Wednesday, 9 July 2014

REVIEW - LIFE ITSELF (STEVE JAMES)


A retrospective of a life that was not only about the movies but was practically made for the movies. Roger Ebert was writing, directing and starring in the movie of his life for most of 71 years before he died in 2013, yet the movie Steve James has made about it is more his creation than Ebert's. His interpretation of an existence is the best we're gonna get on film, though the Pulitzer Prize winning subject of these two hours has already delivered his own, with the autobiography that shares a title with this film. There's a sense that James didn't know quite how to make use of Ebert's contribution, as though possibly starstruck with the opportunity to make this film or daunted by all that Ebert had done to fashion it long before it was even a possibility. One suspects his ego would have been satisfied with the result, and perhaps his great appreciation for art, specifically that of a humanistic bent. If that's the premier thing of idiosyncratic value that James brings to Life Itself, it's far from impressive, but certainly appropriate. The closer he gets to his subject, the more vivid the impression - photo montages and interviews with old friends are the stuff of dull tributes, whereas footage of this most inspired of film writers on TV, or readings of his articles can't help but have the vibrancy that he brought to the profession of film criticism. James rockets through much of his life with a slight disregard for strict chronology before settling upon his career in cinema, which, aside a number of welcome contemporary scenes, makes up the bulk of the movie. It has the natural pace that James strives for elsewhere, but doesn't quite achieve. But, with Ebert's death occurring during production, Life Itself automatically took on a responsibility as memorial as much as biopic, and so it is fitting that James' voice is not the most prominent here. It's Roger Ebert who is the indisputable star of this show, all by himself, just as he would have wanted.