Aug 01

Roger Ebert, Empathic Critic: “Life Itself”

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.



Matt Zoller Seitz, “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, “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.”


Matt Zoller Seitz,

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.


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, “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.”

Aug 30

Movie Seat Choice: Psychology and Observations

On countless occasions I and my movie-going companion(s) have remarked about movie seat choice as people file in around us and plunk themselves down in ways mysterious and puzzling—e.g., in our way or too unnecessarily close.

I wondered if there was any research in this area. A summary of what I found follows. (Click on the links for the sources.) I’ve also developed my own theories.

I. Psychologist Donna Dawson (2001)

Dawson found four different personality types based on movie seat choice:

  1. On the aisle–Detached Observers
  2. Front row–Film Fanatics who are “extroverted, assertive and competitive”
  3. The middle–Middle-of-the-Roaders are “flexible and try to get along with others”
  4. Far in the back–Invisible Rebels who “like excitement” but not in the limelight

Another category, Dawson acknowledges, could be given for those who go wherever there happens to be a seat available: “sometimes a chair is just a chair.”

II. “Laterality and Seat Choice” (2009)

Matia Okubo’s study found that right-handers tend to sit on the right side of the theater “but only when they are motivated to watch the film.” This is supposed to indicate something about right-brain, left-brain stuff.

III. Melissa Locker, “Down in Front! Where Do You Sit in Movie Theaters?” (2011)

Not so much a study, but a few observations. Melissa Locker starts off with the fact that film critic Roger Ebert had, merely for practical reasons, changed his movie seating habits at some point later in life. For better ease of reaching the rest room, he’d begun to sit in the back.

But the movie seat choice of some other critics, she notes, has been the front row, also for practical reasons, e.g., no heads in front of you, less latecomer disturbance, more leg room, greater ease of sneaking out without bothering others in the row.

For non-critics there may be different criteria. The back of the theater, for example, is good for making out. The front can be great for “shorties” such as Locker, who also likes the nearness of the action on screen.

IV. My Own Study (2013)

As the above reports didn’t quite cut it for me, I set out to compile my own researchfunded and wanted by no one.

Setting: an empty theater, close to show time. We’re on the right side on the aisle, which is closest to the entrance and thus enables me better observation of incoming traffic. It also favors my left brain, which is highly scientific of me likely immaterial.

My results found several different types of movie-watching seat-pickers:

The Middlers. This couple heads right to the middle of the row that’s smack-dab in the middle of the theater. It could be that they’re centered people or that they believe they’re the center of the universe or that they’re just middle-of-the-road types. Whatever. It’s fine because they’re away from us.

We’re Young, We’re Trouble, We Can See from the Back. Several young people go to the middle of a row toward the back. They want to distance themselves from anyone older likely to reprimand them for upcoming bad behavior.

Please Don’t Leave Me. An adult group comes in, looks around and sees all the empty seats, but WTF! unbelievably parks right next to the Middlers. They’re the sort who are socially insecure, dependent, and have abandonment issues more comfy being in the company of others.

We’re Older, Not Dumber. An elderly group slowly makes their way to the front row of the second and largest of two seating sections and sits on the aisle. There’s a wide walkway between their row and the smaller section ahead. Highly practical. They can see and hear better here, be closer to the rest room, and not have to deal with newcomers stepping over them to get to middle seats. I make a note to copy this behavior someday too soon. Next time.

We’re Supposed to Sit Here. As is usually the case, taller people come and, without hesitation, sit directly in front of my partner, vertically challenged that she is. These mean, conniving people can have no justifiable reason to do this long ago became used to sitting in front of others, probably because their names are nearer the beginning of the alphabet. Their development is forever stunted.

We’re Old, We’re Loud, Get Used to It. Next is another group of insensitive seniors who sits right behind us. They clearly hadn’t gotten the memo from the other elder group. It only takes one or two LOUDLY SPOKEN SENTENCES to realize we’re now stuck not only with low visuals to the front of us but also generally impaired auditory.

It’s at this point that my study ends, as we decide to relocate to the rear of that first little front section, regrettably almost on top of the gigantic screen. But the good news is that all the inappropriate-seat-choosers are now safely behind us. No one sits in front of us. Would you?

Oct 19

“Prime” (The Movie) Therapy: More Boundary Issues

Prime, a 2005 film billed as a romantic comedy, features a therapist named Lisa (Meryl Streep) who has a client named Rafi (Uma Thurman) whose new boyfriend happens to be Lisa’s son, David. Although Rafi is talking about David in therapy, she hasn’t yet put a name to him; thus, neither therapist nor client knows that the man in question is who he is to Lisa. A weird boundary issue not likely to happen in the real world. Could it happen? Yes. Likely? No.

Although it does happen on a regular basis that a client talks about someone the therapist knows, it’s usually not someone as close to the therapist as a family member or close friend. Sometimes it’s clear to both parties that certain connections exist, sometimes not. Sometimes the therapist hears about someone she knows but can’t disclose this to her client because that someone is also a client—thus, such info is confidential.

Back to Prime. When Lisa does inadvertently learn—outside the therapy office—that Rafi’s involved with David, she doesn’t know what to do. Rafi doesn’t yet know what Lisa knows. So she consults someone—her own shrink? her supervisor?—I don’t think it’s clear which type of advisor this is. A decision is made for Lisa not to share with Rafi what she now knows. The reasoning is that it’s in the best interests of Rafi not to know her boyfriend is her shrink’s son because telling her could do more harm than good to the therapeutic bond—especially if the relationship with David winds up ending sooner than later anyway.

Just writing the above paragraph felt aggravating and tedious to me—which parallels how I felt about the movie at this particular juncture. Although the film already felt iffy, now it was ruined because Lisa knew Rafi was dating David and didn’t decide to disclose this to Rafi. Why, I wondered, couldn’t Rafi be allowed into the loop and given the chance to decide how she feels about both her therapy and dating relationships in the light of this new info?

Here’s what Roger Ebert’s review indicated about Lisa’s decision:

…when the characters have depth and their decisions have consequences, I grow restless when their misunderstandings could be ended by words that the screenplay refuses to allow them to utter.

…In my opinion, [the] responsibility is to declare a conflict of interest, but then I’m not a shrink and besides, then we wouldn’t have a movie.

I do declare, Mr. Ebert, even though you are not a shrink, you do make a good deal of sense.

If you’ve seen Prime, what did you think? If you haven’t, you might want to form your own opinion and get back to me. I mean, it does have Meryl Streep after all. Here’s the trailer: