Steve James: Life Itself

”It would be a major lapse to have a documentary that doesn’t contain the full reality. I wouldn’t want to be associated. This is not only your film”, legendary film critic Roger Ebert e-mails to Steve James during his making of the film that carries the title of Ebert’s memoirs and is shot during the last months of his life.

Indeed, the film contains the full reality – in an interview at Indiewire, James says: ” With that first shot you see of him in the present part of the story – I purposedly wanted to use a shot where he’s asleep and you can see through his jaw, through the bandage, and it’s kind of a sobering shot”. It is quite shocking to watch before you get Ebert’s incredible appetite on Life, his work on the MacBook with a voice synthesizer, his conversations with his wife Chaz, his efforts to rehabilitate, on the background of the many operations he has gone through due to his cancer.

James has made a very rich film. It includes the biography of Ebert, his way into film criticism, his loyalty to his newspaper Chicago Sun-Times after he received many attractive offers when  receiving the Pulitzer Prize – with quotes from his book as the narrative backbone and with many interviews with close friends and with filmmakers, who adores him like Scorcese, Morris and Werner Herzog, who with his special accent calls him ”a soldier of Cinema”!

What I enjoyed mostly, however, was the story of the love/hate relationship between the two critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel (PHOTO), who ran a tv show together, firstly ”Sneak Preview” and later ”At the Movies”. The clips from the show and the rehearsals are hilarious, Siskel being the one who was part of the jet-set around Hugh Hefner, far away from the social environment of Ebert. The clips show often an Ebert getting more and more irritated over Siskel’s approach and judgements. Wonderful sequences from a tv show that in the beginning was only for Chicago but became a huge success in all USA. Ebert was called a mainstream reviewer (contrary to the intellectual Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris) but the truth is that if anyone he brought non-Hollywood independent films, including documentaries, to the attention of the audience – pleases me, as an example, to see his enthusiasm of the 7Up-series after he had watched the 56Up part at the hospital, if I got it right.

I saw the film on Netflix with Danish subtitles, you can find dvd’s and blueray’s – and IMPORTANT you can read reviews by Ebert (from 1967!) on the website that carries his name, link below.  

USA, 2014, 2 hours



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Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

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