Indy Film Talk: Steve James documents "life itself"


Roger Ebert gave Steve James just about the best praise a documentary filmmaker — or any filmmaker — can garner. In his review of James's 1994 film, Hoop Dreams, Ebert wrote: "A film like Hoop Dreams is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself." 

James is coming to Bloomington this weekend, and after his lecture at IU Cinema this afternoon at 3, he'll present his latest film, Life Itself, a portrait to the film critic who gave him such fulsome praise early in his career. Following Ebert from his start at the Chicago Sun-Times through his battle with thyroid cancer, the documentary is a powerful portrait of a thoughtful man who communicated through print and social media after he lost the ability to speak. 

Ebert once said, "The movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us." Ebert lost his battle with cancer, but his voice lives on, and its influence can be heard when reading film critics working today.

Life Itself is screening tonight at 6:30 p.m. At 9:30 p.m., IU Cinema will show James's 2005 documentary, Reel Paradise, which is about another guy who, like Ebert, exposed people to the magic of movies. The film follows legendary indie film rep John Pierson, his wife Janet (now director of the SXSW Film Festival) and two children as they move to the island of Fiji to run its only movie house.

I asked a few local film critics how James's film illuminates their field and what they think Ebert would appreciate about it. 

Bob Bloom, The Lafayette Journal & Courier 

Life Itself illuminates the art of film criticism by displaying not only Roger Ebert's knowledge of movies, but his love and passion for movies, which is, I believe, essential for anyone who aspires to be a film critic. I was impressed by the film not so much because it showed Ebert the critic, but stressed Ebert the individual.

Christopher Lloyd (Co-founder of The Film Yap)

I'm not sure if the movie is so much a compelling exploration of film criticism as it is of a film critic — really two, since Gene Siskel is such a large part of the story. Their tale is about the heyday of journalistic reviewing of movies from the 1960s to the '90s. Ebert's physical decline corresponds roughly with the fall of newspapers and that of arts critics, who were the canaries in the coal mine — first to go, and a warning to others deemed, at least temporarily, more vital to the mission of journalism.

Whereas once any regional paper worth its salt boasted of having a full-time movie critic, there are probably less than three dozen in the U.S. now. Ebert's death, along with this lovely and insightful documentary, serve as the unofficial epitaph on the profession of movie reviewing — or, at least, mark its transition from a craft practiced as vocation by a few to a diversion dabbled in by many moonlighters (such as myself).

I'm not sure Ebert would have seen it as such — in his last years he often spoke warmly of the opportunities afforded by the cabal of Web-based critics. This is, of course, an easy perspective to reach when you're the last man sitting on a mountaintop, unable to inspect the carnage wrought down in the valleys on those brought low. I think Ebert would most appreciate the early sections about his growing up and college career, which itself afforded more opportunities to travel and challenge than most journalists see in a lifetime.

Ben Johnson, The Film Yap

Roger Ebert's career, as presented so marvelously in Life Itself, demonstrated just how much the field of film criticism — and really, mass media in general — has evolved in the last 45 years. Ebert, both with his work at the Chicago Sun-Times and on television with Sneak Previews and At The Movies, was able to lift film criticism out of the broadsheets of New York and Los Angeles and into the living rooms of middle America.

At their height, Siskel and Ebert's thumbs wielded more power in Hollywood than any film critics before or since, as their reviews could help make or break a film at the box office. Even as that power waned as the Internet gave voice to an increasingly loud chorus of opinions, Ebert joined right in as an early adopter of online journalism.

While others might have resented the shrinking spotlight, Ebert was ever the innovator and populist when it came to film. He believed that the magic of film belonged to everyone, and it shows in Life Itself. The film is dramatic, funny, poignant, sentimental, unflinching, sometimes dark, and at all times captivating. Most importantly it was a hell of an entertaining story. For all of those reasons, I think Roger would have loved Life Itself.


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