Note: An earlier version of this post reported that "Life Itself" was opening at the Magic Lantern on Aug. 18. The film is actually opening on July 18.
Steve James' new documentary, "Life Itself," will open at the Magic Lantern on July 18th. I took advantage of my On Demand services to see the film just so I could post a review on Spokane Public Radio. My review follows:
On two occasions, I almost met Roger Ebert.
One year at Sundance, I saw him crossing the street but was just too shy to open my mouth. A decade earlier, in 1989, I was in Los Angeles to attend a press junket for Steven Spielberg’s film “Always.” Walking into the press reception room, I had to squeeze past a couple of short guys who were engaged in an intense conversation. Only gradually did I realize those two guys were Ebert and the filmmaker Spike Lee.
I was starstruck. And for good reason. In the late ’70s, I was living in Eugene, Oregon, working at my first newspaper job. I considered pursuing an MFA in film studies, but journalism seemed a safer career bet. So I contented myself by taking a few graduate film courses, by seeing as many movies as I could and by watching a Public Television show called “Sneak Previews.”
Remember that show? It featured Ebert and fellow Chicago film critic Gene Siskel engaging in the kinds of arguments that reminded me of my undergraduate years, when my friends and I would spend hours arguing about the movies of every filmmaker from Akira Kurosawa to Don Siegel. I would find myself yelling at Siskel and Ebert even more than I yelled at my more ignorant movie-going friends.
And, yes, I loved every minute of it. Almost as much as I enjoyed watching “Life Itself,” the documentary made by Steve James that takes its title from Ebert’s own 2011 memoir. James, best known for his films “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters,” does more, though, than give a mere look back at who and what Ebert was: He gives us a primer on how to face death with both courage and an enduring sense of self.
A few months after production began, Ebert – who’d already lost most of his lower jaw to cancer – returned to the hospital. A cracked femur would eventually lead to the discovery that his cancer had returned, and just that quickly it became clear: Ebert wasn’t long for this world.
Until Ebert did die, in 2013 at age 70, James’s cameras rolled, cutting from past to present while documenting those final months. We learn that Ebert was an only child of working-class parents, that he spent more time writing for and editing his university newspaper than in attending class, who at age 24 became the Sun-Times’ film critic, who in 1975 became the first critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism and who, that same year, began broadcasting his TV show with Siskel.
Through testimonials by Martin Scorsese and others, James gives Ebert full credit for his support of cinema. But we also learn of Ebert’s fierce competitiveness, his alcoholism, and – with the help of his wife – his eventual maturing. It’s the view James provides of the man Ebert became – the loving husband and adored stepdad – and how gracefully that man endured the end of his life, that left me even more star-struck than I already was.