And their handling of the Siskel material is masterful. It’s not just that they get the easy laughs of using those hilarious promo outtakes that have been making the YouTube rounds for years; through conversations with those close to both men, the film perceptively gets to the root of their competitiveness, of their resentments, and how they escalated. Yet James and Simpson still understand how the duo had a reluctant admiration, respect, and (ultimately) love for each other.
That final point becomes clearest in the passages dealing with Siskel’s terminal illness — which he chose to keep secret from all but those closest to him, a circle that (to his eventual disappointment) did not include Ebert. That experience, we’re told, greatly influenced Ebert’s decision to fight his illness in such a public way. And that decision, in turn, influenced how he lived those last few years of his life, and even how he participated in this film.
Director Steve James. PHOTO CREDIT: Jason Bailey/ Flavorwire
“When we started,” James explained at yesterday’s Sundance screening, “I thought that what I was gonna be capturing in the present was just how vital and active he still is, despite all he’s been through. Right before we were gonna start filming, he was still going to screenings, he was throwing dinner parties — we had all this planned.” But then, just a couple of days before they were to begin, Ebert went into the hospital due to pain from an unexplained hairline fracture. “In the entire four months that we filmed him, in those last four months of his life, he was only out of a hospital or rehab situation for two days. So the film became different in that way. It’s still, in my view, about how vital he is. But it’s also about a man dying. And a man making peace with that.”
Ebert was not one for modesty or vanity; James’ camera captures the difficulties of his day-to-day existence, from simply getting around to non-verbal communication to the insertion of his suction tube. But Life Itself is not just some grim account of a dying man’s final days. His interactions with his loving wife and step-grandchildren are heartwarming. The tributes from artists like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog (“He reinforces my courage”) are genuine. And even off-screen, the love for his work and power of his influence can be felt throughout Park City, as the countless film lovers and film writers he inspired are seeing Life Itself, and finding themselves moved by it. According to James, Chaz’s only real regret about the project is a simple one: “That Roger’s not here to see it, and be a part of this.”
Life Itself screens this week at the Sundance Film Festival.