert during his final months, while those that knew him reflect on the kind of person Robert Ebert was.

When you really think about it, it is kind of silly to write a film review of a documentary about one of the greatest film critics to have ever existed.  In about a month and a half, I will have been writing this little film blog for a full decade.  The first proper post I wrote for my blog on August 31, 2004 was entitled “Movie Reviews (and why I don’t like them),” where the 22 year old me ranted against the perceived belief that movie reviews are trying to force one’s opinion as the only opinion.  I also said at the time that I would never write reviews for this blog, yet here I am writing about a documentary on Roger Ebert.

What can I really say about Life Itself that hasn’t really been said countless times at this point? I can say that I liked the documentary, even though I will also admit that it is not perfect.  I am not sure how different the film would be if Roger Ebert didn’t die when Steve James was in the middle of filming it.  As it stands, Life Itself is very much a cinematic obituary of Roger Ebert, which picks out the best aspects of his career to share.  While the film does delve into the dark moments of Ebert’s life, such as his battle with alcoholism and cancer, the film gives a relatively positive portrayal of Ebert’s life.

It is quite fitting that much screen time is spent time is spent on Siskel & Ebert, which is how Roger Ebert was best known.  While the show featured an over-simplified version of film criticism, I liked how the show visualized how different critics can have different opinions.  I knew Roger Ebert more for the show than his writing, even though that was remedied in his latter years when Roger Ebert lost his voice and ended up having to make a new one for himself through his online blog.  While I haven’t always agreed with Roger Ebert’s film reviews, I don’t think there has been a film critic that I have respected more.

I don’t know what else I can say about Life Itself.  I will say that I think that the film is a worthy tribute for a man, who is perhaps one of the last great film critics.  Even though I write many more film reviews now, than I did when I started writing this film blog a decade ago, I have always been reluctant to describe myself as a film critic.  What does that mean in today’s day and age when traditional print media is losing readership and the internet is full of people with opinions?  As someone who learned about film theory and criticism in university, I’d like to think that I know what I am talking about when I am writing about film.  Even though I consider myself a good writer, I will probably never be as great a writer that Roger Ebert was.

I suppose that I will conclude with review/reflection by recalling the only time I saw Roger Ebert in person.  It was at TIFF in 2008 and I was volunteering at the Varsity Cinema, which was the festival’s press & industry venue at the time.  I was stationed by the exit and held the door open as people left the theatre.  It turned out that one of those people was Roger Ebert and it actually took me a few seconds to clue into the fact that it was him.  Even though it was a quite mundane encounter, it was still a memorable one.

Anyways, I will finish by saying that Life Itself gets my thumbs up.

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Sean Kelly

About Sean Kelly -

Sean Patrick Kelly is a self-described ├╝ber-geek, who has been an avid film lover for all his life. He graduated from York University in 2010 with an honours B.A. in Cinema and Media Studies and he likes to believe he knows what he’s talking about when he writes about film (despite occasionally going on pointless rants).