Sunday, November 9, 2014

Roger Ebert understood me

Of the many moments that obviously spoke to me in the first documentary I've ever seen about a film critic, one really stood out.

It wouldn't be a big moment for most viewers. In fact, it's almost the very definition of a throwaway moment.

Somewhere in the first third of Life Itself, the Steve James film adaptation of Roger Ebert's memoirs, Roger's wife Chaz is telling James what's going to happen later that afternoon for them, after they move from the hospital to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

"He's excited because he gets to see a movie he wants to see," says Chaz. "It should be coming over later today. So he's happy about that."

Roger brightens, and unable to affirm Chaz's words vocally, he applauds.


What some people will never understand about us film buffs -- and you probably count yourself one of us -- is that merely the prospect of seeing a movie makes us happy. It doesn't even have to be a movie we "want to see," as Chaz included as a little clarification of the type of movie it was. I'm sure the sentence would have worked just fine as "He's excited because he gets to see a movie." The only problem is that then it makes Roger, and those of us who agree with him, seem simplistic, as though we'd be just as happy to see Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star as There Will be Blood.

Not just as happy, but yeah, it would still scratch that itch. It would still fulfill that need.

What I loved about Ebert was his genuine optimism about each and every movie he went to see -- or at least, the optimism he genuinely conveyed, even if he may not have felt it. Sure, he could be a cynical bastard when he wanted to be, and I'm sure he saw thousands of movies that he would diss to his colleagues before even seeing them. But I think he was also just as happy to be proven wrong, to find a diamond in that vast cinematic rough.

What we love about movies is their potential to be great, the possibility that they will offer us something profound and unexpected. It's what always keeps us coming back for more.

The film's other most meaningful sentiment, for me, came at the very beginning, in a quote from Ebert that should have been more well known than it was. Although I'd heard it before I saw this movie, I never heard it while the man was still alive.

"We are all are born with a certain package, we are who we are," says Roger. "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."


Next time someone asks you why you spend 12-14 hours of each week watching movies, and why you're choosing to pass a sunny afternoon watching a movie rather than doing something outside, and why you lose precious sleep finishing a movie that's due back the next day, and why you re-watch a movie you've already seen six times before ... well, there's your answer.

Life Itself was an empathy machine that helped me understand one of my own heroes a little bit better, and it's one of the best films of the year.