“We all are born with a certain package. 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. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
I bet if the great film critic Roger Ebert and I met we would have about 2 things in common. We disagreed on religion, morality, philosophy and definitely politics. Why then do I admire him so much? I love Roger because of the way he got me to think. My parents are big on thinking and not just doing, but they don’t watch movies or television.
Let’s face it- being a kid in the post Star Wars world, means movies are a huge part of most of our lives. So, when Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were teaching me how to think about movies, they were kind of teaching me how to think about life. It was a building block to add on to what my parents demonstrated at home.
From 1975 to Siskel’s death in 1998 Gene and Roger reviewed movies on their PBS and then syndicated show under various titles, the longest being At the Movies. They of course were famous for their thumbs up and thumbs down and their constant on air debates over the movies. Here’s one of their best
I have never seen Full Metal Jacket but I still find the review fascinating (and entertaining). In fact, I probably didn’t see 90% of the movies reviewed on Siskel and Ebert and yet I still loved watching the show.
Anyway, with that preface a new movie has come out about the life of Roger Ebert who died in 2013 after a long and painful battle with cancer. It is amazing to think one of the most verbose men in media became someone who could no longer speak. For the last 5 years of his life he communicated through a keyboard and laptop. His blogging and twitter posts became his new voice and he taught many of us how to use the medium to enrich the world not simply criticize.
The film Life Itself is directed by Steve James of Hoop Dreams fame and it is a lovely film about a man that lived a unique, fascinating life. He started filming as he was going into a final surgery several years before his death. They are unflinching (at one point insistently so by Roger) in showing the damage which had been done to Roger’s face and neck. Even his famous Esquire magazine shoot did not really show what had happened to his face.
They show him writing and then go through his life starting as a young journalism student who insisted on a page edit on his local paper the day Kennedy was shot. Then it moves on to his first job at the Chicago Sun Times, his alcoholism, his Pulitzer prize winning writing, his time on the show, relationship with Gene Siskel, his marriage and then his illness and last chapter.
I learned a lot about Roger Ebert from the movie but it also reminded me of all of the lessons I’d learned from Roger over the years. He taught me about movies but also subtely how to live. Roger and Gene were a reminder to all of us that to share your opinion is not something to be fearful of and to avoid but it is a gift of knowledge and discussion to the world. Through sharing we hopefully become better people. I suspect Siskel and Ebert did that for a lot of people. They made us better by sharing their perspective.
Life Itself is a loving piece but not a complete lovefest. It makes it clear Siskel and Ebert really did not care for each other for most of their careers. Roger was also an egotist and a perfectionist to a fault, but we all have our flaws don’t we?
I love learning about people’s lives and how they became who they are. If you enjoy those types of documentaries than you will like Life Itself- even if you disagreed with Roger Ebert most of the time. He had quite the life.
Getting back to the quote from above. Roger Ebert says the movies create ‘shared empathy’. I propose they do such a thing because he and Gene Siskel taught us to see that empathy. To look beyond the moment and think about the art whether it was a blockbuster, a silly comedy or a war movie:
Siskel and Ebert showed all of us how to watch the movies.
I’m grateful. Thumbs up!
Overall Grade A Content Grade C (There are a few photos briefly shown of naked women, and a few swears but not too bad)
This is perhaps their best reviews because they both hated it so much. Love it.