Why do people go to the movies? Academics like to answer that century-old question with a long, philosophical word of latin origin. Be it catharsis, inspiration, escapism, what have you. The question, though a worthy one, is not really in the mind of the viewers. Sometimes we go to the movies to remember, sometimes to forget. Does it matter?
Today, I watched Life Itself, the biopic based on the life of Roger Ebert and his autobiography of same title. Ebert, the prodigious and prolific journalist from Urbana, Illinois made a name for himself, not as a movie critic, but as a writer. A writer in the truest sense of the word, who had the effortless skill to connect with his readers and create meaning where there was none before. His every phrase just flows with the deepest lyricism of poets. Even the generic title of his book, we could argue, betrays a more profound and obscure meaning that no one can explain, and yet, no one fails to understand.
Instead of why people go to the movies, perhaps the better question is, why do filmmakers make movies? The bitter cynics will always proclaim, “it’s for money.” Perhaps. But in my limitless naiveté, I choose not to agree with that. Instead, I wanna believe that directors, both big and small, want their audience to feel. It all begins with an emotion, a sentiment, a provocation. If viewers can repent from their sins, or if they become motivated to kiss their children more often, that’s a bonus. But it begins with an emotion.
Steve James, the director of Life Itself, was successful by every metrics or criteria you could possibly use to judge his work. For Ebert, the film is a tribute. But for us, the audience, it’s so much more. Life Itself is a sophisticated piece of entertainment filled with value and life lessons in every corner. I also feel as though I know Ebert better, and that itself is a great feeling. The movie also offers a glimpse into the more personal and private side of Ebert’s life, especially towards the end of his journey, when he had left the public arena to focus even more on his writing.
The petty quarrels with Gene Siskel, his co-host and co-critic, were a welcome comic relief, but the sheer brilliance of the film emanates also from its fearlessness in showing unique footage from the hospital and some of the procedures Ebert underwent. Some of it is hard to watch, painful even. But Ebert is brave, and through his permanent smile, he holds our hands and give us comfort.
The last question James asked Ebert in an email exchange close to the end was why he decided to call the book “Life Itself.” To which Ebert simply replies, “i can’t.” Maybe Ebert didn’t know. Or maybe he just wanted us to reflect about the book, and him, and his life. What struck me the most throughout the film was his sense of humor. Till the very end, even when his throat and jaws were no more, Ebert was always so inclined to joke, to kid.
Life Itself made me cringe, made me cry, but more importantly, it made me smile and made me laugh. It’s not always easy to explain why we go to the movies, but Life Itself overflows with qualities that are too numerous for a single list. It was poignant and true. True to the genius we have grown to love and cherish.
To a man that has inspired me so much, and continues to do so, thank you, Roger!