06 April 2013

Life, Itself by Roger Ebert

Before I read this book, I wasn’t informed in any considerable way as to Ebert’s past. I figured that he had a boring life that nonetheless was full to the brim with observations and anecdotes about movies, actors, and the business. Imagine my surprise when I learned in instance after instance about the tumult in the man’s life. We’ve got anecdotes about everything from school, Catholicism, racism, family, cars, sex, Robert Mitchum, alcoholism, television, death, his own brushes with death, the Chicago newspaper scene, Steak ‘N Shake, bars, books, women, and travel. I had no idea in the least that he’d been around the block so many times. As Ebert makes clear, he misses some of it, but a good deal of it is seen with the pain that only a hard won wisdom seems to make tolerable. “Bitter” or “lonely” are the last words I’d use to describe Ebert. Still, many regrets are registered, but all in a tone of gratitude and good humor. This aspect of the book fascinated me greatly. The animating force seems to be his curiosity about the world and his joy at being part of it. Perhaps this is natural for a man who almost died on a few occasions, but what impressed me was the humility related in these stories. I almost wish it could have been longer as the range of his anecdotes and opinions rarely grew stale. While it was somewhat disappointing that the book wasn’t filled entirely with info about the movies – the sections on Russ Meyer, Martin Scorsese, and Werner Herzog were excellent though to my mind too brief – he has many great stories about being a newspaper and television critic. Anyone interested in Chicago newspapers should read this book at once as Ebert makes this lost era glow with nostalgia even though he never romanticizes it. (His well-timed digs at Rupert Murdoch are priceless.) I loved the discussion of his library as the man’s passion for books and reading is so familiar to the many of us who share it that it soon becomes likely that an entire book on the subject by Ebert would be a gift from heaven. His late chapter on religion is one of the most moving anecdotal treatments of the subject that I’ve ever read that I wonder at how many of the present world’s so-called experts in theology and philosophy could be so boring and tone deaf. In addition to his humble curiosity about the world, his joy around others – whether it was family, Chicago newspapermen, friends at film festivals, or characters in books – emerges as the strongest testament to the man’s love of life. He captures the sights and rhythms of life with lovely detail and a paucity of affectation. He also gives equal time to his triumphs like having his television show for so long and getting to interview the likes of Robert Mitchum and John Wayne – he never brags about that Pulitzer, though – as well as his failures such as the medical history of radiation in his late life being a very painful example. I wouldn’t call this one of the greatest memoirs ever, but it’s still a very strong achievement for what would seem to be a very ordinary life.

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