By liz holbert
December 14, 2011
Any sort of movie fan will be familiar with a man named Roger Ebert, who famously awards a good film with raised thumbs. Those fans may have also heard that, in recent years, cancer and illness has stolen from Ebert the ability to speak. For Ebert, memoir is a way to communicate when he has lost the ability to do so. He reflects that when one sense dissolves, another usually sharpens—and so it is with his memories of the past.
Life Itself is clearly written by someone who has spent his life mastering the art of communication. The book flows slowly, but that’s not a bad thing. Ebert’s warm tone leads readers through his life like an exhibit guide, pausing only to convey the gravity or significance of the details—not always the ones expected, but ones like yo-yos, Studebakers and his childhood dog, Blackie. His personal experiences give readers an understanding of what makes the man. Ebert never comes out and says, “This is why I love the movies.” Because Life Itself is not a love story about the movies but a love story about places and people.
The timeline shifts back and forth a bit, presenting life in segments rather than one chronological stretch. The first section of Life Itself is about Ebert’s childhood and growing up years, the way any good memoir should start. His childhood stories are a celebration of the American ideal of family life in the '40s and '50s, presented without sarcasm or bitterness but with admiration. His family memories, especially ones about his father, are so full of love, they’re almost heartbreaking.
Ebert started communicating en masse early. As a child he published papers that circulated to a handful of neighbors. He wrote for newspapers in high school, university and into adulthood. When he was hired as the film critic for the Chicago Sun Times at the age of 25, he thought his career as a critic would be a short gig. Obviously, that was not the case.
After using many chapters to paint the background of his life, Ebert gets down to business with the glossy photo leaf and gives readers an inside look into the market of moviemaking—what it used to be and what it is now. Many of these chapters are devoted to people Ebert worked with, interviewed and counted as friends. It’s in these pages that Ebert immortalizes those worthy in the industry. Some of the immortals include John Wayne and Martin Scorsese. A well-informed film buff will be pleased at the personal accounts of some of cinema’s biggest names. Meanwhile, those not so well-informed will be pleased with a long list of movies to check out. One of the most important characters of Ebert’s life was his partner in film review, Gene Siskel. Though they were not always chummy, their relationship was more love than hate.
Life Itself shows Ebert as a man who views life as a beautiful experience. There is an age-old debate about whether life imitates art or art imitates life, and whether he would come out and say it, Ebert shows readers art imitates life, at least in the movies. So many times in his memoir, Ebert talks about a scene from a movie that affects him deeply because of a memory. Never did he have to experience life vicariously through film. Though he made a living off the movies, the beautiful experience of life means more to Ebert than the beautiful experience of a good film.
Ebert does not shy away from telling readers what he thinks about God and faith. Unfortunately, Ebert also views the church as a beautiful experience—an admiration for elevated practices, which is not a bad thing, but Ebert misses the vital second half of the equation. The last couple chapters are a frustration as Ebert explains why he puts no stock in God and calls for religious tolerance as an absolute.
Readers can respect Ebert’s work ethic, his appreciation for life, his love for those individuals who make him who he is and his courage in facing severe illness. Ebert gives the world and his loved ones a great gift in writing this memoir, allowing readers insight into the heart of a beloved industry and the mind of one of the most recognizable critics of our time.
Liz Holbert’s favorite movie is Shawshank Redemption. She writes about other things she loves at www.zildamarie.blogspot.com.