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Roger Ebert Has The Last Word In 'Life Itself'

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 7, 2014 3:00PM

Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures

There's a scene at the midway point of "Life Itself," the highly anticipated documentary about Roger Ebert, where the late Chicago Sun-Times film critic discovers tumors on his spine were responsible for the micro-fractures in his right hip. Ebert relays this news to the film's director, Steve James, along with some initial hesitance to reveal it for the film, at the risk of angering Ebert's loyal and devoted wife Chaz.

"This is not only your film," Ebert writes, letting James know matter-of-factly that the truth must be revealed or else it would adversely impact the film. The scene shifts to the hospital room where the Eberts discuss the discovery of the tumors and Ebert says doctors give him six to 16 months to live, Chaz at his side.

Ebert would die four months later.

That race against time informs much of "Life Itself." James, one of the most empathetic documentary filmmakers in America, films Ebert's recovery in stark, honest detail, resisting the urge to add gloss throughout as Ebert displays the frustrations of trying to climb a flight of stairs during a rehab session, connect speakers to his laptop computer, and especially the pain in Ebert's face as a nurse inserts a tube into the space where his jaw used to be to provide suction. (Ebert, in an email to James after one suction session, writes, "I'm happy we got a great thing that nobody ever sees.")

The harrowing footage of Ebert in the hospital stands in stark contrast to the file footage James uses to tell the story of Ebert's personal journey from Urbana, Illinois to Chicago, where he became the youngest film critic in the country and later won a Pulitzer Prize for his work. The film also details Ebert's personal struggle with alcoholism (he would sober up in August 1979); his personal and professional rivalry with Gene Siskel and how the pair became so influential that movie studios and fellow critics hated and feared them alike; and personal testimonials from filmmakers ranging from Errol Morris, Martin Scorsese (one of the producers of "Life Itself"), and Werner Herzog, who calls Ebert "a soldier of cinema ... he reinforces my courage."

Throughout the film Chaz Ebert is at her husband's side: ready for any contingency, never wavering in her love. Chaz Ebert tells James of how they first met at an AA meeting and that she was attracted early in their relationship to his confidence. "He was 300 pounds when we first started dating," she says."He didn't care that he was fat and that was so sexy."

The stock photo and video footage is given extra gravitas with narration from the autobiography from which the film gets its name by voice actor Stephen Stanton. Stanton eerily mimics Ebert's voice; close your eyes and you'll almost mistake Stanton for Ebert.

I'll argue Ebert found his pure voice once his health issues began, how he took to his keyboard and wrote with purpose, wasting few words, utilizing social media and modern technology in a way we want all generations to embrace.

Groucho Marx once said, "I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn't arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I'm going to be happy in it." Roger Ebert, more than anyone, lived ethos to the letter. "Life Itself" serves as a fitting postmortem for a man who didn't blink when faced with his own mortality.

"Life Itself" is now in wide release across the country and is available on demand, on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu and Redbox Instant.