Roger Ebert

Life Itself

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

Roger Ebert (June 18, 1942 – April 4, 2013) is the reason I’m a writer. Ebert wrote beautifully, passionately, and in the first person about something he loved. And he made me think I might do it too.

Ebert’s collection Great Movies are guides to an enduring art form and a celebration of the highest talent that ever existed in movies.1

Life Itself is something different. Ebert is the subject, director, and writer. And he doesn’t disappoint.

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.

Faced with life-altering illness, Ebert writes with uncharacteristic seriousness, even sentiment, perhaps from a need to self-reveal, perhaps from expediency. Perhaps both.2

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 and his wife, Chaz, whom he didn’t find until later in life because of his alcoholism.

How can I begin to tell you about Chaz? She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she is the love of my life, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading. If my cancer had come, and it would have, and Chaz had not been there with me, I can imagine a descent into lonely decrepitude.

Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz, 2005. (UPI Photo/Jim Ruymen)
People are extremely important in Ebert’s life and the narrative of Life Itself. His revisits friendships with film critics like Gene Siskel and directors like Werner Herzog and Martin 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 learn something useful and true about cinema.

Loneliness is another constant theme in Life Itself.

I’ve read Ebert for decades, have met him a few times at book signings. Watching movies is a shallow experience without him. I imagine Ebert was a showman, someone who loved the spotlight, had ideas and inspirations, and was a natural leader, if not a little arrogant and bombastic.

I imagine he bore his deficiencies solidly (although not publicly because he was from a different era). And I always imagined him to be quite lonely.3

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.

Venice photograph by Ellen Vrana. Featured in Joseph Brodsky's "Watermark" in The Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

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.

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.

Life itself

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 was all there was.

One of my favorite things about Roger Ebert is that he believed in meaning through feeling. He’s admitted that when he didn’t understand a film, he 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.

Read Ebert’s memoirs alongside a book he loved, Sydney Lumet’s Making Movies—not a memoir but a study of work and art and an expression of creative being.

An interesting fact 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 Helpless Devotion to Pets.

Ebert’s self-examination in Life Itself is what I would call his “Ikiru process” named for the 1952 film made by Akira Kurosawa about failed life of a Japanese bureaucrat who just learned he is dying of cancer. In the film, we sit with Mr. Watanabe as he takes his last paces, seeking a victory of self in a game that has just about ended.

I saw Ikiru first in 1960 or 1961. I went to the movie because it was playing in a campus film series and cost only a quarter. I sat enveloped the story of Watanabe for two and a half hours, and wrote about it in a class where the essay topic was Plato’s statement “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Over the years I have seen Ikiru every five years or so, and each time it has moved me and made me think. And the older I get, the less Watanabe seems like a pathetic old man and the more he seems like every one of us.

From Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies.

Read full review here.

Ebert examined life through film, his own life more than anyone’s, and as he does, unlike Watanabe, he renders a positive review.

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.4

Life Itself