A Life Journey Shaped by Optimism: Life Itself, selected by Kevin B. Lee

  • Datum 30-01-2015
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Full disclosure: I appear in Life Itself, around the 104th minute, identified as a contributor to Roger Ebert’s website. I also worked on Ebert’s television show in its final season. So in some respects it is impossible for me to offer an "objective" critical view of this film, which attempts to tell the story of Ebert’s storied life and career in a way that most people can relate to. In some way it aspires to the same personalized, populist spirit by which Ebert delivered his opinions on film, touching millions of people around the world.

When Roger Ebert died in 2013, he left behind an extraordinarily prolific body of work: thousands of film reviews, dozens of books, and hundreds of hours of reviews delivered on his weekly television show, much of which can be found online. The film distills this overabundant material and infuses it within a remarkable life journey, shaped by the optimism and cultural idealism of the 1960s, the workaholic ethos of the once-mighty newspaper industry during the peak of its power, and the boom of movies as home video rentals in the 80s, which summoned an expert to visit people’s televisions and offer opinions for what movies to put on the same screen.

These conditions are all now a thing of the past, commemorated by this film that stimulates sweet feelings of nostalgia and mourning for both a life and a time gone by. Since this is the opening film for a series devoted to showcasing the work of film critics, are we thus mourning the decline of film criticism through this movie? This feeling was reflected by many reviewers of the film in the United States who seemed as wistful about the "glory days" of their profession as much as Ebert’s life. But I insist otherwise.

From Life Itself, I hope we can understand why there will never be another Roger Ebert: not just because he was one of a kind, but also because the kind of world and movie culture in which he lived and thrived no longer exists. Ebert himself realized this, which was partly why he devoted more and more time to his website as his television show declined in the ratings. What does the future hold for those inspired to follow his example? To know the answer requires paying close attention to the evolving role of movies in our world, and in our lives themselves.

Kevin B. Lee (foto: André Bakker)Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, film critic and producer of over 200 video essays exploring film and media. His award-winning video Transformers: The Premake was named one of the best documentaries of 2014 by Sight & Sound Magazine, and selected for the Berlinale Film Festival Critics Week, International Film Festival Rotterdam and Viennale International Film Festival. He is Founding Editor and Chief Video Essayist at Fandor and founding partner of dGenerate Films (a distribution company for independent Chinese cinema). He was supervising producer at Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies, and has written for The New York Times, Sight & Sound, Slate and Indiewire. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Film Video New Media and Animation and an MA in Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Video Essay: A Chorus to the Love of Film

In 2012 the magazine Sight & Sound conducted the latest edition of its famous international critics’ poll of the greatest films of all time. I first encountered this poll through Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion, the first film book I ever owned. In that book, Ebert wrote about the films from his top ten ballot in the 1982 version of the poll. His words played those movies in my mind long before I had a chance to see them. Through working with Ebert, I came to know several of his contributing writers from around the world that he had met online or in his festival travels. Ebert cared deeply about the universal power of the movies, and was humbled that people from different cultures and backgrounds could find value in his words. I produced this video with the participation of 19 of his contributors, using 10 different languages to read his thoughts on his most favorite films. Ebert gave this response to the video: "The gift of a lifetime. Ever so much better than a ’tribute’ in which we hear words of praise, it centers on film. An international chorus to the love of film."

The Sight and Sound Film Poll: An International Tribute to Roger Ebert and His Favorite Films from Press Play Video Blog on Vimeo.