Fairly early on in my reading of film critic Roger Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself, I decided that, if I were ever to write my own autobiography – not that I necessarily would – it should be modeled on this book. Organized thematically, with an overarching, but not strict, chronology, using short chapters (55 in 420 pages).
But I’m probably not going to write mine because I doubt I could be so descriptive. Ebert remembers things from his childhood that would have eluded me writing about mine. More importantly, though, he writes with incredible honesty. The very first line encapsulates the sensation: “I was born inside the movie of my life.” Yet, though known as probably the premiere movie critic of his time, he got the job “out of a clear blue sky,” and without much thought that it would be his life’s work.
Since I’ve started following him on various movie review TV programs, initially co-starring the late Gene Siskel back in the late 1970s, Roger Ebert has had a distinctive and intelligent voice when speaking about the cinema. But since just before the illness that has silenced his speaking voice, and turned him into what he described as looking like the 1925 version of Phantom of the Opera, his commentary on other aspects of life has proven to be extraordinary. And it all started with his blog:
“My blog became my voice, my outlet, my ‘social media’ in a way I couldn’t have imagined. Into it, I poured my regrets, desires, and memories…The comments were a form of feedback I’d never had before, and I gained a better and deeper understanding of my readers. I made ‘online friends’, a concept I scoffed at. Most people choose to write a blog. I need to.”
Ebert writes about family, growing up Catholic, race, and, naturally, a lot about writing. He explains how he collected places, in London, Venice, and elsewhere, that he would come back to again and again; now that he can’t visit physically, he can still experience them in his mind. Alcoholism – his mother’s and his own – is discussed thoroughly; 1979 marked the beginning of his sobriety.
He discusses several Hollywood legends, but my favorite chapters of those are about directors Martin Scorsese, whose first film is a touchstone for Ebert; and Werner Herzog, with whom he has a spiritual bond, though not in a theological sense. Perhaps not coincidentally, they are all about the same age.
Then there’s the chapter about Siskel, his TV partner, with whom he had a complicated but ultimately fraternal relationship of love and respect. It was Siskel’s agent who packaged them together, suggesting that they be seen together, which made their presence more distinctive.