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Life Unspooled: On Watching "Life Itself" in the Middle of Polish Winter

"Life Itself"

It's 5,423 miles between Park City, Utah, and Warsaw, the capital of Poland where I'm currently crashing on my dear friend's couch (before I find an affordable place to stay). There was no way I could travel to Sundance this year (even though I enjoyed covering it for this site in 2013), but I nevertheless felt like I was there on the night of 19 January, when Steve James' "Life Itself" premiered at the festival. As a contributor to the Indiegogo campaign supporting the film, I was one of more than a thousand backers granted an access to an exclusive live-stream, which allowed me to watch the movie simultaneously with the opening night audience. It proved to be an unforgettable experience.

Because of the time difference, I needed to stay up till the middle of the night in order to access the stream. Not that I minded. I made myself some tea, wrapped myself in a blanket, curled up on my couch and placed my laptop on a night table. I didn't want to wake up my hostess, so I moved away from the door leading to her room and hooked up my headphones to the computer. After an initial glitch while logging in, the film started and I found myself entranced. There it was: Roger's life unspooling (as it were) on the very same device I used to keep my correspondence with him. No wires were attached and memories started brewing.

As I already wrote in my Press Play rememberance of Roger, the very first time I gained access to his reviews was in Poland in late 1990s, thanks to a CD-ROM named "Cinemania '97", brought by my Dad from a business trip. Thus, the very experience of Roger is invariably linked in my mind with the idea of a computer. Had it not been for the World Wide Web, I would have never shaken the hand of my mentor at EbertFest 2012, much less publish a single piece on the site he created.

Like many of friends and contemporaries, I owe my career as a bilingual critic to the Internet revolution of the last 15 years, of which Roger had been such an ardent enthusiast and purveyor. By late 2006, I still haven't written a single review in English—it was my first trip to the United States in 2007 that made me discover the amazing richness of online cinephile culture, which I immediately wanted to contribute to. It was around the same time that I unwittingly started the six-degrees-of-separation chain that led me from a relaxed movie chat with my Kraków-based American friend John Surface (January 2007) to receiving my first E-mail from Roger (January 2012). The entire story is too long to recount here; suffice to say that It took five years of trying (as well as innumerable hours of honing my English skills) to bring me to a place in my life when I was working with the greatest mentor I could ever wish for. Five years is nothing given the metaphorical distance I traveled—just like those 5,423 miles are easy to bypass if you happen to have internet access. On line, there truly is a way if there is a will.

Among a myriad things "Life Itself" does (and it has to be said the movie works remarkably well on multiple levels, not least as a love story between Roger and Chaz and the love/hate story between him and Gene Siskel), it reveals just how open Roger was to new people and new ideas. It's no coincidence that he was the first one to embrace both TV and the internet as natural environments for film criticism—he didn't see any reason for the field to shut itself off from the widest possible audience. It may well be that Roger's greatest passion was for human contact: for sharing, giving and engaging with others (as his famous Movie Answer Man interactions always testified to.) Unlike some other great movie critics, he genuinely gave you the impression of a regular guy turning to you from his seat and striking up a conversation about the movie you just saw: "So, what did you think…?". His revolutionary approach made it possible for the seats to be located on the opposite ends of the world—without making the conversation any less real and heartfelt.

If anything, watching the movie an ocean, two continents and a couple of time zones away from Utah made me reflect on the uncanny quickness with which Roger kept responding to his contributors' E-mails. His health might have been rapidly declining, but even a relative rookie like myself (new to the site, not born into the language) could always count on full and continuous support at all times—there wasn't a piece that went up without an appreciative line dropped into my mailbox and/or a combo of the signature Twitter/Facebook posts, invariably shared with the contributors in a pithy, enthusiastic E-mail (titled simply "Facebooked!"). What "Life Itself" made me realize is that all those encouraging and optimistic E-mails were coming from an all-too-real hospital bed and were painstakingly woven into a routine that involved a great amout of pain (the repeated shots of tubes being forced into Roger's throat convey only a part of what had to go through every single day in order to function).

In his great, Roger-supported "Hoop Dreams", Steve James made us witness lives unfolding in all their unpredictability—the gripping beauty of that movie lied in the succession of twists and turns that felt at once unexpected and completely familiar. "Life Itself" deals both with life unfolding and its coming to a close. The scenes of multiple tributes paid to Roger (my own Polish obituary included, a tiny brick in a world-wide wall of mourning) are both heartbreaking and uplifting.

As the stream ended and I folded my laptop shut, snow was falling outside and the military base my temporary room oversees was as quiet as ever. A few soldiers kept their usual night watch and the last thing I saw before falling asleep was an early morning shift taking over from the guys who stood their ground erect for the past couple of hours. The sky was clear and filled with stars, and I smiled at the notion of Roger having a movie chat with God—two great star dispensers arguing over, say, "American Hustle". ("You object to Amy Adams' cleavage? C'mon, you created it!") I had to wake up at 7 AM to make to my morning class, so I made myself fall asleep. I was both here and there, in Poland and at Sundance, realizing that if that greatest, defining dream of my life (to live and teach in the United States, close to my better half and still contributing to Polish-American relations) ever comes true, it will be thanks to the faith Roger had in me and to the support he offered without asking for anything in return. "Life Itself" testifies to a life well-lived—as well as one that keeps on bearing fruit.

Michał Oleszczyk

Michał Oleszczyk is a film critic and scholar based in Poland. In 2012, he has been named the Critic of the Year by the Polish Film Institute.

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