LIFE ITSELF by Roger Ebert: Book Review [The Ryan Dixon Line]

Every hero hears the call to adventure. So, too, then must a critic — perhaps the most passive of all protagonists — discover the stylistic and aesthetic tools needed to tell perfect strangers how to think about a work of art.

In Roger Ebert’s new memoir Life Itself, the critical call to adventure occurs after first seeing legendary director Ingmar Bergman’s drama of existential dread, Persona:

I didn’t have a clue how to write about it. I began with a simple description: “At first the screen is black. Then, very slowly, an area of dark grey transforms itself into blinding white. This is light projected onto the screen, the first basic principle of the movies. The light flickers and jumps around, finally resolving itself into a crude cartoon of a fat lady.” And so on. I was discovering a method that would work with impenetrable films: Focus on what you saw and how it affected you. Don’t fake it.

Roger Ebert has never faked it. The passion and clarity with which he writes about movies in his memoir is infectious, reminding us why, as America’s most influential cinematic tastemaker, he is the critic who launched a thousand cinephiles.

Ebert’s promotion to film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times at age 25 and his rapid ascent to multi-media cultural mainstay is chronicled in several wonderfully entertaining chapters that form the narrative spine of this book. Along with Bergman, film luminaries Martin Scorsese, Russ Meyer, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, John Wayne, Werner Herzog, Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin are portrayed with such grin-inducing gusto that it’s a constant temptation to put the book down and just watch their movies.

Aside from movies, we quickly discover, Roger Ebert loves a lot of other things too: Full-figured women; 1957 Studebakers; Mark Twain; Studs Terkel; Dan-Dan the Yo-Yo Man. He also loves Oprah (but didn’t date her), Steak ‘N Shake (a lot), London, long walks, Cormac McCarthy’s Sutree and breakfast at the Le St. Antoine Café in Cannes.

That there is so much love in Ebert’s memoir is a sign of a well-lived life. It does not, however, always guarantee gripping reading and, unfortunately, Life Itself often suffers from what is left out.

The most glaring sin of omission are the details regarding the legendary partnership with Gene Siskel, his cerebral, ultra competitive, Chicago Bulls-obsessed, comrade-in-thumbs. (During the Michael Jordan years, Siskel never had a problem giving then-coach Phil Jackson coaching advice.)

While Ebert sketches his relationship with Siskel (from enemies to frenemies to just plain friends) in punchy and entertainingly anecdotal fashion, the page space devoted to why “Siskel & Ebert” became one of the most famous partnerships in history and their TV show’s profound influence on film criticism — for better and for worse — barely amounts to the length of a tweet.

“Siskel & Ebert” is not the only portion of Ebert’s life explored superficially. During the memoir’s opening chapters — focusing on his youth in Urbana, Illinois during the 1940’s and 1950’s — readers may feel like they’re trapped on a porch next to a beloved, but unfocused great uncle reminiscing at random about what life was like “back in my day.” Seemingly every cliched totem of Eisenhower’s Arcadian America is put into this flimsy family scrapbook: eccentric relatives, beloved pets, half-forgotten townsfolk, stamp collecting and summer days where “time stretched forward beyond all imagination.

And while Ebert’s passion for the pop-cultural treasures of that time are occasionally connected to his personal evolution, that he devotes more page space to the glories of Steak ‘n Shake’s Steakburger (“a symphony of taste and texture”) than to the emotional after-shocks of his father’s death immediately after his high school graduation is a sign that perhaps there are still some things Ebert would rather not review.

Arriving at the Sun-Times in 1966, Ebert’s rollicking recollections of his newspaper days are juxtaposed against his descent into the sort of functional alcoholism that was legendary in newsrooms during that period. His battle with that disease, decision to quit in 1978 and clean and sober later years serve as an effective through-line in a book too often burdened with a scattershot structure resembling a collection of loosely connected personal essays rather than a linear narrative.

If the weakness of the first quarter of the book is Ebert’s inability to frame his childhood with thematic resonance, he more than makes up for it in the final chapters. Composed with an almost discomforting emotional nakedness, the concluding portion of Life Itself reaches the voyeuristic reader/author apotheosis that is the heart and soul of the best memoirs.

Ebert reveals that after his father’s death, his mother’s hostility toward her son refusing the priesthood transformed into an obsession with keeping an iron grip on his sex life well into middle age. She attempted to destroy any relationship he dared venture into. Even seemingly insignificant college hookups were not immune to her fury:

“Late one night after an orgasmic session in the front seat of my car in front of one of the university residence halls, I hung my blue jeans in the back of my closet, planning to wash them later. With an uncanny sixth sense, she found them there the next morning and waved the proof of my sin before me, accusing me of having “wasted a baby.””

The horror film of his mother’s booze-fueled later years is juxtaposed against the moving story of Ebert’s romance with his wife (and now business partner) Chaz. It was their love, he writes, that allowed him to survive three thyroid-cancer surgeries and a multitude of facial reconstruction failures that eventually left him without a lower jaw or the ability to speak, eat and drink:

“She has been with me in sickness and in health, certainly far more sickness than we could have anticipated. I will be with her, strengthened by her example. She continues to make my life possible, and her presence fills me with love and deep security. That’s what a marriage is for. Now I know.”

In part because of its flaws, Life Itself is an inspiring manifesto to cultivating a life worth living. As Ebert writes in the final chapter, “I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is the best we can do.”

By those standards, both Roger Ebert and Life Itself is a rousing success.

Follow Ryan Dixon on Twitter @ryanbdixon. Order a copy of his graphic novel Hell House: The Awakening HERE.

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We received a review copy of this book from Grand Central Publishing.