clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

In Life Itself, the late Roger Ebert made a case for art in hard times

Ebert’s criticism was always political, in the best way. The movie about his life shows how.

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in a movie theater
Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel watch movies in Life Itself.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with an event from the previous week. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for November 6 through 12 is Life Itself (2014), which is streaming on Netflix and available to digitally rent on Amazon.

I woke up Wednesday morning wondering if people really cared about movies anymore — not out of a sense of despair, but because after swimming in political speculation, I wondered how quickly anyone would flip back to arguing about Oscar races.

And because the arts are often treated as frivolous decorative adornments to life rather than the lifeblood that gives us a culture worth saving, I forget, sometimes, that they matter.

But because I also teach college, I went off to campus for a day full of teaching cultural theory and criticism. In the midst of focusing elsewhere, I remembered something Roger Ebert — to whom I and every film critic I know owes so much — had said once.

Genevieve Koski wrote about it for us later in the day, and included the full quotation, which is worth repeating:

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.

These words, as she noted, are from a speech Ebert gave in 2005. They also open Life Itself, Steve James’s 2014 warts-and-all documentary about the legendary critic’s life. James began the doc before Ebert passed away in 2013 and finished it later. It is a biography, and contains narration from Ebert’s memoir of the same name.

One thing I learned from Ebert’s decades of film criticism was that reviewing movies can matter deeply, as long as critics brings their distinct perspectives and personalities to bear on the films as much as their intellect. (For the record, I think I agree with his opinions about half the time.)

That’s why Ebert’s criticism was, in the best sense, political: It was about our life together, and about how we live well with one another. While that insight seems instinctive to him, it’s also clear from the film that it was a hard-won feeling he kept renewing throughout his life, partly by arguing vigorously on his TV show and in real life. If art matters, then it’s something worth taking seriously.

Ebert obviously believed that movies were a big part of that — from blockbusters to tiny independent films, and everything in between. Movies didn’t fall down along ideological lines; movies were for everyone. That’s the only way they can act as a “machine that generates empathy.”

So I’m thinking of Ebert this weekend as I shift back into writing about movies. I’m grateful for his example, and others who’ve carried it on. And I think there may be no better time to revisit his story and think about our own.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.