Life Itself

All Things Once and Forever


Review written by Robert D. Patrick

It’s the most labored, arduous, sometimes portentous profession. Bereft of pity – “you watch movies? that cant be hard” – and pockmarked with confusion. The film critic is irascible and snooty; a divisive force with cloven hooves. A film critic, to the public’s eye, is often times an affluent, pear-shaped Magoo. They exist to be pelted with oranges or acknowledged with a grain of salt. The influx of writers on the internet, perhaps, has caused this imbroglio. Maybe impresarios such as Kevin Smith, whose recent flaming of critics has been well documented, has caused the number of pitchforks to increase. Whatever the case, the critic is not seen as a guileless entity but a languid person with a lined notepad.

Roger Ebert was not so. He was the every person, saying what every person wanted to say, but with the words they could not employ. He wasn’t deliberately esoteric or overtly pretentious. And though Roger had ire, wit and a scowl that could crumble the Coliseum, he could also be sweet, kind and impregnable in the face of bad news. Steve James’ documentary, Life Itself, is about the man behind the keys. The unlikely lion whose hulking frames and the sometimes baritone hiss could frighten and entertain. Ebert’s adventures in the world of media is flecked with color and grace. But when James focuses the camera on Roger, in the most tenuous year of the writer’s life, you can feel the true texture of Ebert’s unencumbered passion for all things.

James covers everything from Ebert’s early days of alcohol imbibing and womanizing to the author’s coveted Pulitzer Prize. Of course, Life Itself also spends an appropriate amount of time on Ebert’s tumultuous relationship with the wiry and vociferous Gene Siskel. Despite the enormous breadth of information, the documentary omits some of Ebert’s most vehement and bombastic battles with both actors and directors. The climactic sparring between Roger and experimental filmmaker Vincent Gallo is completely overlooked. And so is the incensed duel with Rob Schneider over the merit of Deuce Bigalow. Some of the grit and fire has been abridged, for the sake of time, but some of these clashes, one has to guess, should have been shoehorned into the documentary for the sake of demonstrating just how powerful Roger was. James also spends few moments on the art of writing, and what were Ebert’s most difficult reviews. But Roger, as the documentary states, was less lucid as the film progressed.

Life Itself, more than anything else, is a document of living. It is indicative of its name. Indicative of Roger Ebert’s immense love for understanding and knowledge. Not necessarily an exploration of movies, Steve James’ opus is more of a rumination on memories, fragments, love – things that sustain us. The mystery. The gossamer and the aurora borealis. That’s what Life Itself is about. The power of things we love, and things that love us. And, at the end of Roger’s life, I think that’s what he taught us all the most about.

Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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