I just finished Roger Ebert’s end-of-life memoir, Life Itself, and it’s magnificent.
He tracks through his life in a series of short chapters about different facets of his life, including his childhood, his early days as a Chicago cub reporter, and his life amongst the celebrities after he became a celebrity himself. He highlights a handful of actors and directors, including a very fine appraisal of John Wayne (Ebert thinks Wayne’s been underrated as an actor and as a human being, and so do I); Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, Ingmar Bergman and Werner Herzog. Here’s a sample of his writing about the great eccentric of German cinema:
He wasn’t pitching or promoting. It was clear to him what his mission was. It was to film the world through the personalities of exalted eccentrics who defied all ordinary categories and sought a transcendent vision. Every one of his films has followed that same mission. . . . Each film, in a new way, dealt with the fundamental dilemma of consciousness: We know we are here, we know what we see, we learn what we can, we try to do more than is possible, we fail, but we have glimpsed a vision of the infinite. That sounds goofy and new age, but there is no more grounded filmmaker than Herzog. He founds his work on the everyday realities of people who, crazy or sane, real or fictional, are all equally alive to him.
Damn good stuff, and right on the money. In fact, I struggled to find the locus of Herzog’s otherworldly power and weird intensity until I read this passage, and then Herzog’s entire oeuvre shifted into place.
If you only know Ebert from his newspaper reviews, you’re missing a great writer and critic. Ebert’s short reviews were often weak, and he’s rightly eclipsed by many other great movie reviewers. (J. Hoberman writes the funniest reviews; Pauline Kael is the most infuriating and intriguing; David Thomson is the most engaging; David Denby has the best background, even though he privileges “message” movies; Anthony Lane is the most acerbic; Dave Kehr is the most dismissively opinionated.; I could go on, but all of these are arguably better film critics of individual films.) Ebert always seemed to like everything, and I always lumped him together with peter Travers, that other big-name reviewer who put his stamp on every piece of offal that Hollywood releases. I was wrong. Ebert’s the best appreciater of film, and his Great Movies series is the best introduction to great cinema I’ve ever read. He provides context, history, anecdotes—like most good critics—but all of it couched in a profound humanism and decency that gives each review a warm glow. It’s much, much harder to write insightful, appreciative criticism than it is to write snarky dismissals. Ebert, for much of his career, could do both. He lost his edge somewhere in the mid-1990s, but who doesn’t mellow with age?
His Great Movies books are full of wise, knowing, compassionate readings like this of (mostly) canonized films. Most of the movies are predictable, but some are not. I reread these with some regularity. They offer a vast canvas of film history chiseled out of four-page reviews. He champions foreign films from around the globe, while illuminating our own treasure trove of filmmakers here in the States. He isn’t casual dismissive, he doesn’t draw blood with sarcasm or vitriol; instead he builds a structure of great movies that could be a stand in for a film studies class. Every body should own a copy.
His life was a string of newspaper successes. He was accomplished in high school, in college, and as a journalist all before he slipped into film criticism. He was by his own admission arrogant, imperious, difficult. He was lucky, too. Without any planning and little ambition he ended up on a television show with his best friend and worst enemy Gene Siskel and they became household names and international stars. Ebert tracks his relationship with Siskel with the warmth and affection of the passage of time. When they were up and comers fighting for the spotlight, they often went at each other with sharpened knives.
The book is punchy, rapid-fire scenes looped together with Ebert’s crisp, elegant writing. It’s often funny, always insightful and occasionally very moving. He tracks his friendships, his failures, his alcoholism, his busted relationships and his lifelong companions. His story contains the lives and deaths of many notable and not so notable people, and he gives each person their fair due. He has a superb touch evoking bygone days, foreign cities, the thrill of seeing a great film for the first time.
Eventually, Ebert became ill, had a series of bouts with cancer, lost his jaw, emerged from chemotherapy looking like a hideous creature from some bad science fiction film. He couldn’t eat, couldn’t drink, lived off of tubes and couldn’t speak except with a computer or legal pad. Books and movies became his major point of entry for life, and gained greater importance. He became more humble, more introspective, better. He didn’t feel sorry for himself. He didn’t pout or retreat from his suffering. Instead he opened up his thoughts and feelings for the world. He began to ruminate on this life through a weekly blog, and from these ruminations he formed his autobiography.He emerged as a more robust thinker and a public intellectual. Despite his handicaps—he didn’t eat or drink anything for years—he refused self-pity.
(Interestingly, the book that mattered the most to him in his final days was Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree.)
Ebert chronicles his final years with humor, dignity and detachment. He knew he was dying when he wrote Life Itself, and his writing on the subject of death is as moving, honest and powerful as that of Marcus Aurelius:
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death of fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. . . . I don’t expect to die anytime soon. But it could happen this moment, while I am writing. . . . Many readers have informed me that it is a tragic and dreary business to go into death without faith. I don’t feel that way. “Faith” is neutral. All depends on what is believed in. I have no desire to live forever.
He was an odd television star, well-spoken but often uncomfortable on camera. Here he is arguing with critic John Simon over the Star Wars films.
 His Great Books, about as a middle-aged man his re-enrollment in the great books courses at Columbia University, is not only one of the best books on literature, it’s also the best book about the culture wars of the 1990s.