Sunday, 13 November 2016

Life Itself (4 Stars)

Roger Ebert died three years ago, on April 4th 2013. That was a sad day for me. He was a man who has had a great influence on my life. I don't remember when I first became aware of him, probably less than 10 years ago, but it was him more than anyone else who inspired me to begin writing this blog. I consider him to be the ultimate film critic. I admire his film reviews more than anyone else's. I've never tried to imitate his style, because I consider him to be far beyond me, but I hope I can copy his spontaneity in expressing his love for films.

The director Steve James began to make this documentary about a year before Roger Ebert's death, including many new interviews as well as old footage from Roger's life. In an interview Roger says, half jokingly, that he might not live to see the completed documentary. He was right. The final scenes show his funeral and a tearful speech by his wife Chaz.

I wouldn't say that the documentary has told me much about Roger that I didn't already know. I've read so much written by him over the years that I consider him to be an old friend. The documentary has been more useful in telling me about the other people in his life, in particular his television partner Gene Siskel and his wife Chaz. The television series "Siskel & Ebert" was before my time, as far as my interest in films is concerned. I only became a real film fan after purchasing my first DVD player in 2003. Siskel and Ebert were a curious couple, like the Laurel and Hardy of film critics. Judging by what the documentary shows they were never friends, but they did have a professional respect for one another.

The DVD cover explains the film's title, "Life Itself", as "the only thing Roger loved more than movies was life itself". I don't think that's correct. For him life was just a movie. In one of his last interviews he said, "I was born inside the movie of my life. I don't remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me". If there was one thing that Roger loved more than movies it was his wife. He didn't meet her until he was 50, and nobody expected him to get married. Everyone expected him to remain single for the rest of his life. That's probably what he expected as well. The relationship between Roger and Chaz supports the theory that everyone has a soulmate. Nobody else would have been as perfect a match for Roger. Nobody else would have stood by his side and loved him till the day he died.

It was interesting to me to hear how Martin Scorsese was assisted in his career by Roger Ebert. When he made his first film in 1967, "Who's that knocking at my door?", Roger was the first to discover it, highly praising it. 10 years later Martin Scorsese felt depressed and was considering giving up making films, but Roger Ebert invited him to receive an award at a Toronto film festival, encouraging him to carry on.

There's a small incident in the documentary that I find fascinating. In hospital, shortly before his death, Roger Ebert gave a jigsaw puzzle in a tin to the director Ramin Bahrani. This jigsaw puzzle was a gift from Alfred Hitchcock to Marilyn Monroe. It was passed on to the acting coach Lee Strasberg, possibly after her death. He gave it to Laura Dern, and Laura gave it to Roger Ebert. Ramin felt unworthy to accept the gift, but Roger insisted that he take it, on condition that he will one day pass it one to someone he considers worthy in the film industry. What is the picture in the puzzle? Nobody knows, because it's kept in a tobacco tin, and Ramin feels it's too holy for him to put it together.

This documentary is essential viewing for two groups of people:

* Everyone who loves Roger Ebert

* Everyone who loves films

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