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From The Dissolve: Rick Perlstein on "Life Itself"

The following conversation between critic Keith Phipps and author Rick Perlstein was originally published in The Dissolve on October 29th, 2014. It is an installment of the site's interview series titled, "The Last Great Movie I Saw," asking "notable film fans to share their thoughts on a movie they recently saw and loved."

The moviegoer: Rick Perlstein, the journalist and historian who’s won great acclaim for his histories of the right wing in the 20th century. Perlstein began exploring the subject with 2001’s Before The Storm: Barry Goldwater And The Unmaking Of The American Consensus and followed it up with 2008’s Nixonland: The Rise Of The President And The Fracturing Of America, both of which find the roots of our current political divisiveness in the recent past. Perlstein’s latest, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall Of Nixon And The Rise Of Reagan, picks up where Nixonland left off. 

The movie: Life Itself,” Chicago documentarian Steve James’ 2014 film about the life of Roger Ebert, made with the great film critic’s cooperation during the last days of his life.

What stands out about this film to you?

A lot. I think, just on the level of content and story and message, I found it profound. The film includes this quote: “We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” Which is amazing itself. I mean that’s what writing and reading is all about and what art is all about. It kind of speaks to his wisdom and generosity, but the whole film is a portrait of this guy, this man, Roger Ebert, and the wisdom he’s been able to achieve. It has this amazing sensibility that’s kind of marked out by that one quote, which is that some parts of our life are given, whether it’s your talents, your preferences, your proclivities, maybe even your ideological proclivities, your body, your parents, your upbringing, your health, and you can’t do anything about that other than make sense of it and accept it. And then some parts of our lives are chosen. In his case, whether to drink or whether not to drink. How to practice his citizenship and his craft. How to treat other people. “Life Itself” is kind of about negotiating those two stark realities of human existence. I’ve never seen that expressed so effectively in a piece of art.

Did you read the book it’s based on?

No. 

It’s quite good, too. It’s a less straightforward autobiography than a collection of essays loosely around the chronology of his life.

And that gets to another thing I find amazing about the movie is that formally, it was really impressive. It was a really impressive piece of storytelling via bricolage by a master at the height of a lifetime of practice. Steve James does a lot of different things: He structures the film according to an interview, this online exchange he has in writing, and kind of structures some of the flashbacks and biographical information around that. And then uses that to think about documentary as a collaborative art. There’s a cinema verité element to it in the classic sense, in the sense that the filmmaker announces “I am making a film, the act of turning on a camera is an event.” One of the early scenes, I think one of the first actual live scenes, is Roger Ebert insisting that he turn the camera at the mirror, which reminded me of the famous last shot of Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool.” There’s a certain point in which he’s kind of losing his steam and makes a demand on Steve James—“This is not only your film.” Any documentary is not only the maker’s film. And just the normal, sort of collage work of documentary-making was just done really well. 

As a historian, I really appreciate archival work, going back into [Ebert’s college newspaper] The Daily Illini, luxuriating over the photographs all over his favorite bar, brilliant use of the outtakes. Watching it the second time with my girlfriend—which is a very profound experience because this is also a great love story, among many other things—I really appreciated how he kind of layered the storytelling and how it snowballs, just keeps kind of picking up layers and layers of meaning. James introduces one of the most famous things about Roger Ebert, the thing most of us would have known about him before he got sick and developed a different kind of public profile, which was this contentious relationship with Gene Siskel, very late in the film, when we’ve already established him as an interesting, flawed character and can enter into what could have been cliché from a perspective of a much richer understanding. And he uses that footage to show a very complex relationship between two grown men. We call ’em frenemies now. And Siskel dies and Siskel’s wife, who was kind of a great on-camera presence, talks about how Roger said he loved him, he had a closer, more loving relationship with him than with any other man. Yet most of the time we see them kind of yelling at each other, resenting each other, and how often do we see that kind of complex, adult relationship rendered that richly and that effectively?

My viewing partner was really struck by the visuals of Roger Ebert’s broken body, the fact that you could literally see through his jaw. I can be a very squeamish person, but it didn’t make me squeamish. James kind of foregrounded the documentarian’s imperative of telling the truth by not flinching from showing something that most people would consider visually disgusting.

How long did you read Ebert? 

I never read him. I didn’t grow up in Chicago, so I didn’t read the Sun-Times, and I didn’t really watch the show. You know, occasionally I’d catch it. If I thought about it, I thought about it as shtick. I think I became aware of him when he got into some early Twitter tussles with right-wingers and he kind of called out the Tea Party and the NRA and received this incredibly sadistic responses which they chose not to deal with. Steve James was very disciplined in not being sensationalist in that way. It’s interesting that he’s not sensationalist in a movie about a guy who doesn’t have a face. That’s kind of amazing. And I think read a profile of him and Chaz in Chicago Magazine and maybe read the Esquire article, but I just kind of became aware of him as a guy who’s practicing the arts of citizenship in a really admirable way. So I had no engagement with him for most of my life.

It’s interesting, then, that you’re kind of coming at this as more of an admirer of the film than an actual fan.

An admirer of him. I knew about him and I’d read about him and I knew what kind of life he had kind of chosen to lead, and what kind of role model he had chosen to be. I think I did have a bit of reverence for him. I mean, I did go to a screening with the late film critic Cliff Doerksen, who used to take me for screenings at various things. We saw “Avatar” and just kind of seeing him walk in, present himself publicly and seeing the kind of reverence around him, I kind of shared in that reverence. I knew he was doing extraordinary work even if I wasn’t really following it. He had that newspaper ethic. There’s a great scene of him at Cannes phoning in the story like he was an early blogger, and someone’s like, oh wait, or a daily journalist. He’s a newspaper man, contrasted to Siskel who, you know, was this philosophy student who got into criticism. A writer writes, and what saved his life was showing up for work every day.

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