Sunday, January 19, 2014

Review: "Life Itself"

In his review of the 3D re-release of Titanic, film critic Roger Ebert wrote:
"James Cameron's film is not perfect. It has some flaws, but I hate the way film critics employ that word "flaw," as if they are jewelers with loupes screwed into their eye sockets, performing a valuation."
This is a line that I not only agree with wholeheartedly, but something I have taken as advice when criticizing
a movie. In college, a good friend of mine would often ask me to define what art is, and if it can be confined to just a few mediums. The answer lies in the mind of the beholder - anything can be considered art, from brick laying to murder (my college friend suggested that last one). To expand further, an art form should not and cannot be confined to a strict standard. Sure, there are basics in storytelling and expression through film, but they can be creatively manipulated and re-imagined in all sorts of ways. Basically, movies are not to be examined as one would a diamond. A movie can be more than one thing.

Roger Ebert spent his career as a film critic observing and picking apart cinema, explaining why and how, from his point of view, what kind of thing or things a particular movie was. His body of work was elegant, evocative and accessible, enlightening many a reader. This I knew. What I didn't know was that Roger was initially assigned to be a film critic. Fate?

In Life Itself, the documentary on Ebert's life and times (which premiered at Sundance just prior to the writing of this review), we learn that the most well known film critic in America is, like the movies he loves and hates, more than just one thing. It's silly thinking such a thing; that it's a surprise to discover a famous person was about more than what we knew them for. That they are people after all. Why keep that wall up between reality and fiction? In between a few hospital stays near the end of his life, the movie unfolds almost from Roger's mind, as if during rehab and doctor visits, he is going over memories painstakingly, to try and make sense of it all. Much like in a film about a biographer visiting their elderly subject. Almost beat for beat, it follows this pattern. To not only have a biopic made ABOUT you, but to also STAR as you, I can only imagine ONE question you might ask yourself; was it a life WORTH TELLING?

We get the fullest scope of the man as possible. From being a barfly to being a grandfather, from losing the ability to speak to strengthening the ability to communicate. Two moments showcased gave, for me, the clearest picture of all.

In the first one, we are witness to an extended reel of footage. It's of Roger and Gene Siskel, recording promos for their groundbreaking television show. In it, they spew more passive aggressiveness and verbally claw into one another more than I thought was possible. Throughout their partnership, Gene would often push Roger's buttons. There indeed was truth to their on screen dual persona of opposites. On TV, they'd argue back and forth on a movie's merits, and would continue debating once the cameras stopped. To order lunch, a coin toss would have to be conducted.

In the second moment, it's another extended reel of footage of the two men recording TV promos. This time, they are joyfully playing with one another, throwing good natured barbs back and forth, and sharing many a smile. At the end, something unexpected happened - it's revealed to be part of the same antagonistic promo shoot. In what was probably considered just mundane b roll to the television crew, Roger's personality and humanity are exposed. I get the strong sense of learning and growth from his relationship with Gene, one that I and many others can relate to. Like Roger, I've treated people both unfairly and friendly, and wished to have done things better. 20/20 perspective never comes during, but after. Damn.

I just read that Chaz Ebert, Roger's wife, spoke after the Sundance premiere. She said that he would often say a good movie leaves an audience member as a much truer person. I agree absolutely with that. The advice on using the word "flaw" when reviewing a movie still stands, and really can be applied to, well, life itself. Hopefully, I'll learn exactly how to apply that one day. It's true.

5/5 *s

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