Life Itself, as it turns out, is about death -- the slow, sad, yet still uplifting fade of the great film critic Roger Ebert a little more than a year ago. It does not seem to have been intended that way, though with Ebert's failing health over the last decade of his life -- he suffered from thyroid and salivary cancer, eventually losing his lower jaw and the ability to speak or eat -- perhaps there was an overwhelming sense on his part that he ought to get this movie made.
The documentary, directed by Steve James, whose career was given a major boost by Ebert's vocal support of his 1994 doc Hoop Dreams, is a companion piece to Ebert's memoir of same name, which was published in 2011. In the end, it serves as a heartbreaking, beautiful epilogue to that terrific book.
It pulls out some of the best parts of the memoir for those who haven't read it and enhances other parts for those who have. It chronicles his tempestuous relationship with fellow critic Gene Siskel through interviews with Siskel's wife and outtakes from their long-running TV show. It details his work on the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (yes, he was more than a critic). And it dives deeper in to his family life, using old pictures to tell the story of his upbringing in Champaign, Ill., and probing, personal interviews and home movies with his wife Chaz and his stepchildren and step-grandchildren to show how he suddenly became a warm, beloved family man at age 50.
But all of this accounts for less than half of the film. Much of the rest of it is an unflinching look at Ebert's life as it was lived in his last few painful months -- cancer returning to an already ravaged body, one that uttered its last words and consumed its last real meal years ago. This is what sickness and ultimately mortality looks like.
There are antiseptic hospital rooms and feeding tubes and arduous, make-it-all-stop hours in rehabilitation. There is what remained of Ebert's jaw -- just hanging there hauntingly, the bandages around his neck showing through where a toothier, more complete smile ought to be.
It is difficult to watch, until Ebert or his wife Chaz speak or smile -- really until they do pretty much anything. And then everything feels all right again, maybe more than all right. Despite the hospital visits and cycles of surgery and rehab, there is Roger's cutting sense of humor (realized through a computerized voice) and a determination to keep going, one that is buoyed by his seemingly unflappable wife Chaz and his will to keep writing, about movies or life or anything really.
Unless you believe in reincarnation, you only get one life here, and there is no way that it will ever be long enough. Even for Roger Ebert -- someone who made such a profound impact on the vast world around him -- there isn't enough time to do everything you want to do. For a film (and a memoir) that is about as honest and as personal as it gets, this is the most genuine lesson of all. The inevitability of death means you are doomed to fall short in some ways.
And yet, in others, you can succeed beyond your wildest imagination. That, too, is the lesson Ebert imparts. Live life honestly and fully and without beating yourself up over your regrets, and your impact will be immeasurable and everlasting. A life well-lived is one where many, many people wish they could have just a few more moments with you, whether through Twitter or a movie review or a gut-wrenching documentary. I'd say Ebert's was well-lived indeed.