Roger Ebert and Steve James Define and Transcend the Documentary Form in ‘Life Itself’

The insights of the late, great Roger Ebert shed light on how documentaries fit in the film world, as well as the myopic processes of Oscar voting.

“There are basically two kinds of documentaries,” wrote Roger Ebert, “Those about events that have already happened, and those about events that happen as the film is being made.” At the time, in 1995, he was dissecting the seemingly inexplicable omission of Hoop Dreams from the list of Oscar nominees for best documentary, arguing that Steve James’ remarkable achievement had been snubbed because “old-fashioned” voters weren’t open to the possibilities of vérité.

Ebert’s conception of the vote as a reflection not only of the usual fallback, “quality”, but of the voters’ capacities, understandings, and experiences, was helpful then. His distinction suggests the ways taste and evaluation intersect in this wholly subjective contest, but also for its self-assessment, as Ebert was, of course, a thoughtful and respected evaluator of films and his relationships to them. His observation might be helpful now again, as, 20 years later, another James film, this one about and made in collaboration with Ebert, has been left off the Oscar nominees list.

Life Itself‘s omission has led to public consternation and upset, as have other “snubs”, the favored term in such discussions. While most complaints (see the complaints at #OscarsSoWhite on social media) have noted the absence of diversity in nominees, efforts of analysis have looked again at the homogenous makeup of Academy voters, that is, its daunting percentages of white, male, old voters. This explanation, however, doesn’t necessarily help with Life Itself, a film that might appeal to that very demographic, at least at the most superficial of levels.

Oscar judgments are not a superficial business; they involve politics and campaigns, loyalties and grudges. In fact, the nominees for best documentary are more diverse than those in other categories, if you consider that of the five, two were directed by women (Laura Poitras and Rory Kennedy), one focused on oil and corruption in Congo), and one focused on a woman (Finding Vivian Mayer). This reflects well on the Oscars’ documentary contingent, but still, the vote — or the possibilities of the vote — might bear rethinking.

For one thing, in the Oscars and elsewhere, documentaries might be considered as “films”, and not their own separate category. (Early buzzers for the 2015 Oscars hoped that Citizenfour might be a first documentary to be nominated in the Best Picture category). For another, documentaries, their makers, and their subjects might be considered beyond the single category, for recognitions such as Best Cinematography, Best Directing, Best Sound Editing, and even for the performance awards. Granted, that last category might bring on yet another debate about what is “real” or “not” in documentaries; that being said, how else could one appreciate Brandy Burre’s remarkable work in 2014’s Actress?

In rethinking documentaries, or more precisely, in rethinking how to assess and appreciate them, Ebert’s observation on “kinds” remains helpful. Consider that in the 20 years since he published “Anatomy of a Snub”, the field has embraced all manner of new and other “kinds”, offshoots and hybrids, innovative structures and hard-to-categorize topics and arguments. The community is at once close and broad; programmers, makers, and critics collaborate more than they compete — though of course, money dictates competitions. Even when festivals are diverse, they are sometimes still limiting: if you or your film is typed as “queer”, “black”, or “environmental”, it can be difficult to break into other settings and be seen by other audiences. Still, there will always be enthusiastic supporters who love good stories, even if these stories present unusual subjects, shapes or points. Documentaries can be conventional and fit a particular set of expectations or a venue, but they can also be weird and troubling and stunningly original. All are welcome.

All of which leads back to Life Itself. James’ documentary is a film that invites emotional, intellectual and political engagements. It addresses viewers insistently. It looks back and forward at once. It is not, in fact, one or the other of the two kinds Ebert identified, but both at once and more than either category could allow. The film tells the story of his life and career but also follows him now, a now that turned out, contrary to the makers’ expectations, to be all too brief. Above all, it is simultaneously a splendid collaboration and a story about that collaboration.

This much is clear in the first few minutes of the movie. “Steve,” says Ebert, smiling in his hospital bed, “Shoot yourself in the mirror.” Just so, Ebert’s direction of Life Itself becomes its substance and shape, along with James’. The director duly does as he’s directed, turning the camera into the hospital room mirror, so that you see him with camera on shoulder. It’s funny, sweet, and part of the process Roger sets in motion here: a series of mutual decisions, some including bits of debate concerning the movie, how it will show Ebert’s experience, the movies he loves, and the people who love him.

This idea, complicated and intriguing, changes almost immediately, as Ebert’s declining health precludes the plan to follow him at work. With this unfortunate turn for the worst, James focuses on Ebert’s experience as a patient, pummeled by his head and neck cancers and the treatments for them. Anyone who has been through cancer, as a patient or a caregiver, might comprehend the struggle of sharing that experience, and most of us would not share it so widely as Ebert and his wife Chaz, who becomes the third crucial term in the documentary. She not only talks to Steve, Roger, and the camera; she also works through choices about what to record, what to edit, and what to reveal. That this working through becomes the film’s primary subject, the scaffolding for the representations of movies and a long, rich, complex life, makes Life Itself extraordinary, a model of how to show and tell a story of process.

This process is alternately frightening and heartening, frustrating and gratifying. This combination owes to Ebert’s courage and good humor, as well as his trust in his director, and vice versa. The two men share a love of movies and storytelling, obviously, as well as a personal and professional history. Ebert relentlessly championed James’ documentaries, most of which have deserved Oscar nominations, namely Hoop Dreams, Stevie, At the Death House Door, No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, and the superb The Interrupters. Ebert and James here also share an interest in how best to tell this story, a subject they discuss even as it unfolds before them.

It’s this aspect of Life Itself that ends up being especially memorable, whether it’s a discussion of how Ebert and his on-TV partner Gene Siskel shared a prickly, vibrant relationship for years, how he and Chaz met at AA, how to think about celebrity, how critics might be friends (or not) with the filmmakers they critique. They also, all three, talk about what to show of Roger’s dying. During one scene in the hospital, Ebert laments the loss of his capacity to taste and the hardship of swallowing and sometimes breathing that derives from the daily, endless labor of living with a tracheal tube. It means that Ebert cannot drink, which he once did to excess; he became totally sober after 1979, and was unable to drink even water following 2006. James assumes he’ll turn the camera off when the nurse arrives to do suction on the tube. Ebert insists his director shoot the process, and, James reports, “By the time I got home, I had an email waiting for me: ‘I’m glad we got a great thing that nobody ever sees. Suction. Cheers, R.'”

The message appears on screen, subject-headed: “great stuff!!!!!” It is and is not. The life-sustaining ritual of suction is part of living with this sort of cancer (and other debilitations), at once horrifying, routine, and strangely fascinating. Disclosing it in Ebert and for the film he’s making with James and Chaz is both generous and bracing; Ebert treats it as a sign of the film’s truth, which is to say, his own truth. Truth isn’t singular, it isn’t objective, it is ever in progress. And for Ebert, documenting these painful moments is a way to be honest, to use film to expose experience and to move viewers. He held to this standard of assessment throughout his career, celebrated what was moving, even if silly or less than brilliant, taking to task art that might have been less than committed, artists whose work might have been disappointing or careless.

Ebert’s own commitment, his excitement about movies, as a part and form of life itself, is legendary. Life Itself remembers all of that. Ebert’s participation, his particular relationships with Chaz and Steve James, help to make this a film that doesn’t fit the usual “kinds” of documentaries or even films more generally. And that’s exactly the sort of art, work, ambition, and achievement that bodies voting on nominations and awards might do well to honor. Looking forward, seeing and revealing more: the processes can be thrilling, and the means to gauge and share them can be smarter.

Editor’s note: Life Itself airs again on CNN on 25 January.

RATING 10 / 10
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