Roger Ebert

Life Itself

“I was born inside a movie of my life.”

Roger Ebert (1942 – 2013) is the reason I’m a writer. Ebert wrote beautifully, passionately and in first person about something he loved. And he made me think I might do it too.

Ebert’s collection Great Movies are guides to life (and all available online). These memoirs are something different, he is the subject, but they are equally exceptional.

I was diagnosed with cancers of the thyroid and jaw, I had difficult surgeries, I lost the ability to speak, eat, or drink, and two failed attempts to rebuild my jaw led to shoulder damage that makes it difficult to walk easily and painful to stand. It is that person who is writing this book.

Ebert wrote that he saw his life as a film, “All my life I’ve been visited by unexpected flashes of memory unrelated to anything taking place at the moment.”

In Life Itself Ebert revisits his Catholic upbringing in Illinois suburbs, his wife, Chaz, whom he didn’t find until later in life because of his alcoholism. His revisits friendships with film critics like Gene Siskel and directors like Werner Herzog and Marty Scorsese.

We were the same age but I realized his understanding of movies was much deeper than my own. A daily critic tends to go wide. A director like Scorsese tends to go deep. There would never be a time we met when I didn’t lean something useful and true about cinema.

I imagine Ebert to be a showman, someone who loves the spotlight has ideas and inspirations and is a natural leader. I think he bore his issues solidly and publically and yet was quite lonely.

In Venice, there is a small bridge leading over a side canal. Halfway up the steps crossing the bridge, there is a landing, and a little cafe has found a perch there. In front of this cafe, there is one table with two chairs. […] Of course, you must have a newspaper, a book, a sketchpad – anything that seems to absorb you. If you are simply sitting there, you will appear to be a Lonely Person and people will look away from you. I do not sit there for the purpose of people watching. I am engaged in the pastime of Being By Myself in a City Where No One Knows Who I am And No One Knows Where to Find Me.

Solitude is heavy and it takes a strong person to carry it, to abide in it and to attempt to enjoy it. Ebert’s solitude was wrapped around the alcoholism that ran in his family, something that affected him every day of his life and which he speaks of openly without sentiment.

That afternoon after I pulled the covers over my head, I stayed in bed for thirteen hours. On the Sunday I poured out the rest of the drink, which at the time I had no idea would be my last.

Susan Sontag once wrote that life isn’t about comforts or work-life balance, it’s about life. Her energy for living grounds my understanding of Ebert’s title, writing from a place of personal confinement, unable to speak and knowing death was imminent, Life Itself is all there is.

Ebert admits that when he didn’t understand a film he instead wrote about how it made him feel. This openness, honesty and accessibility made him popular in the days of more intellectual critics like Pauline Kael and James Agee. Ebert relies on emotion when he contemplates his death renders a beautiful thought.

My genes will not live on, because I have no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkin’s theory of memes. Those are the mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs beliefs, rhythms, ideals, teachings, sayings that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting, and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many.

Read Ebert’s memoirs alongside a book he loved, Sydney Lumet’s Making Movies, not a memoir, but a study of work and art. One of my favorite facts about Roger Ebert is that a rare, unknown, and simply-made documentary about a pet cemetery was one of his favorite films. Read more in A Hapless Devotion to Pets.