Thursday, August 28, 2014

Life Itself: The Year's Best Documentary

I wrote a long piece last year about Roger Ebert the day after he died, about how he affected my life, about why he was such a beloved film critic, and why he mattered to people. After watching the new documentary about him, Life Itself, I realized I didn't even know the half of it.

Life Itself was directed by Steve James, who also made Hoop Dreams, which is undoubtedly one of the ten most beloved documentaries ever. But no one loved Hoop Dreams more than Roger Ebert, and he championed it ceaselessly. That film gained a life partially on the back of his efforts. A lot of people know Hoop Dreams for it's notorious Oscar snub in the 1994 documentary race, and the reason people know that is likely because of how much noise Ebert made over it. That's something that I realized happened a lot over the course of this documentary: Ebert championing things to the extent that he gave them life. Several directors are in the film, most notably Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. They all talk about how one of their first big breaks was when Roger wrote a glowing review of one of their early films. Time has obviously shown Roger was right. Herzog and Scorsese are two of the best directors of their generation. Scorsese specifically tells a story about how Roger saved his life. In the early 80's, when Scorsese's cocaine addiction was at its peak, he was mostly out of work, incapable of getting funding for the movies he wanted to make, worried that there simply wasn't an audience for his art, and not caring about the consequences of his drug addiction. It was at that time that Ebert (and Siskel) organized a tribute to Scorsese at the then-fledgling Toronto International Film Festival, and it helped Scorsese turn his life around. Ebert had a way of doing that--making great artists feel like their art truly mattered to people.

And that's kind of the point with Roger. The reason he could make great artists feel like their work mattered to people is because he brought their work TO the people. A term that often gets thrown around about critics in general (of any discipline) is "tastemaker." It's a term that describes the ability of certain influential people to help define the tastes of large audiences. There is possibly no one in history that term applies to more than Roger. Ebert was not an academic critic. He didn't write to scholarly audiences studying film for PHDs (so they could go on to teach future PHD students). Ebert firmly believed that film had the capacity--more so than any other artistic discipline--to make a difference in people's lives, and the best way for that to happen was to make sure that the people were being informed on what films to see. Ebert helped bring smart cinema--art films--into the general public. He didn't write in exclusionary ways. Some might say he dumbed himself down, and I'm sure that's true in certain respects. But I think the better description would be to say that he smarted up his audience. We were all smarter for having Roger's taste and knowledge permeate our lives.

Life Itself does many things, and foremost what it does is call to question the meaning of film, art, and life. What are we here for? What gives our lives meaning? Ebert is frank in saying that the role of film critic for The Sun Times was not something he sought out, it fell ass-backwards into his lap. But within a year, he was the only major American film critic calling Bonnie and Clyde a masterpiece, while Bosley Crowther at the New York Times was calling it a blight on American cinema. It's not just that we know who was right 45 years later; we knew who was right later that year, when Bonnie and Cyde connected with young movie-goers like few films ever had. Ebert wrote that the film took place in the 1930's, but that's merely because it had to take place sometime. "It was made now, and it's about us," he famously wrote. That was in 1967, when America desperately needed anti-heroes. But those sentiments are still true. Life Itself is a film about someone who lived publicly from 1967-2013, when he died. But it came out now, and it's about us.

There's a bit in the film when a former editor mentions that Ebert could knock out a great review in 30 minutes, because he was such a natural writer. I've challenged myself to the same standard here; I started typing this at 11:26pm, with the mandate of posting it before midnight. I have no idea if I'm the natural writer that Roger is, but I'd like to believe that I have some ability. But what was so good about Roger's writing was his ability connect with people on fundamental levels, just like this film does.

It's not simply a film about someone who wrote about the movies, it's a film about someone who loved life so much that he felt perpetually compelled to watch every sort of life imaginable. The film even opens with a quote where Roger describes that very phenomenon. He talks about how we are all the stars of our own lives, and our own lives are the only ones we can really experience, but what the movies do is allow us the brief ability to experience other lives. That's a thing of value. It's a thing of great power. And Roger Ebert dedicated his life to making the general public aware of when that power was being harnessed in the best ways.

The film doesn't move chronologically, but thematically. Each segment covers not a time of Roger's life, but an aspect. We see his alcoholism, his fight(s) with cancer, his relationship (and fights) with Gene Siskel, his championing of Cannes and Martin Scorsese, his television career, and his marriage to Chaz. Each part illuminates the power Roger had to see the best in things, to acknowledge the best in things, and to share the best in things with other people. To him, that was what gave life itself meaning. We are all the better for it.

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