Ebert documentary examines 'Life Itself,' and the library ain't afraid of no ghosts

The new documentary “Life Itself” opens with a quote from beloved late film critic Roger Ebert: “The movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us."

For the following two hours, “Life Itself” (opening at the Tivoli Theater in Kansas City and now playing on iTunes and VOD) generates not only empathy, but admiration for the man who exposed so many unknown films and filmmakers to the world at large.

The movie was directed by one of those filmmakers — Steve James — whose remarkable 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams” became a hit almost solely on the recommendation of Ebert and his former onscreen reviewing partner, Gene Siskel.

Adapting Ebert’s 2011 memoir, James juggles multiple facets of Ebert’s life — his formative years as a journalist, his early alcoholism, his complicated relationship/rivalry with Siskel, his marriage, and his effect on the movie industry in general. All of these stories are framed within the bigger story from which the film (and book) derives its title. Like the book, “Life Itself” achieves a quiet peace about the specter of death.

Interspersed with footage shot from Ebert’s hospital room, where he spent a lot of time fighting thyroid and salivary gland cancer — and multiple surgeries that left him without a lower jaw — the movie documents not only Ebert’s courage in his final years, but also his eventual acceptance that his life was winding down.

James narrates the film, and punctuates it with revealing email Q&As that slowly become more difficult for the normally enthusiastic writer to respond to. This framing device gives the entire movie a reflective tone and makes Ebert’s story even more poignant.

I think Ebert would be proud of the even-handed treatment he’s given as a movie character. While “Life Itself” makes clear the influence Ebert had on generations of filmgoers, writers and thinkers (myself included), it also spotlights his irascible side.

His and Siskel’s passion for film and obsession with being “correct” led to petty arguments (many of them hilarious, caught in outtakes from their TV shows). And although Ebert says that his blog (which contained some of his most open-hearted writing) became his voice after losing the ability to speak, his frustration often swells at the state of his health, and James doesn’t shy away from tense moments.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkwVz_jK3gA

Besides being an invaluable primer on the life of a man who was omnipresent in any discussion about movies for over 40 years, “Life Itself” has a surprising amount of raw emotion. There’s no doubt that to achieve that, James had to sacrifice more in-depth examination of Ebert’s most cherished written content (he was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize), but the resulting film is more cinematic for it.

Plato says that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and this touching documentary makes a powerful statement about a rich life lived at the movies, examining life.

Dinner and a Movie

“Dinner and a Movie” is a free movie series that’s taking place on the lawn of the new Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St., on Saturday, July 26, and Thursday, Aug. 7, and it’s a great Lawrence tradition. There’s nothing quite like spending a relaxing night out with your community, enjoying a film together.

The screwball sci-fi comedy “Ghostbusters,” which still holds up 30 years after its release, shows next Saturday, while the live-action/animated mashup “Space Jam,” starring Michael Jordan and classic "Looney Tunes" characters, shows Aug. 7.

The movies start after 9 p.m., but the “dinner” portion of the evening starts at 7 p.m. with free popcorn and local food vendors — or you can bring a blanket and some food from home and make your own dinner picnic. Before the movies begin, there’s also live entertainment and prize giveaways from local businesses.

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