The universe worked in a strange and surreal way tonight. I had little time to spare and it was a case of finishing work and driving straight into the city. When I approached the elevator that would take me from the underground car park up to the cinema another guy walked in with me. He was the same guy who rode it down with me last night. It was a weird case of Déjà vu that we both acknowledged before striking up a discussion about the festival. He told me that he had 50 films on his schedule and that he had taken a couple of weeks off work to fit them all in. He does it each year and treats it like a holiday. Wow. Now there's a lover of cinema. And it gets weirder so keep reading... tonight's film was the documentary LIFE ITSELF.
I have been a fan of Roger Ebert for 20 years. In fact there are only 4 people who I can actually pin-point to having a profound impact on my life and have helped shape my love of films in specific ways. Those people are Charles Band, Everett De Roche, Steven Spielberg and Roger Ebert. I spent my late teens living in Canada and I would watch Siskel & Ebert religiously. They were the go-to guys for film criticism. They coined the "thumbs up/thumbs down" form of scoring and pioneered the critic-themed television format. Over the years I have read his books, read almost every review he has ever written and subscribed to the members only section of his website. I adored the man and while I didn't always agree with his perspective, I always respected the hell out of him. This very website was created with Roger in mind. My own writing about film is always with him in mind. When he passed away last year, I was devastated.
LIFE ITSELF is a documentary, which is adapted from his own memoir of the same name. Directed by Steve James (who made one of Roger's favourite docos, HOOP DREAMS) the film builds itself around Roger's final months during his time in and out of hospital as he recovers from numerous surgeries and pushes himself through rehabilitation. From there the film scrolls back through time to his childhood and early adulthood and travels along his career right through his relationships with Gene Siskel, Martin Scorsese and a range of other peers, relatives and friends. This is a remarkable film.
While on the surface LIFE ITSELF seems like a typical and manipulative documentary intended to tug at our heartstrings and boy does it achieve that. The journey is emotional and anyone who doesn't tear up while watching it ought to be poked with a stick (just to make sure they're alive)... and then the film breaks away from the convention and does the impossible by exposing it's subject in a negative light. During the height of his fame Roger Ebert was not a nice person. HIs ego and his addiction to alcohol made him a horribly unpleasant person to work with. This is shown through interviews and archival footage that needs to be seen to be believed. And what is so astonishing to me about this film is that regardless of whatever light Roger is portrayed in, he is entirely loveable at the same time. He was a man of passion and as the film reveals, he was a man of conviction and a strong sense of social justice. When agreeing to be a part of the film he insisted that it was an honest depiction of his life. Nothing was sacred and everything from his personal demons to his gut wrenching illness was fair game. Director Steve James has presented Roger's story in a most sincere and respectful way and the information, footage and stories speak for themselves.
I was affected by LIFE ITSELF. It struck me on a deeply emotional level. The lump in my throat would not subside and my tears wrestled with my eye lids. What moved me most of all was that the film also serves as a fitting tribute to Gene Siskel, who co-hosted the various incarnations of SISKEL & EBERT for over 20 years. Their relationship was complicated and volatile and yet through it all, they shared a deeply seeded love for each other. This is painfully clear in this documentary and Gene's life, while not chronicled, is also celebrated. Two amazing film critics - gone. LIFE ITSELF is an exceptional film and thus far, the best of the festival in my eyes.
When the film faded to black, the credits rolled and the houselights came up I made a B-line to the car park. I was sorely wanting to get home, drink tea and spend the rest of the night with my family. When I got into the elevator the doors closed and a moment later the doors opened again before reaching the car park... and who the fuck should get in? The same guy from earlier. What the hell? Are our paths predestined to cross? Is the universe saying something? I don't believe in that shit but ya never know... and so I handed him my business card and invited him to visit FakeShemp. If you're reading this mate, it was oddly nice to meet you. Lets see if our paths cross again before the festival is up.