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.
This quote comes from the late film critic Roger Ebert at the start of the new documentary about him, “Life Itself.” It’s a powerful quote to set the tone for Ebert’s story, which cancer ended last year. And it applies to storytelling across the board, maybe even all art.
The compelling movie is a must-see for anyone who loves movies or stories of any kind, good writing, newspapers, thoughtful criticism, the evolution of mass media — and love stories. Ebert’s intense love-hate friendship with TV partner Gene Siskel, whom cancer claimed a few years earlier, is rich and complicated and uniquely compelling, as anyone who watched their movie review shows can remember. Ebert’s wife, Chaz, emerges as a powerful, loving force in the happy days of their relationship and also in Ebert’s illness, which robbed him of the ability to speak but never, to the end, the ability to share words via his laptop and voice-activation system.
Humans tell stories for a number of reasons, and movies aren’t the only art form to help us feel for other people, to understand their points of view, struggles and beliefs. But it’s Ebert’s unexpected legacy to leave his own story, even his own movie, as a bittersweet reminder of the transcendent power of empathy.
“Life Itself” is currently in theaters and available On Demand and iTunes.
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