'Life Itself', From One of the Few Writers of the Modern Era Who Can Express Joy Without Schmaltz
Roger Ebert describes the movie of his life, lending his unique outlook to his childhood, his relationship with Gene Siskel, and his recent battle with cancer.
I came to Ebert late. Living in the UK I was unaware of his status as a national television personality in the States. I was unaware of his partnership with Gene Siskel. Instead, I stumbled upon his reviews via the Internet Movie Database; the phrase ‘Chicago Sun-Times [Roger Ebert]’ appeared atop the list of external reviews for practically every major release.
At the time I was studying towards a bachelor’s degree. I supplemented my education with an exploration of the time-honoured classics of music, literature and cinema. I knew the names of great movies: Gone With the Wind; Seven Samurai; 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I knew very little about their subjects, their directors, their stars. I wanted to know why they were time-honoured classics. Ebert’s ‘Great Movies’ articles (later published in book form over three volumes) gave the answers.
It helped that Ebert’s ‘taste’ in films broadly matched my own, but his articles gave far more than confirmation of my raw opinions. Here was someone who understood the technical requirements of filmmaking, understood narrative and understood how the two worked together. More than that, Ebert was able to explain when and how a film succeeded. It was not his conclusions which impressed me; it was the lucidity with which he was able to explain how he arrived at them.
I learned more about film from Ebert’s reviews than I did from a year studying screenwriting. My trips to the cinema were greatly, if not wholly, influenced by his assessment. He was an enthusiast, not a critic. His reviews avoided flaccid statements such as ‘mind-bogglingly awesome’ and ‘the best movie since (insert popular movie here)’. Instead, they made me believe that watching movies would entertain me, would educate me and would enhance my life.
And then, the reviews dried up. It was years before I learned the extent of his cancer and the subsequent surgeries which have left Ebert unable to eat, drink or speak. He now communicates primarily through his blog, which has encouraged him to explore subjects other than cinema and confirmed that his greatest asset is the quality of his writing.
Given the profound impact Ebert’s writing has had on me, and given the courage he has shown in recent years, it's difficult for me to accurately assess his memoir, Life Itself. The majority of the book sees Ebert apply his wit and keen perception to the subjects most readily associated with his career: movies, their directors and actors; his partnership with Gene Siskel; his battle with cancer. But there are no retreads. Ebert’s recent tribulations have given him fresh insight into the major events of his life, and it shows.
Life Itself starts slowly. Several chapters describe Ebert’s idyllic childhood and adolescence in Urbana. There is painstaking detail but precious little drama. Ebert is aware of his good fortune and appreciative of it. He remembers his parents as strong role models, although his mother’s wish for him to join the priesthood would cause friction in his adult life. This good fortune also extended to Ebert’s fledgling career: “I realize that most of the turning points in my career were brought about by others. My life has largely happened to me without any conscious plan.”
From Ebert’s accounts of his early days as a newspaper man, it's easy to see why the Front Page era is so highly mythologized. The characters Ebert meets at the Chicago Sun-Times and P.J. O’Rourkes bar, many of whom would become lifelong friends, are just entertaining as the movie stars Ebert remembers, from Robert Mitchum and John Wayne to Werner Herzog and Ingmar Bergmann.
In many cases, the meetings Ebert recalls are fascinating not just for their personalities but because of their nature. First among these is his friendship with Martin Scorsese, of whom Ebert was an early champion. Their sporadic conversations eschewed small talk, and a deep bond based on strict Catholic upbringings and a love of cinema developed. Ebert has since hailed Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Age of Innocence as masterpieces, but his professional relationship with Scorsese started with I Call First (later renamed Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore). “I had seen great films, I had in truth seen greater films, but never one that so grabbed me. Perhaps it was because of that experience that I became a film critic, instead of simply working as one.”
Elsewhere, Ebert expresses a fondness for London and Venice, each defined by venues owned by eccentrics. The Eyrie Mansion and the Venezian cafe became recurring characters in the movie of Ebert’s life; he insists on visiting them on each occasion he is in the respective cities. In these moments of abandon, Ebert is a stellar companion. Rare for a journalist, he is one of the few writers of the modern era who can express joy without schmaltz. Best of all is a wonderful chapter about his wife Chaz: “She forced me to want to live.”
Ebert’s love of writing is clear throughout Life Itself. He shared this passion with his friend, the sports writer Bill Nack: “He’s one of the lucky ones whose lifelong work didn’t change him but only confirmed the person he was all along.” The sentiment applies too to Ebert himself. The trials of the past few years only reinforce how lucky we are to have him.