A Life Itself at the Movies

A- Documentary

  • Directed by Steve James

The first thing you have to understand about Life Itself, Steve James’ biographical documentary about Roger Ebert, is that James is hardly a dispassionate observer. He was not a close friend to Ebert, but he owed a lot to the famous film critic. It was Ebert, and his partner Gene Siskel, who championed James’ first feature, Hoop Dreams, and made him an important filmmaker.

The next thing you need to know is that Life Itself is no rehash of Ebert’s autobiography. The book, like all autobiographies, is told from one point of view–Ebert’s. The film shows Ebert’s life from many points of view. Friends, family, co-workers, filmmakers, and other critics–some of whom didn’t care much for Ebert–get their chance to discuss the brilliant writer, passionate cinephile, and overweight alcoholic who became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, and then the most influential film critic of all time. And one of the best.

Siskel and Ebert in the early days

Overall, the film gives us a far more positive view of Ebert than modesty would have allowed him to say about himself. But others can gush about Ebert’s fast yet concise writing style, his advocacy for rare and wonderful films that might never have had a chance without him, and his enthusiastic lust for life. And, of course, his courage in the face of cancer and the botched operations that robbed him of the ability to eat, drink, or talk.

James started working on the film just before Ebert went into the hospital once again, in what they didn’t know at the time was the beginning of the end. As it turned out, this was the beginning of the end for Ebert. The film cuts between two timelines–the physical deterioration of his last months and his entire life. Obviously, the two stories come together in the end.

Be prepared. This film spends a lot of time looking at a man without a jaw. Well, he sort of has a jaw–a u-shaped piece of flesh–sans bones and muscles–hanging below his gaping mouth. And when you look into that mouth, you see his neck or, depending on the camera angle, what’s behind him. It’s pretty disturbing at first, but his upbeat and joking personality helps you adjust.

We hear a lot of Ebert’s words in Life Itself. Sometimes, they’re from old recordings. Sometimes they’re his computer voice. Other times it’s an actor–one who sounds very much like him.

The film has another hero: his wife (and now widow), Chaz. Ebert didn’t marry until he was 50–to a woman who already had grown children. It’s clear that she has been his rock through the tribulations of his final decade. It’s a touching romance, and like all near-perfect love stories, it has to end in death.

And yes, there’s a lot about movies here. We see clips from films as we hear his reviews. Many of those movies are now classics and readily available. But the film’s real nostalgia comes from clips of the TV shows, with Siskel and Ebert agreeing or arguing about one film or another. (Richard Roeper, who became Ebert’s on-screen partner after Siskel died, isn’t even mentioned. I’m not complaining.)

Steve James has given us a completely biased look at Ebert’s life. But it’s also an entertaining and informative work about a man who joyfully embraced both the pleasures of cinema, and of life itself.

On David Pogue, Piracy, and the Call for Making Movies Available Online Immediately

Last week, tech journalist David Pogue wrote a piece for the Scientific American calling for the Hollywood studios and the MPAA to make new movies available for streaming and downloads as soon as they open in theaters.

Streaming movies offers instant gratification: no waiting, no driving—plus great portability: you can watch on gadgets too small for a DVD drive, like phones, tablets and superthin laptops.

His basic argument is that people are forced to download illegal copies because they would otherwise have to wait a few months. Even worse, some movies are still not available online.

From an economic point of view, his argument might make sense, although I shudder to think of what that would do the already-struggling movie theaters. But as a lover of motion pictures, the argument makes no sense to me, at all.

If you need to see the latest blockbuster so badly that you can't wait for it come out online, why not spend a few dollars and see it properly? And by properly, I mean in a theater. A film isn't meant to be background noise, but an immersive experience–preferably a communal one with an audience.

Yes, I know: But you can't watch it on your phone! To which I reply: Why would you want to? That's not a movie. It's not even television. It's a peephole.

And if you really can't afford tickets, wait a few months and rent the DVD–or better yet, the Blu-ray. Nothing else you can watch at home matches the image and sound quality of a Blu-ray. Yes, I know that some PPV services offer Blu-ray's 1080p resolution; I've even tested them. And believe me, Blu-rays look better.

Okay, so you're a complete hermit, and you're determined to never leave your house again. So if you can't stream a movie, you can't watch it.

Guess what! Between Netflix and Hulu Plus, you've got an incredible collection of films. Hulu's Criterion channel alone has hundreds of the best motion pictures ever made, and unlike the rest of Hulu, there are no commercials. Netflix has a pretty impressive collection, too, and a more diverse one.

So don't complain that movies are too inconvenient to see. Give them a little respect, and the inconvenience will seem like a small price to pay.

Full Disclosure: Many years ago, David Pogue pirated three works of mine…accidentally, of course. Other people had pirated intentionally and he thought they were anonymously written when in fact I held the copyright. I long ago accepted his apology.

SFIFF: Roger Ebert

I may have to tell some of my readers who James Schamus is, but Roger Ebert needs no introduction. First film critic to win a Pulitzer. Co-star of the longest-running, most successful film-related television show in history. Champion of independent, foreign, and classic cinema who never lost his deep appreciation of Hollywood entertainment. Victim of botched cancer surgery that has left him unable to eat or speak.

Oops. I guess I just introduced him.

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate winner of the Mel Novikoff Award, which honors those who enrich appreciation of the Cinematic Art. Nor a more appropriate location for the event than the Castro, a theater that Novikoff restored and turned into the grandest art house in the Bay Area.

Considering Ebert’s disability, a Q&A format was obviously not a wise option.ebert Instead, Ebert and his wife Chas came out on stage to a standing ovation, than sat and watched as four major directors–Terry Zwigoff, Errol Morris, Jason Reitman, and Philip Kaufman—came on stage and spoke about how much they appreciated Ebert and how important he was to their career. (The picture here, supplied to jourrnlists by the Festival beforehand, is not from Saturday night. I don’t know for what event this picture was taken.)

They talked about how he championed unlikely films and fought censorship. Reitman credited Ebert’s festival-based review for getting Juno a national release, and talked about how Ebert has always adapted to new mediums. “I know teenage girls who tweet less than Roger Ebert.” Kaufman read a proclamation from Mayor Gavin Newsom making May 1, 2010 “Roger Ebert Day.”

Ebert beamed throughout. At times I wondered if the operation that had disfigured his lower face had left his mouth in a perpetual smile. It didn’t matter; his eyes beamed, too. He occasionally reacted in mime, using hand gestures to communicate “Who me?” and other thoughts.

When the tributes were over, Ebert picked up his Macbook and played a speech he had typed earlier. The voice that read the speech was cold and mechanical, but Ebert was animated, mouthing his words and supplying hand gestures.

He “talked” about the importance of seeing movies theatrically, as a community. “An audience is part of how we become a society.” He talked about a crisis in the art form. Art-house distributors are struggling and shrinking, and young people don’t know movies beyond the latest blockbusters. As an example, he mentioned the movie he had chosen to show us, Julia, a character-driven thriller starring Tilda Swinton that Magnolia Pictures barely dumped into theaters in 2008. “Today, they’d want it to star Angelina Jolie and be shot in 3D.”

Then they screened the movie. Swinton gave a great performance as a violent, self-destructive alcoholic moving from one disaster to another. Desperate for moneyjulia (she’s just been fired, probably not for the first time), she agrees to help a neighbor with an idiotic kidnapping schemed.

Because she is not at all sympathetic, Julia makes an odd protagonist for a thriller. But once she kidnaps an 8-year-old boy, we have reason to care—not for her safety, but for the kid’s. And that becomes the driving force as Julia makes one stupid mistake after another. Anyone who has ever seen a movie knows that they will bond, but it happens in slow and unusual ways. And you’re never sure if he means more to her than the money she hopes to get or the knowledge of how much worse off she’ll be if he dies.

Swinton is probably the most courageous actor currently enjoying star status (even if it’s only indie star). I’ve have a hard time imagining anyone else playing such an angry, unlikeable failure.

You’ll probably never get a chance to see Julia theatrically (Ebert’s ability to help little-known films has its limits), but it’s available on Netflix, and maybe at your local video store, as well. It won’t be the same, but it will still be worth it.

Films You Can See Again and Films You Can’t

There are two kinds of movies at film festivals–those that have been picked up by an American distributor, and those that haven’t (there’s also a gray area: films that distributors are negotiating over). The difference is important when you’re deciding what to see. If a film doesn’t have an American distributor, chances are you will never get another chance to see that movie.

For us in the press, films getting a commercial release are called “Hold Review” films–at least that’s what they’re called on the list of them we get in our press kits. The idea is that, while we’re allowed to mention them in our coverage of the festival, and publish short, one-paragraph reviews, we’re supposed to hold our full reviews (if we write them) until the films are out in regular theaters. As I write this, I have nine reviews on hold from the Asian American and San Francisco International festivals.

I generally recommend that people avoid these “Hold Review” films at festivals, and concentrate on pictures they won’t get another chance to see. Of course, I understand the temptation to be among the first to see a heavily promoted movie, and there’s the event factor of seeing it with the director present for Q&A after the screening. Although I saw several of SFIFF’s Hold Review films before the festival, Standard Operating Procedure is the only one I’ve seen at the festival itself–so far.

Bowing to the Inevitable

Last night I settled down in front of my TV, turned on the set and the DVR, and started watching the latest episode of Whatshisname and Roeper. A little way into the first review I stopped it and asked myself “Why am I watching this crap?” I stopped it and deleted the show.

I’ve been watching this show, in its various mutations, for something close to 30 years. I don’t actually remember when I discovered it on my local PBS station, but I seldom missed it. When I bought a VCR, one of the thoughts that went through my head was that I wouldn’t have to miss At the Movies because I was going to see a real movie that night.

The show had a lot going for it. More than just reviews and clips. By putting two critics together, neither could pretend their opinion was the unquestioned truth. When they argued, you got different opinions. When they agreed, you had consensus. It helped that they were both knowledgeable, worked well together, and clearly loved movies.

I guess I’m a creature of habit, reluctant to give up something I have loved for that long a time. But time itself was the enemy. First we lost Siskel to cancer, leaving Ebert to twist in the wind and find a new companion. I didn’t care much for his final selection–Richard Roeper–but I stuck it out because of Ebert and because of habit.

When health problems took Ebert off the show last year, I stuck with Roeper and his various guests, hoping that Ebert would come back. Ebert is active today in many ways–he writes, he reviews movies, and, I believe, he works on the show behind the scenes. But he’s lost his voice in his own battle with cancer, and we don’t know if and when he’ll be able to talk, and host a TV show, again.

So now Roeper appears to have a new permanent host, Robert Wilonsky. Neither of them impresses me with insightful understanding of the medium. Unless Roger gets his voice back, my TV-watching habits have changed for good.