life itself

On Life Itself

When I was preparing to go to the Nantucket Film Festival, the first thing on my list of films to see was Life Itself. I wanted to see it because it is a documentary about Roger Ebert, a film critic who was so central to the development of film criticism in America, and also probably the first person to introduce me to the idea that films could be taken seriously enough to argue about them on television. When I realized that the film was directed by Steve James, whose 1994 film Hoop Dreams was also central in my development as a documentary filmmaker, I was filled with anticipation for what I thought would be a film about Ebert’s work. But the film I saw was not really about film criticism and Ebert’s significance to the field; it was a document of the end of Ebert’s life, when the man known for his words could no longer speak.


An image from Steve James’ documentary about Roger Ebert, “Life Itself.”

I’ve gone back and forth in my mind as to whether or not this was a disappointment. Life Itself does tell Ebert’s story, and there was a lot to his professional development that I did not know about, but because James’ focus is on the man behind the thumbs, the documentary is more about Ebert’s spirit. Yes, there are interviews with directors whose work he championed (most notably Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese, both of whom I admire), and other film critics, such as A.O. Scott, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Richard Corliss are interviewed about  his contributions to their field, but a good portion of the film is spent on the footage James got of Ebert in his hospital room and in rehabilitation as he tried to recover from cancer, which had plagued him for 10 years. It is that end-of-life struggle that resonates most.

Ebert is depicted as a character of depth and complexity, which is rare in contemporary documentaries. In fiction films, we are given complete access to the characters created for the story–their emotional lives, as well as their behaviors. But in a documentary, we are often limited by the subject’s power to reveal only what (s)he wishes to make public. In this case, the film is based on Ebert’s previously published memoir of the same name, but in James’ hands–with this footage of Ebert at the end of his life, the choice to include his step-children and grandchildren, who learned a lot from him, as well as early outtakes from the Siskel and Ebert television show that demonstrate the very real animosity between the two critics–we see many layers to Ebert’s personality. He is a loving and beloved husband, stepfather, and grandfather. He is a sometimes arrogant film critic and writer who had no trouble defending his views, but who, unlike the stereotypical critic, was just as passionate in promoting outstanding films as he was in cutting down poorly conceived, bad films. It is not all a show for the cameras, although Ebert seems to have been very pleased to have become a film subject in his last days. There are things missing from this documentary (for example, Siskel’s successor, film critic Richard Roeper is never mentioned, although he co-hosted At The Movies with Ebert for eight years), but then how could there not be; no one’s life story can be told in 116 minutes. This depiction feels very real.

Ebert was criticized, along with Gene Siskel, for having simplified criticism with the thumbs up/thumbs down designations, but for those of us who have actually read Ebert’s criticism and not just watched him on TV, the thumbs are a minor part of his contribution. Ebert, the film tells us, once called the movies “a machine that generates empathy.” Life Itself fits that description as well. It also leaves us thinking about mortality, love, passion, and how to embrace life’s challenges. The feeling I left the Dreamland Theater with after seeing Life Itself was one of loss, but at the same time, I felt reinvigorated about the value of cinema, and I think Ebert would have liked that.

Maiden Voyage to the Nantucket Film Festival

Fresh from the Provincetown International Film Festival, I am gearing up to attend the Nantucket Film Festival, which I have never attended before. In fact, although I’ve lived on Cape Cod for 14 years now, I have never even been to the island of Nantucket, and I am very much looking forward to sharing my observations with you when I get over there for the festival program on Sunday, June 29th.


Harold Lloyd in Safety Last!

The festival officially kicks off on Wednesday, June 25, but there is a special pre-festival event on Tuesday, June 24 that I really wish I could attend because it brings together two of my loves: the cinema and one of my alma maters, Berklee College of Music. At 7:30 p.m. in the Dreamland Theater, the Festival brings us a screening of the 1923 silent film classic Safety Last directed by and starring Harold Lloyd, accompanied live by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra. While Chaplin and Keaton are the best known silent film comedians, Lloyd rounds out the top three, and a still from this film, in which Lloyd hangs from the hands of a clock tower, is probably one of the most iconic representations of the silent era. Janus Films has released a new digital print, and this is a particularly wonderful way to see that new print because of the orchestra accompanying it. Catch it if you can!

This is the 19th year that the Nantucket Film Festival has come to the island, bringing with it not only a range of independent films, but a particular focus on screenwriters. Almost since the beginning of the festival, Mystelle Brabbée has been a major force driving its direction. She first became involved as an intern 18 years ago, after hearing about the festival’s first year from a friend of a friend. She quickly moved on to program the festival, which she did for 16 years, then became its artistic director and executive director in 2012.

“It’s a whole different world now,” she says, reflecting on how the festival has changed. “In the early years it was very loose and studios had no idea how to work with a festival.”


Nantucket Film Festival’s executive director Mystelle Brabbée.

Now, the festival is bursting at the seams with programming, often involving high profile talent and all of the things that go along with bringing movie stars, major directors and screenwriters, and films with a lot of advance buzz to the tiny island of Nantucket. Throughout all this time, Brabbée says the focus has not wavered; it’s only grown to include more avenues to explore the art of storytelling in cinema.

“In the early years we had very few documentaries,” Brabbée admits. “But over the years, we recognized that good storytelling is good storytelling, in all its different forms, narrative or nonfiction… and our audiences love documentaries.”

This year’s festival includes 21 documentary features, as well as several nonfiction shorts, in addition to the 25 narrative features, plus more narrative shorts and special screenings. While the focus on storytelling, and screenwriting in particular, has not changed, Brabbée says the audience really has. She says, “The need to recognize a screenwriter is a little different today. Today, I think your average filmgoer will recognize when a script is good; they’ll say, ‘that’s really well written.’  So that has changed over the years, which gives us the chance to do other things around screenwriting, things that aren’t in the public eye as much.”

As examples, she cites the festival’s Tony Cox Screenwriting Competition, as well as additional services and programs to help mid-career as well as emerging writers with completing their scripts and getting them produced. “The screenplay that won last year was optioned and it just finished shooting with Jennifer Aniston,” she adds.

This year, the Screenwriters Tribute Award goes to Aaron Sorkin, a writer who is best known for television (West Wing, The Newsroom), but who is also a successful feature film screenwriter (Money Ball, A Few Good Men). It’s an interesting time for the film world as more and more people look toward television for high quality work, particularly in terms of the writing. But Brabbée says she’s not worried about any shortage of great films.

“We’re in the business of highlighting those movies,” she says. “But I do think that screenwriters, or writers, are often playing in both world–not everyone; some are strictly TV or strictly writing screenplays for film–but you will find more and more there is a crossover. [Sorkin]’s a perfect example… maybe he got his start in one, but he’s able to go back and forth in between and he’s done great work in both.”

Additional honors will be presented to documentary filmmaker Steve James, whose 1989 film Hoop Dreams breathed new life into theatrical documentaries and who comes to the festival this year with a documentary about the wonderful Roger Ebert, Life Itself. In addition, the New Voices in Screenwriting Award will go to Mike Cahill, whose new film I Origins is creating a lot of dialogue in film circles.

My Picks for the Festival this year…

INTERNET'S OWN BOY, THE1DOCUMENTARIES: The first three of these picks were also my picks for the Provincetown International Film Festival, but it is worth highlighting them again for those of you who did not get out there last week.

Art and Craft – The subject of this film is Mark Landis, an eccentric (perhaps autistic) art forger who has fooled dozens of major art institutions with his remakes of masterpieces, never accepting a dime for any of them. Really a fascinating story.

An Honest Liar  – This documentary about the Amazing Randi not only tells a great story about a magician who set out to expose the deceptions behind faith healers, spoon benders, and psychics, it also tells it in a brilliantly structured film. This is not a movie that peters out toward the end; in fact, the last 20 minutes may be the most revealing.

The Internet’s Own Boy – The story of a bright young idealist, Aaron Swartz, who was quite literally destroyed by misguided policies and the desire of some government officials to make an example of him as he tried to open up knowledge to those beyond the Ivory Tower.

Life Itself – This one, I admit, I have not yet seen. Based on the director Steve James’ record of making beautiful, truthful documentaries, and also my great admiration for its subject, film critic Roger Ebert, this is a top pick.

NARRATIVE FEATURES: Here again, the first two films were in Provincetown last week.

Calvary  – This Irish drama starts off as a black comedy and evolves into a powerful piece about the dimensions of morality, taking as its subject a Catholic priest who is told in confession that he is going to be murdered by a man who was abused by another priest, as a child.

Love is Strange – Alfred Molina and JohnLithgow star in this film by Ira Sachs that looks at an older gay couple who, upon getting married, ironically, end up having to live apart because of the fallout from their decision. It is not a political film; Sachs seems to prefer a more philosophical approach to love. Despite its questionable title, the film is both very funny and very moving.

Boyhood – Although I haven’t seen this film, its production concept, as well as the track record of director Richard Linklater, are enough to make me want to feature it here. Filmed over a period of 12 years with the same young actor, it tells a fictional coming of age story, but it has a quasi-documentary element to it as the actor himself does come of age throughout the process of making the film. Intriguing, no?

I Origins – As mentioned above, the writer of this film Mike Cahill is being honored at the festival this year. This film has been a festival favorite since its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Part science-fiction, part love story, it comes highly recommended to me and I recommend it to you because this is one that people will be talking about and whether you like it or don’t like it, it seems to be one of this films that will generate some dialogue.


Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin will be honored at this year’s Nantucket Film Festival.


As I said, this is my first time going to Nantucket, but in addition to their great slate of films, they also have a lot of signature programs that look absolutely wonderful. There is the All-Star Comedy Roundtable on Sunday, which features comedians discussing their writing processes (but I’m told, in a funny way!), including Jenny Slate, the star of Obvious Child; Afternoon Tea and Talks with the Steve James (Life Itself) and documentarian Rory Kennedy on Sunday, Cathleen Sutherland and Ellar Coltrane (producer and star of Boyhood) on Saturday; and on Thursday, there will be a staged reading of Strange Calls, a Nantucket-set script about mysterious strange phone calls and the police officer who must investigate, written by Donick Cary. The reading features actors Tom Cavanagh and Fred Willard.
My plan for Sunday is to take in two of the films I have been most eager to see since I first heard about them: Life Itself and Boyhood. I will be posting thoughts about the films and the atmosphere, once I get to Nantucket, here and on Twitter, so subscribe to both!