Cinema of life: Roger Ebert reflects on his journeyWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | email@example.com
Fade in. Interior, hospital room. The camera pans over Roger Ebert as he lies in bed, recovering from his latest surgery. The famous writer, television personality and film analyst — the first in history to win a Pulitzer Prize — is in the throes of a struggle which will cost him his ability to speak, his on-camera career and very nearly his life.
Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in early 2002. Early procedures seemed to remove it successfully, but they were just the tip of an iceberg which would see Ebert in and out of care for most of the coming years. Through it all, he continued to work, to write, to critique, to live. Then, in 2006, following another series of surgeries, Ebert’s carotid artery burst. He came as close to death as it is possible to imagine.
After the bleeding issues were resolved, several efforts were made to repair the damage and restore his speech, a victim of the cancer struggle. All of them failed. One of the most recognizable voices in film discussion was now silenced, most likely forever. But Ebert’s pen — that was still alive and well.
Ebert began to venture more readily into the world of social networking. He had already established a considerable online presence, but now he would connect with readers more directly than ever before. He would eventually open accounts on Facebook and Twitter, but first — and most crucially — he began writing his own online journal.
The blog became one of the most popular elements of his website. He would not only share thoughts on cinema and social issues, but also stories and memories of his life and career. In person, he may have fallen silent, but to the world, he spoke with as much passion and volume as ever.
In an email interview with Toledo Free Press, Ebert said the idea of parlaying these entries — and more original material — into an autobiography occurred to him “very early on.”
“As I mentioned in many of my comments to readers, some blog entries were written deliberately to be chapters in a memoir. Then, when I went to our house in the woods in Michigan a year ago, I wrote only for the book. Later in the fall, I reconsidered all the blog stuff and rethought or rewrote it,” Ebert wrote.
The result, “Life Itself,” is a sharply observed yet lyrical memoir. Ebert’s remarkable writing evokes the emotion of poetry and the detail of in-depth reporting as he revisits his personal history.
The first line of Ebert’s memoir reads, “I was born inside the movie of my life.”
Well, of course he was. Naturally the most famous and popular film critic in the world would relate his life experiences to the cinema.
But then, can’t we all?
“I think we all sometimes think of our own lives as observers,” Ebert wrote. “We experience it, but are not generating it. We are in the audience, not in the projection booth. Our memories are the movie that we saw.
“Films have the same freedom to move through time as memories do. Close-ups, long shots, flashbacks — are all the stuff of dreams.”
When asked whether he approached this work more as a journalist or an author, he seemed to bristle at the idea that there had to be a distinction between the two.
“A journalist can be an author,” Ebert argued. “My newspaper years gave me incentive to write clearly. One of my early editors, Jim Hoge, told me, ‘Anyone who has the price of a newspaper should feel he has a fair chance of understanding most of what he finds in it.’ I believe the most complex thoughts can be expressed in an understandable way. Some writing strikes me as too ‘written,’ as if the author is showing off. Much academic writing is unreadable.”
The memoir is reminiscent of the blog which sired it in several ways, most notably its structure. Each chapter focuses on one important person, event, passion, etc., then tells its complete story in Ebert’s life. There isn’t an effort to impose a narrative “arc” on the whole of his experiences — another choice which came early in the writing process, Ebert said.
“I thought from the first that was the only workable approach,” he wrote. “To write chronologically would have been tiresome, imposing a false sense of structure on a life which, as I say in the first chapter, was largely shaped by good luck, happy accidents and the kindness of others.”
Strange, how readily people will accept the effects of random chance in real life, and how galling people find it in fiction. Those same “happy accidents” have more impact on the way we live than we probably realize. Yet when Horace’s deus ex machina — the “God in the machine” or the unseen hand of fate — intervenes in an entertainment, the audience tends to cry foul.
“We persist in the delusion that we control our fates, when every moment is the result of incalculable possibilities,” Ebert stated. “I willingly accept the deus ex machina in some fiction — in Dickens, for example, who makes no apologies for the intervention of strangers — or Shakespeare, who depends almost absurdly on coincidence.”
Some of the most loving recollections in the book come from Ebert’s childhood — growing up in Urbana, Ill., where he was born in 1942; his parents, Walter and Annabel, who instilled many of the values which define him today; his first times in a movie theater, where he fell under the spell of the flickering images on the screen. Ebert acknowledges how his childhood experiences at the cinema have shaped the way he views movies today.
“My idealization of some movie stars was formed at an early age. I believe all the ‘real’ movie stars are those who we discover before the age of about 18. After that, they’re basically talented contemporaries. I will never, ever, be able to feel about De Niro, Clooney or Brad Pitt the way I felt about Robert Mitchum,” Ebert wrote.
Many of the most fascinating characters and stories in Ebert’s life come from his newspaper career — he began as the Chicago Sun-Times’ film critic in 1967. Tales of smoke-filled offices and encounters with Windy City legends like Mike Royko and Studs Terkel paint a tableau of a journalism era now gone.
“Today’s newspaper offices are like corporate offices,” Ebert lamented. “Cubicles and carpeting. In those days, much leeway was given to eccentricity, to colorful characters, to talent without good manners. Editors were not managers. Story decisions were not driven so much by calculation.
“Newspapers were first weakened, not by the Internet, but by the ascendency of marketing. A newspaper should never think of its city as a ‘market,’ or its readers as a ‘demographic.’”
Ebert does not flinch when he approaches some of the tougher issues in his life — not only the loss of his television partner and friend Gene Siskel in 1999 (“Oh, how he would have despised 3-D!,” Ebert noted), but also his battle with alcoholism, his cancer diagnosis and near-brushes with death.
“I had some great times while drinking, and some good friends,” Ebert remembered. “I had to stop. I couldn’t take the hangovers, the guilt, the deception, the feeling that I was letting myself down. But this isn’t the book of a guy two weeks out of rehab. My last drink was in 1979. There’s no preaching.
“On illness, I tried to write down what happened and how it made me feel. There are no overwrought descriptions of pain. No anguish on learning I would never speak again — because that didn’t happen on a given day, but occurred to me during a series of surgeries. My wife Chaz continued forthrightly to believe I would speak again. Finally we both realized it would have to be in print. In any event, alcoholism and illness aren’t what my life was about.”
But then, no one story, one facet, one struggle defines the whole of any of us. We are all the sum total of the chapters — or scenes — of our life.
“I had a long conversation with myself about what happened,” Ebert said. “Without illness as a motivation, I probably never would have written the book. My life wasn’t remarkable. But like everyone’s, it was singular.”
Thumbs up. Fade out. Credits.