It is axiomatic that this summer has been able to provide us with another smorgasbord of wide-release, lucrative and sensationalist movies. However, I believe none is more significant and rich in substance than the recent limited-release documentary Life Itself, a chronicle of the life and legacy of Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert.
Although the documentary provides a very amusing and insightful story of Ebert’s life, its most valuable contribution was an experience of the sacredness of watching movies altogether, something Ebert knew a lot about, something contrary to the common conception that conflates watching movies as a mere exercise in meaningless escapism. To Ebert, watching movies was not an escape from reality but an attempt to experience more of it while at the same time learning about our world.
Just as Ebert was a member of the movie theater audience, all of us are audience members of life; and though all the world’s a stage and one person in his or her time might play many parts, we are always audience members, always watching each other and always watching ourselves.
Ebert understood this particular power of cinema, its heedless ability to “leap across time and transcend lives and dramatize what it means to be a member of humankind’s eternal audience.” With this understanding, Ebert was able to find himself and his spirit at the movies.
I found this insight infinitely enlightening, not only because I spend many of my weekend evenings in solitude at E Street Cinema watching the latest indie film, but also because I feel there is much to glean from movies other than just a transient moment of entertainment.
It’s disappointing that there is a dearth among my colleagues of discussion around films that goes beyond recalling cursory plot twists and memorable one-liners. It might be more profitable if we could sift through the entertainment to find a lesson about reality and life, or even better, to find ourselves. Ebert certainly did, and it helped him to no end, especially during the year leading up to his death.
With cancer robbing him of his ability to walk and speak, Ebert took his fate in stride, whereas others would very easily have descended into a state of decrepitude. Ebert was able to maintain his spirit because, as he had once said, “I was born inside the movie of my life,” and he understood that after the beginning and climax came the end.
The last words Ebert wrote to the public on his blog the day before his death were, “I’ll see you at the movies.” And just like that, he became another member of a different audience.
It’s clear that the one thing Ebert loved more than the movies was life itself. I’m sure he’ll be looking back at us, and perhaps that was what drove many grown-ups in the theater to tears. But I think what he really wants, more than our memory, is for us to know that we can find answers on how to better our reality and learn about who we are just by looking into the mirror we hold up to life. Ebert sat in front of this mirror for 70 years, and one of the things he learned was that “the greatest adventures in life don’t take place in bizarre places with fantasy people. They take place as we size up the world and take our chances with it.”
This is the kind of thing great movies give us.
So next time the silver screen lights up and the reels start rolling — if we just look hard enough, in between the rapid flickers of the film, behind the actors — we can see ourselves.
Patrick An is a junior biology major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.