Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

12 July 2014

Life Itself

Roger Ebert is one of those rare public figures that i wish i'd had a chance to meet. Whenever i would read one of his reviews i would feel almost as though i did know him, as though we'd just watched the movie together and were discussing it over a cup of coffee afterward. That's the kind of writer he was: personal, clear, entertaining, insightful.

There was so much about him that i admired: not just his wonderful reviews, but also his absolute and democratic love of movies, his openness about his alcoholism, his refusal to accept defeat when confronted with a level of illness that would send most of us into utter despair. And yet, i was a bit hesitant about seeing Steve James's documentary Life Itself. I was a little afraid that it would be a simple praise-piece. How could it be otherwise? After all, Roger had died just over a year ago after a very public struggle with an especially virulent form of cancer; and, although it is a cliche to describe someone's struggle with cancer as "brave," Roger Ebert had been brave, incomparably brave in confronting his illness, and in remaining in the public eye after surgery had drastically changed his appearance. And he'd been both brilliant in his embrace of new technologies that gave him a way of continuing to share his thoughts on the movies and generous in providing a forum for young critics to reach a wider audience and continue the work he had begun.

Of course, i should have known that Steve James would not direct a puff-piece, that like his classic, Hoop Dreams (1994), this would be a complex picture of a man who could be an avuncular movie reviewer or a competitive pain in the ass. Life Itself is a loving look into the life of this man whom, on one level, we all knew so well. Perhaps because i am no longer young myself, i was especially moved by the way in which the film makes us reflect on what it means to reach the end of a life well-lived. And by "well-lived" i do not mean perfect, for Roger Ebert was anything but. He was, as we all are, a work in progress--but oh what he managed to accomplish in the course of that life! 

The camera is unflinching in capturing some of the details of Ebert's final months, and it is unflinching in large part because that seems to be what Roger wanted. We watch uncomfortably as he receives nourishment through a tube in his throat: it is excruciating to watch, because it was clearly excruciating for him to endure. But endure he did, for as long as he could. And he let the camera catch his pain, because that too is part of life. And he kept working. That is perhaps what amazes me most: he never stopped. When his distinctive midwestern voice was stilled, he found new ways to continue sharing his thoughts on the movies with his audience. Even his signature "thumbs-up" gesture took on new and more poignant significance as it became a more general way for him to communicate and a symbol of his enduring optimism. 

Ebert's life wasn't just reviewing movies, and the film does a fine job of capturing the complexities of his relationships with other people, from his often contentious professional partnership with the late Gene Siskel to the friendship he shared with directors like Werner Herzog and  Rahmin Bahrani. But most touching are the scenes between Ebert and his wife Chaz and the glimpses they offer of a life filled with love, mutual understanding, and a sense of two people who both knew and appreciated how lucky they were to have found each other and shared their lives. 

When the end credits of Life Itself began to roll, i found myself unable to leave the theater because i couldn't stop the tears from rolling down my face. They weren't sad tears, despite the pain and debilitating surgeries that Roger Ebert endured and the emotional pain that was so clearly written on Chaz's face as her beloved husband struggled through his final illness. They were instead tears of appreciation for this reminder of -- as the title says -- life itself, in all its beauty and pain, its struggles and accomplishments. 

20 April 2014

Vampires of Detroit

Up until this afternoon, if you had asked me to name my favorite cinematic vampires, i would have probably rattled off a list: Nosferatu (both Max Schreck and Klaus Kinski), the classic Bela Lugosi, the oddly coiffed Gary Oldman. But at the top of that list would have been the poignant castrato child-vampire who befriends a pale and lonely little boy in that moody Swedish masterpiece,  Let the Right One In (2008). Today, after seeing Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, that list has to be redrawn. This is the vampire world i'd bare my neck to be a part of -- a world in which even the blood, sipped from delicate aperitif glasses, looks delicious. Imagine what it would be like to have such an existence, to survive long enough to learn dozens of languages, read thousands of books, master an orchestra's worth of musical instruments, and converse with a centuries-old Christopher Marlowe (still holding a grudge against Shakespeare though he's outlived him by 400 years); how it would feel to walk the sinuous, shadowy streets of Tangiers or the ominous wasteland of post-industrial, post-prosperity Detroit, at midnight without fear. 

Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston)

Manic Pixie Dream Vampire Ava (Mia Wasikowska)

Only Lovers Left Alive does not depend on an intricate plot or an orgy of blood-sucking; in fact, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), the one exuberantly insatiable vampire in the film, is presented as a comic figure, a "vampire brat" as my companion and i dubbed her. Instead, the movie focuses on relationships and reflections on the state of the world as viewed through the eyes of those who have had a very long time to observe it. Central to the film is the relationship between the lovers of the title, Eve (Tilda Swinton), who somehow manages to simultaneously convey both serenity and ecstasy, and Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a melancholy musician/inventor depressed to the point of suicide at the mess the living ("zombies," as he refers to them) have made of the Earth. They live on opposite sides of the world: she in a sumptuous nest of tapestries and books in Tangiers and he, surrounded by rare musical instruments in what would seem to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but is in fact Detroit. Yet they are joined at the soul and deeply in love. When he needs her, she flies to his side (on the red-eye, for obvious reasons). Eve and Adam complement each other both in appearance and philosophy. Both are pale, elegant figures in their century-old dressing gowns and dark glasses, but where the dark-haired and black-clad Adam seems almost paralyzed by despair in his tinkerer's Paradise (i.e. junk heap) of a house, Eve spins in dervishly delight, her wild mane of blonde hair swirling about her. Through the window of Eve's Tangiers home she looks out on a small plaza crisscrossed by people and activity throughout the night. Adam is cocooned, cringing in horror when the doorbell rings, looking out on the street through a makeshift security camera set-up at the unwanted groups of teen admirers of his music who have somehow discovered where he lives. His walls are covered with old cardboard egg-crates for sound insulation, further cushioning him from the world outside. 

I wish that i knew Jim Jarmusch, that i could call him on the phone right now to tell him how much i loved this smart, funny, erotic, and thought-provoking movie. And then i'd ask him how he discovered that Detroit was not only an exquisite counterpoint to Tangiers, but also the ideal setting for the melancholy Adam to make his home. It is in many ways the perfect illustration of the themes of mortality, immortality, and ecological suicide that the film explores. When Eve arrives in Detroit, Adam takes her on a tour of the city in all its crumbling splendor (with one happy side-trip to the house where Jack White grew up); the most striking location on this tour is the Michigan Theatre building, one of those grand movie palaces of the 1920s, now used as a parking garage -- a beautiful ruin of cathedral-like dimensions, reduced to sheltering the product that was once the pride of Detroit, the cars that, for a while at least, made this city rich.  And while i had him on the phone, i would tell him how much Only Lovers reminded me of a very different movie, the 2012 documentary Searching for Sugarman, with which it shares many similarities in its Detroit settings -- from the lonely deteriorating house on an eerily empty street that the musician calls home, to the abandoned factories and seedy bars of this once-great city. Most of all, like Only Lovers Left Alive, Searching for Sugarman has at its heart the story of a musician's musician, a man who through his art has survived the rumors of his death. So call me, Jim Jarmusch, let's talk about it.

Watch the trailer for Only Lovers Left Alive here.