Roger Ebert's 'Life Itself': A Real Life Reclaimed From Encroaching Sainthood
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The biggest threat to Roger Ebert, the writer, is probably Roger Ebert, the saint.
In the last five years, since cancer and its complications left him unable to speak, Ebert has become the very model of an old-media writer who enthusiastically embraced the internet and found a whole new audience and a whole new degree of cultural currency. He's also become the very model of a man who survived a potentially devastating physical trial without self-pity. Add his seemingly idyllic marriage to his wife Chaz, his oddly endearing passion for rice cookers (even after he could no longer eat himself), and a continuing ability to write vibrant, populist film criticism that can be incisive but also terribly funny, and you have a man who sometimes seems eclipsed by his own narrative. Deification is not good for writers, particularly when they are still writing.
Ebert's new book, Life Itself, is built on some of the blogging he's done during those years and on the style of storytelling he developed while doing it, but it also expands substantially on his life, less in the form of a traditional memoir than in a series of short but dense meditations on everything from cancer to sex to Robert Mitchum. It walks back some of the legend simply by reconnecting readers to a more specific, nuanced version of the man.
As he says in the book's introduction, Ebert found that his illness and the silence it imposed led him to explore his own memory as he wrote, and he was often surprised at the specificity and meticulousness with which it had preserved his life: "I started in a direction and the memories were waiting there, sometimes of things I hadn't consciously thought about since."
What follows is a sort of compulsive cataloging of an entire life, with the strengths and weaknesses that implies. Certainly, there are times when the level of detail becomes overwhelming — when the names being dropped, not in self-aggrandizement but simply in thoroughness, become atmosphere rather than narrative, and the ethereal effect of being immersed in someone else's life is felt more than the actual stories can possibly be absorbed.
Ebert also writes about his own life — particularly his very early life — with a knowingly musty, sepia tone that can be utterly charming but can also lapse into the coyly archaic. When he remembers being a little kid fearful that teenagers at the movies would give him a "knuckle sandwich," it brings a smile, but when he refers to his female relatives who never married and therefore "died spinsters," it feels like a nostalgic longing for a simpler view of women that women themselves probably don't miss.
Of course, particularly when a memoir contains this much honesty, it can seem almost unwittingly blunt, as if the writer is being obtuse in not performing the same psychoanalysis you're tempted to engage in as the reader. It's tempting to draw a straight line from Ebert's description of his "paralyzing reluctance to engage [his] mother's anger" and his bottomless affection for the most traditionally masculine actors and directors: Mitchum, Russ Meyer, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese — all of whom receive their own essays. (The only woman, other than his mother and wife, who has an essay about her here is Oprah Winfrey.) But this book, like most books, would probably fall under its own weight if all of these things were explained and all the subtext made into text; no one is particularly brilliant at being his own analyst, after all.
There are the stories of the things you already know: his friendship with Gene Siskel and Siskel's death, the multiple incarnations of their television show, and of course, his illness and his surgeries. One of the finest blog items he's ever written, an essay called "Nil By Mouth," is reproduced here, and remains a beautifully bittersweet reflection on the loss of food as an emotional and social experience. He writes about his alcoholism, which he only revealed in 2009, 30 years after he stopped drinking.
But there are bawdier tales as well. He explains how he wound up writing the screenplay for Meyer's Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, tours his early sex life in some considerable and often gleeful detail, and vividly remembers a surprising number of details about various women's breasts.
Perhaps the most telling chapter in the book is the one where Ebert explains a compulsion he has to revisit the same places over and over. When he travels, he eats at the same restaurants and orders the same things and wants to sit in the same places and see the same views. He and Chaz spent their honeymoon in Europe, and he recalls someone asking her what they visited while they were there. "We visited Roger's previous visits," he recalls her saying. "These visits do not involve only a visit, but a meditation," he says. "I have been here before, I am here now, I will be here again." The book is the same way, really: It circles back to these stories, turning them over and over, looking at them with a kind of decisive nostalgia, deeming them worth the same kind of meditation as a favorite restaurant, simply because circling back is valuable.
What makes Life Itself an insightful book is not only the way it tells stories, but its thoughtfulness about storytelling and documenting and why they matter. Ebert does not want, and should not be force-fed, the patronizing notion that these are somehow his parting words, that he is getting all of this off his chest before he dies. Instead, he gives the impression of having found what is useful in what is awful. Whatever else has been taken — and he does not hesitate to lustily miss food, conversation or his previous appearance — he has time to reflect and to write, and so that's what he's doing. In its poignant admission of the opportunities presented by enforced silence that are almost impossible to find otherwise, this angle of the story almost calls to mind Burgess Meredith in that Twilight Zone episode, if he hadn't broken his glasses and he had been expertly and generously loved rather than left alone. Ebert's own memories are his library full of books, and Life Itself is the result of having enough time to spend with them.
Note: Melissa Block spends some quality time with Roger Ebert on today's All Things Considered; we will link to that audio as soon as it's available.