When Roger Ebert died of thyroid cancer in April of 2013 I was deeply saddened. As a lover of movies, losing Ebert as a film critic was a big blow. I grew up in Illinois, where Ebert was a big of a celebrity as just about anyone, save maybe Michael Jordan and Oprah. I can remember watching the various forms of At The Movies with Siskel and Ebert as a child, and I was a loyal viewer all the way through the Richard Roeper years until Ebert was physical unable to be on the show anymore. When I get to be around high school age, I started reading Ebert's reviews religiously. When I would discover a director whose movie I loved, I would go back through Ebert's reviews to find out as much about the directors other movies as possible. This is how I found out about movies like Millers Crossing and Barton FInk from the Coen Brothers, or the treasure troth of goodness that is Scorsese's filmography. Ebert's reviews were never too wordy or self involved, but they always got to the heart of what a movie great.
There was a joy for cinema that Ebert couldn't hide in his reviews - whether he was praising a classic film or throwing down the sledgehammer on lazy, sloppily made snoozefest, there was always a playfulness in the reviews. There are plenty of critics who can expertly dissect a film on a shot-by-shot level, and over the years I've come to appreciate that kind of criticism, but it takes a great writer to be able to connect to his audience on a personal level. What made Ebert such a great critic is that his love of great movies was contagious, when he was excited about a movie, it would make me want to rush out of the house and go see that film. To be able to transfer a personal joy for life to your reader is one of the greatest gifts a writer can have, and Ebert had that in spaded.
Around the time Ebert had his first of three painful surgeries to try to reconstruct his jaw, he started blogging on his website, RogerEbert.com. If you go back and read his first posts, you can tell he was a bit hesitant to start writing on a platform that the industry he worked for was so quick to sneer at. In time Ebert's blog would become one of my favorite places on the internet. He would often write at least one blog a week that would connect with me on a deep, personal level. In the years between his cancer diagnosis and his death Ebert would open more and more about his personal life, past travels, religious and political life, and just about any other subject that meant something to him. I was especially fond of his blogs that focused on his travels in different cities throughout the world, as well his love of reading. No matter what subject Ebert was writing about he never came across as a bitter, not about his disease, or people who had wronged him in the past. His work ethic of optimism during his final years, months and even days will always be an inspiration to me.
Ebert mentions in Life Itself that it was his blog that gave him the confidence to write autobiographically. The book is written in a very conventional way. He starts with his childhood, and details the major events of his life chronologically up through 2011, when Ebert had last all ability to speak, eat and drink, but was in a period of remission.
Ebert had a real talent for remembering names and events, which comes in handy given the multitudes of people he ran into during the course of his life. My favorite parts of the book are when Ebert describes the time he spent working at The Daily Illini, and his many trips to London, in which he describes the deep love affair he formed with the ancient city. Hearing him talk about all of the cafes and used book shops he used to frequent is a treat, he is able to describe these places with such clarity that you can see the city transform before you as you read. I'm a sucker for writers who can capture the essence of a city. Ebert mentions the book he wrote about London, The Perfect London Walk in this memoir, and at many times I wish I was reading that instead of this.
This would probably be a good time to mention that I thought this was a good book, but I was expecting something a little more personal than what this work is. Ebert is so eager to talk about the hundreds of people who has met and befriended over the years, both in a personal and professional capacity, that he seems to fade into the background of his own life story. I think Ebert's own modesty is a big reason for this, but I spent a lot of the time reading this book wishing there was less words written on Lee Marvin and John Wayne, and more spent on topics like his struggle with alcoholism, or the time he spent in South Africa as a graduate student. It's almost as if Ebert didn't realize how intensely interesting his life really was.
If a devoted Ebert fan was to ask me if they should pick up this book I would tell them to read his blog instead. I feel like his blog posts do a better job of showing the man who Ebert is than this book did. There was just too much of Ebert talking about friends and people he worked with over the years for my tastes. It's not that these were not interesting people, in many cases they are, but Ebert is in such a rush to namedrop as many people as possible, that we never get a really good feel for any of the subjects of the book, including Ebert. It's not that Ebert completely ignores the major events of his life, but there are only a couple of pages devoted to things like his fight with alcoholism or how he felt about being made a movie critic in the first place.
I can understand why Ebert would shy away from writing a ton of words about his booze problems, there are a hundred memoirs about newspaper men who develop drinking problems, it's about as cliched a story as you'll find in the world of journalism. However, Ebert does spend a lot of time talking about the rich bar tradition in Chicago. He romantically talks about classic Chicago drinking established like O'Rouke's and a The Billy Goat. He also regales the reader with many stories about the kinds of antics his famous friends from the paper would get up to on a Saturday night. Ebert always comes off as a happy observer in the stories, which makes sense given his nature, but you don't get a feel for what is happening to the man which would eventually lead to him joining AA and sobering up. I came to this book wanting to learn more about the man, and what I got was some great writing about other men.
Ebert's writing becomes more personal when he writes about his history with Gene Siskel, and his relationship with his wife Chaz. The book ends on very strong note as he starts to talk about a lot of things that made his blog so great. He explains his very level headed thoughts on the existence of God, and how he feels about death. These are deeply personal looks into the mind of a man who did not appear to fear death, and was able to write about his own mortality with a clarity I found to be incredibly brave. This was the kind of writing I was expecting to find throughout Life Itself. I would have preferred another two hundred pages of these kinds of personal insights, but what is here is golden.
Close to the end of the book Ebert describes his complicated relationship with his own mother. He goes into deep detail describing the adverse affect she had on his early relationships, and implies that at one point she was even able to dissuade him from marrying a women he loved. I found it interesting that he saved this chapter for the end of the book. For a man who had traveled to different continents, written for countless newspapers and magazines, and even had a syndicated television show, Ebert comes across as a reactionary. He was a man who would become famous for his abilities as a keen observer of human nature. This is what made him such a gifted critic, but does not make for an exceptional memoirist.