Steve James and Life Itself

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I tried to write a review of Life Itself back when it premiered at Sundance but I found it difficult to get past the first few paragraphs. I’m compelled to dust the draft off now that it’s available On Demand and at the Landmark Theatre. Also, this interview with Steve James for the Reader reminded me of what I loved about the film to begin with. Here’s where I left off in January:

I cried like a baby. Both times to the voice of Warner Herzog.

My favorite thing about Life Itself is that it opens a window into Chicago film history and Roger Ebert’s impact on the careers of people who I deeply admire. Others will take away lessons in hubris, bravery and companionship but the trail that Roger blazed and the nurturing creative environment that he left in his wake are what drew me in. Parts of his story provide an example for who I want to be, but the film stops short of washing away his flaws and spends plenty of time on his addiction, pettiness and ego.

You’re probably asking yourself how I’ve seen the film already if it just premiered at Sundance last night. The folks over at Kartemquin thought it would be a cool idea to stream the film to those of us that contributed to their IndieGoGo campaign. It works for me. It’s nice to know that we’re two of only a few hundred that have seen the film. The best part is that we didn’t have to take off work, travel and stand in line for the opportunity, we just had to get aboard the bandwagon before the wheels got turning.

I didn’t grow up paying much attention to film criticism but I knew who Roger and Ebert were. I first learned about their impact on the Chicago film community through the story of Roger’s persistence in making Hoops Dreams an acclaimed documentary by chastising the Academy for overlooking it. It wasn’t until watching Life Itself film that I realized a lot of what I love about the film community here grew out of people who commit to the city over Los Angeles and New York even though they’re walking against the wind.

This sentiment echoes through Steve James’ interview in the Reader. He discusses his experience with Hollywood, making Prefontaine and two other movies but returning to Chicago and documentary because art is something you live with here. The juxtaposition he sets up between control in narrative and documentary suggests that he’s more concerned with maintaining control over his life than what’s on the screen. This courtesy extends to the people in his films, many of which have to live with the consequences of his creative work and a few that won’t have that privilege. The generosity and humility that James shows by mentioning his long time collaborators and sharing screen credits also exemplifies the nurturing spirit of this city and reminds me that those of us fostering Chicago’s Cultural Re:Nuisánce today are simply harvesting fruit from seeds planted decades ago.

As a note to myself, watch The Big Picture and revisit Renoir before the fall semester starts.

15th Anniversary of Hoop Dreams at The Siskel Center
William Gates, Roger Ebert and Arthur Agee via Kartemquin Films

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