First of all, there was no Steak and Shake anywhere in the building. Instead, last night’s special presentation of Steve James’ Roger Ebert-centric documentary, Life Itself, was partially put on by Piper-Heidsieck champagne (the high class bubbly maker has long been interested in film events, and are currently in the midst of celebrating their twentieth year of sponsoring the Cannes Film Festival) and pre-show bites were of the finger food variety, not of the juicy (and well-priced) burger and fry type. Ebert’s famously favorite food may have been absent from last night’s event, but Ebert himself was everywhere – and when his own wife Chaz Ebert spoke later in the evening about feeling his presence everywhere, it was hard to argue with the sentiment. While we may have just watched the final days of the revered film critic play out on the big screen, Ebert really was everywhere – and especially there.
James’ documentary about Ebert is loosely structured around the critic’s own biography of the same name, termed a “companion piece” by one audience member, and it flips almost seamlessly between the various spheres of history and memory and Ebert’s life after his various health battles began in the early aughts. Even though James joked early on that his plan was to “rip off the memoir,” he soon found that the project was something else – “a real act of discovery” that relied on his ability (and Ebert’s interest) in being candid and honest in the present.
Like any film about a beloved public figure that has since passed on, Life Itself is tinged with an inescapable, almost crushing sense of sadness, simply because we know how it’s all going to end. The trick of Life Itself, of course, is that in between tear-stained bits, it’s very funny, very charming, and fully life affirming in a way that often feels impossible to pull off without massive amounts of cheese.
Our own Chris Campbell reviewed the film out of Sundance over at Nonfics, where he gave James’ production a glowing review, five stars out of five stars, and penned a pretty comprehensive take on what the film itself accomplishes. It’s worth it own read, but for anyone needing a quick cut, his official summary tells it thusly: “A perfect biographical documentary, possibly one of the classics, this is a lovingly and brutally honest portrait of a famous film critic in the final days of his life. I sincerely can’t think of any way that it could have been better.”
Last night’s special screening of the film was held at New York City’s own Paley Center for Media in midtown Manhattan, a fitting locale for such an event, and done in conjunction with both the tasty Piper-Heidsieck beverages and the city’s own Rooftop Films. The audience was a mixed bag of film fans and Ebert aficionados – Paley patrons, film critics, Rooftop members, and even actual talking heads from the film itself (New York Times film critic A.O. Scott both appeared in the film and helped steer a post-screening Q&A round) – and no one, it seemed, had shown up during the snow-blown night just for some free champagne. This was a bit of a love affair, in the most literal of senses – an affair actually centered on admiration and respect, not finger food (though, yes, there was a bin of cheesy breadsticks that could have lured in anyone).
After the screening (one that I will admit, I sniffled my way through), James took the stage alongside Scott, Mrs. Ebert, and filmmaker Ramin Bahrani (who was featured in the doc alongside other filmmakers who feel indebted, both personally and professionally, to Ebert, a solid list that also includes Martin Scorsese and Ava DuVernay) for a half an hour of chatter, memory-sharing, and basic Q&A.
It was an intelligent and affectionate conversation, and one that was occasionally punctuated by Mrs. Ebert’s own emotions. She somewhat tearfully shared that the film is still hard for her to see the film, saying, “it’s hard for me to watch the movie. It’s really beautiful, but it’s hard to watch, especially toward the end, because until I hear the music in the movie, sometimes I think he’s still here…I can feel him all the time, feel his presence, and I know he would be so happy.”
The chat did get otherwise emotional, however, particularly when Mrs. Ebert shared that her husband had once told her, “if you ever do a movie where you need someone to play me, I want Philip Seymour Hoffman.” Given the recent passing of Hoffman, and Mrs. Ebert’s additional mention of just missing seeing the actor at last month’s Sundance Film Festival, it was a deeply bittersweet moment during an already bittersweet event.
Yet, for all the tears and wrenching moments, Life Itself is a film about, well, life itself, and an uplifting and warming one at that. Towards the end of his life, Ebert reminded James, via email, “this is not only your film.” Instead, Life Itself is a film for everyone.