Sean K. Cureton

Two Thumbs Up

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on March 21, 2015 at 11:41 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Life Itself (2014)
Directed by Steve James
Netflix Rating: Really Liked It

Roger Ebert’s death on April 4, 2013 was an earth-shattering event for anyone who has ever seen a movie. For nearly sixty years, Ebert was the voice that one paid attention to when deciding whether or not you were going to shill out your hard earned cash at the multiplex; his was the voice that taught you how to engage with film from a personal standpoint; his was the voice that informed the mass proliferation of the movie review format engaged initially in print, subsequently on television, and finally across the internet. The shadow of Ebert is near inescapable when writing or talking about movies in any format or context, his influence pervasive in its reach and cultural importance, making Steve James’ documentary an indispensible tell-all on the life of the late, great film critic, while simultaneously serving as the final statement from a dying man, beautifully embracing death in the spotlight where some might shy away from the public eye as their physical form slowly turns to dust. In his final days, Ebert was as visible to the public eye as he had ever been; despite the lack of a jaw, which took away his instantly recognizable voice, Ebert retained his rhetorical style thanks to a universal embrace of online film criticism and social media, encouraging a growing contingent of film fans the world over to take to the blogosphere to add their own voices to an open discussion of film previously restricted to those whose work was published in print publication. In Life Itself, Ebert is presented as an everyman, eager to be heard as a critical voice on the films he watched, but more importantly interested in his readers, determined to be understood by anyone and everyone, a standard to which he held the inherent entertainment value of the films he saw and reviewed, for better or worse, making his brand of film review ironically aligned with that of the twenty-first century, making everyone a critic and cinema the language of the people.

The most shocking, intimate, and tragic aspect of James’ film, and the one that makes it so emotionally gripping, is its unflinching look at death, a subject that Ebert had been engaged in personally from an early age. As the film digressively details, Ebert’s Catholic upbringing instilled an intense awareness of personal sin and its attendant mortality, making his life one ruled by morals and guilt, tangentially informing his reactions to certain films and directors over his career as a film critic for the Chicago Sun Times. Ebert immediately recognized Catholic iconography and dogma at the heart of certain films and directors’ work, most notably in Martin Scorsese’s crime dramas circuitously centering on the Italian American experience made multi-national through their engagement of the familiar themes of sin and death, endearing Scorsese to Ebert, and vice versa. When a director seemed amorally engaged in recreating depravity instead of empathetically responding to what was already present in the world, however, Ebert was fast to criticize and recoil with the stern discipline of a rector, his infamously well cited critical appraisal of David Lynch’s magnum opus Blue Velvet an idiosyncratic mark on his illustrious career as a lifetime moviegoer. In responding to films with all of himself, writing with his own beliefs and morals in place as opposed to anyone else’s, Ebert’s reviews were subjective, and rightfully so, the example he set one wherein the reviewer is meant to respond personally as opposed to impersonally, subjective voices infinitely more interesting to listen to the monotone of objective reportage.

In Steve James’ documentary, Ebert’s life’s work as a film critic was informed by a much deeper engagement with life itself, the memoir upon which James’ film took its title and much of its narrative impetus an informed, poetic engagement with the volatility of life and the inescapable passage of time. For Ebert, life seemed filled with a multitude of wonders and possibilities only ever intimated on the screen, making his journeys in real life all the more impressive, the range and scope of locations and people with which Ebert explored and interacted with making for a life well lived. Instead of being content to live in the dark while life passed him by via the facsimile of celluloid, Ebert went where he was wont to go, following his heart’s deepest desires, his real world experiences informing his writing on cinema, providing his voice with a worldliness absent in many cinephiles whose intelligence extends only so far as what has been represented to them as experience through an inherently reclusive audio-visual entertainment. Despite his humble upbringing within the realm of the exclusively intelligent and well-spoken, Ebert truly became a well-read individual, never assuming any knowledge of his own to be vastly superior to that implicitly held by others, his writing on film brimming with a willingness to engage with lives utterly foreign to his own, an echo of his diplomatic courtship of strangers in strange lands outside of the movie theatre. In his knowledge of a world greater than that idealistically and romantically represented and misrepresented through narrative and the aestheticism of cinematography, Ebert made sure he got out and saw what was being represented to him as reality, and was never afraid to call out a filmmaker when found a film to be lacking in its understanding or authenticity, a film’s possession and distillation of life itself integral to its receiving a four star review.

In its engagement of Roger Ebert’s most personal memories and reflections, Steve James’ Life Itself proves non-descriptive when it comes to addressing the intentions behind Ebert’s characteristic brand of film criticism, most iconographic and culturally memorable on television in Siskel & Ebert & the Movies, where the “two-thumbs-up” moniker became all important, for a time, to a film’s mainstream success. Where some critics have famously taken ire with Ebert’s engagement with populist entertainment, claiming Ebert was the herald of the death of what constitutes more astutely somber film criticism, summarizing Ebert’s impact as a voice for movie lovers everywhere to the physical assemblage of two upraised appendages is an inaccurate simplification. In Ebert’s inability to define what film criticism constituted within his own life, or describing his body of work from an objective standpoint, perhaps Ebert was retaining some of his magic, preferring to take it with him after his consciousness had left this our mortal realm. Ebert’s reviews were always personally heartfelt, subjectively imbued with a voice all his own, informally familiar; before you had even heard Ebert speak in person you knew him from the words he wrote on the page. There will never be another Roger Ebert, but Steve James’ film serves as the final documentation from the world’s greatest moviegoer, a critic primarily engaged with his audience of readers, enthused by the films he saw and loved, playfully cynical of the films that he did not, all while writing with the ease of an authority delivering a well known sermon, his rhetoric still reverberating in the void of film writing everywhere, two thumbs up.

Life Itself is available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.

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