Boys, Men, Dogs, Eels
Steve James’s uncommonly moving portrait of the late film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert, Life Itself, is in a sense the story of a movie that didn’t get made. Originally, James was supposed to tail his subject, so he could provide an ongoing, present-day context for the memories and reflections drawn from Ebert’s autobiography of the same title. But in December 2012, just when shooting was to begin, Ebert suffered a fractured hip—the latest injury from the cancer that was eating him away—and had to enter a hospital. It was his seventh time in rehab, and (although no one yet knew it) he was four months from death.
He had already lost a lot: the ability to speak (though he continued to communicate with a computerized voice synthesizer); the strength to carry on with regular film reviewing (though he poured his energies instead into a wide-ranging and widely read blog); and large chunks of his body—notably his lower jaw, so that only a loose, toothless flap of skin was left dangling at the bottom of his face, giving the impression of a perpetual mask-of-comedy smile that you could see right through. But Ebert was not going to lose a collaboration with James, a fellow Chicagoan and the director of films after his own heart, such as Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters. He brought James into the hospital on repeated occasions, spoke with good cheer from his bed using the voice synthesizer, and at times grandly took over the direction, even ordering James to get a shot of himself in the mirror.
After that, there were few other opportunities to film Ebert, none of them all that encouraging. Somehow, it didn’t matter. Taking what he had, James made a different movie, capturing interviews with the people closest to Ebert—above all his valiant wife Chaz—and assembling a vast collection of archival material, which he’s used, with great skill and honesty, to narrate the life.
It was outsize in many ways—the work, the rewards, the influence, the eating and drinking and egotism, the beneficence, the joy of the late union with Chaz—but contrary to what James might have intended at first, these biographical facts ultimately became the frame story. The main subject, glimpsed in the hospital, turned out to be Ebert’s grace. Life Itself is a film about living and dying well. It measures up to Ebert’s definition of cinema’s best possibility—”a machine that generates empathy”—and reveals, by the end, a man who became fully worthy of that ideal.
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What does Jafar Panahi have in common with dogs? Both have been decreed invisible in Iran: the former banned from making films, the latter banned from walking on the streets. Out of this absurdity came the germ of Closed Curtain, the most recent film directed by Panahi in defiance of the ban. Made in collaboration with Kambozia Partovi, it gives new meaning to the old title My Life as a Dog.
In a vacation house by the sea, a middle-aged screenwriter (Partovi) holes up with his little dog, having taken the precaution of blocking the views from his windows with blackout curtains. At first, the writer seems to be working on a script about a man hiding with a dog. But then a young woman (Maryam Moghadam) barges in, to the writer’s alarm. She might be fleeing the morals police; or maybe she’s an informer for them, or a would-be suicide. All we know is that she comes and goes mysteriously and mocks the writer for thinking he can capture reality in these circumstances. Then Panahi himself shows up. He opens the curtains and takes the dust cloths off the posters for his movies, but he doesn’t seem to see either the writer or the woman. Maybe they’re both figments of his imagination: competing, fragmentary ideas for possible films, or about the possibility of going on with life.
Enigmatic, unresolved (perhaps deliberately) and strangely reminiscent of Bergman, Closed Curtain is not Panahi’s strongest work but manages, all the same, to make visible the effects of a tremendous condensed power. Take a look: this is an artist’s mind under maximum pressure. The film’s US theatrical run has begun in New York City, at Film Forum.
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Lacking the 50,000 words, all of them iridescent and polymorphous, that would be needed to describe Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo, I will limit myself to calling the picture a fight to the death between whimsy and invention. The third film version of Boris Vian’s absurdist 1947 novel L’Écume des jours, the movie stars Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou as charmed, doomed lovers in a retro-futurist Paris filled with slapstick, Duke Ellington’s music and frantic Svankmajer-like animations. (Eels poke out of water faucets; doorbells, when they ring, turn into skittering insects.) I decided by the end that invention had somehow managed to pry whimsy’s death grip from its throat.