Life Itself - DVD Review

'James makes a portrait. The fact it is of a film critic - some would say an artist - is almost by the by.'

During the last few years of his life, Roger Ebert became one of still quite few professional writers to properly get to grips with blogging (Neil Gaiman being another notable exception). His updates - on his condition, films; life itself - were compelling and, like Gaiman, innocently, almost distressingly normal. It showed something film criticism (his or anyone else's) perhaps sometimes lacks; connection, empathy and more. I feel ill-qualified to assess Ebert's film criticism. The man has a Pulitzer, his TV show with Gene Siskel was never really a UK thing and those closer and more informed on his work can provide analysis there.

Steve James' documentary, Life Itself, whilst not here to necessarily provide that analysis, does feel like it does a good job in providing the summary for Ebert's life; not quite the footnote or the epilogue, but at least a solid two hour compendium. It is long but manages to be breezy, deep but does not forget the lighter moments, insightful but transparent of views when it needs to be. It is perhaps telling that, come the end of it, you do not feel the need to assess Roger Ebert's criticism. James makes a portrait. The fact it is of a film critic - some would say an artist - is almost by the by.

That said, you suspect that Ebert would be delighted with the fact that James manages some level of commentary on films, critics and their relationship. The Siskel and Ebert television show is almost dismissed as a piece of 'populist' entertainment, rather than the serious work Ebert did for the The Sun Times. Ebert's relationship with certain film-makers is shown as both potentially problematic and as a source of inspiration to the directors and talents discussed. Werner Herzog is here, citing Ebert as a major influence.

This is not, however, a puff piece. Despite James' links to Ebert and Chicago, he does not omit the bad, nor the occasionally farcical. Ebert and Siskel's squabbles, shown here in unaired parts of their show, are petty to say the least, often pompous and damaging to both. His early career as a writer is characterised, yes, by talent and authority, but also by alcoholism and a string of friends ready to point out Ebert's flaws. Perhaps most criminally, there's a poster of Speed 2 with two thumbs up on it.

But Ebert's talent and oft-displayed insight is here in abundance. It didn't matter if he was writing on film or on cancer; Ebert could see things and communicate them with clarity and flourish. Perhaps the greatest praise you can lay at James' feet is to say that his film does the same.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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