My dad was not a “newspaperman,” which is how Roger Ebert often referred to himself. (Dad said “printheads” had bad hair. I don’t think that’s why Dad spent most of his career in television journalism, but I’m willing to bet it was a factor. He did take really good care of his hair.)
Which is why it was so strange for me to watch “Life Itself,” a new documentary about Ebert’s life and death, and see Dad everywhere. They didn’t really look alike, but they were certainly cut from the same cloth. They were both big guys, extraordinary storytellers, funny, popular, frighteningly demanding and devastatingly smart.
So in nearly every moment of “Life Itself,” I was experiencing two losses all over again. Both men had a profound effect on my life and I miss them — Dad more, of course, but it took nearly a year after Ebert’s death for me to stop checking his website to compare my views about a movie with his, just like it took me about a year to change the contact in my phone to just “Mom.”
The question becomes, then, whether I can assess “Life Itself” objectively. Do I think the movie is successful because it works in terms of structure and storytelling, or do I think it’s successful because it illuminates some feelings that are unique to me? And the only thing I can say is … yes.
It is utter nonsense to believe that anyone — critics or audiences — can view a film through crystal-clear magical glasses of objectivity. And no one should have to — a viewer’s emotional connection with a film only heightens the experience. Can it blind you? Sure, and it’s important to recognize that. I don’t write about slasher films because they make me so physically uncomfortable there’s no way I could even give them a fair shot.
I believe “Life Itself” is a very special, tremendously moving film, but I also need to acknowledge that I brought a nice set of personal baggage to the screening. That doesn’t make my assessment weaker. It makes it mine.
Those of us who cover film aren’t scientists; we don’t have proof that a film is good or bad. We do have opinions, and those are colored by our experiences and our emotions. Impartiality is good — I’m not going to slam some film because the director was mean to me once — but objectivity doesn’t work when it comes to criticism. At least I don’t think so. I don’t know. I do wish I could talk about it with Dad.
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