“Life Itself”: Roger Ebert, Empathic Critic

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. Roger Ebert, Life Itself

Life Itself is a new documentary about Roger Ebert (1942-2013), whose movie reviews were often featured in my blog posts. In the film the words above are the first ones of Ebert’s that the audience hears.

THE TRAILER

MORE ABOUT THE MAN

Matt Zoller Seitz, rogerebert.com: “Early in his life, he could be brusque and arrogant and thoughtless. Later, he was gentle and sweet, and had a tendency to raise depressed people’s spirits by giving them unsolicited compliments and words of support.”

Owen Gleiberman, ew.com: “He stopped drinking in 1979, but the easy, flowing panache of the barroom raconteur never left him. His thoughts, and the way that he expressed them, were catchy, infectious, contagious. Even when you did disagree with him (which, in my case, was often), the way he put things created a logic of enchantingly fused thought and passion.”

THE TWO LOVE STORIES

Matt Zoller Seitz, rogerebert.com:

One is between Roger and Chaz, whom Roger met in Alcoholics Anonymous and married in 1992 and is credited with changing him from a domineering, insecure and sometimes insensitive man capable of stealing a cab away from a pregnant woman (‘He is a nice guy,’ a friend tells James, ‘but he’s not that nice’) into the mellow, reflective, generous person celebrated in obituaries and appreciations. The other love story is a bromance between Roger and the hyper-competitive Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, a print rival who became an on-camera debate partner and an off-camera business partner, then finally the brother that Roger, an only child, never had.

Geoffrey O’Brien, New York Times:

‘Gene,’ an observer notes, ‘was a rogue planet in Roger’s solar system.’ Shouting matches and withering put-downs were hallmarks of their show — critical argument became comic performance art — but the tensions were real enough. When Ebert yells, ‘I disagree particularly about the part you like!,’ it is almost like intruding on a family argument. A series of outtakes in which they trade insults between fluffed lines is both hilarious and a bit harrowing.

Geoffrey O’Brien, New York Times:

Ebert was, by his own and others’ accounts, transformed by meeting and marrying Chaz when he was 50. She was an African-American civil rights lawyer more interested, as he put it, in who he was than in what he did. He became part of her extended family, and as we watch him in home videos from the good days before his troubles started, it is like watching a man blossoming before our eyes.

HIS FINAL YEARS

Linda Holmes, NPR:

What the film crystallizes beautifully is the gravity of the gains and losses that took place in Ebert’s life after about 2008. As he got truly, verily, utterly screwed – and Chaz did, too – not just by cancer but by infections and complications, he began a stunning final act in which his connection to his writing seemed deeper, his embrace of readers and other writers seemed (even) more generous, and his omnivorous curiosity about cooking and countries and politics and writers and movies and games became more tireless.

Owen Gleiberman, ew.com: “In a lifetime at the movies, Roger Ebert consumed a lot of empathy, so there’s something almost luminous about seeing him take that empathy and shine it back on himself.”

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