The Movies, And Then Some

Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something
profound, no matter how silly the film may seem.

That sentence, written by America’s most popular film critic and proprietor of the best movie website in existence*, so artfully sums up a Master’s thesis upon which I slaved for a year and a half that my first reaction was jealousy. Then appreciation. Finally something like awe. It also encapsulates the whole of Roger Ebert’s lovely memoir, LIFE ITSELF, in which little incidences, even silly at times, combine to form a warm, soothing sensibility that spreads from the ephemeral flicker of a magic lantern into…life itself.

Gene Siskel (l.) and Roger Ebert in the mid-Nineties.

Did you notice that Ebert used the term “movie”? If not, it’s probably because you didn’t share his generation’s twin discoveries: (a) the cinema grew up in the rest of the world long before it did in America, and (b) our tossed-off studio melodramas nevertheless served as worldwide cultural icons, a function they still fulfill. We received, and we gave. The typical academician tends to refer to this kinetic, dynamic art form as “film.” But to Ebert, Pauline Kael, and other populist critics (perfectly conversant on world cinema, thank you very much), they were nothing more aesthetically threatening than “the movies.” That casual but respectful aspect informs all of Ebert’s multivoluminous criticism – and his richly enjoyed life.

My thesis was on “fantasy films” (in Ebert’s non-academic parlance, “monster movies”) from the late Forties to the early Sixties. I labored to show how they tracked the public’s increasing unease over the Red menace and the atomic bomb; they were popular because they reflected something in the audience, even though they were produced for no more noble reason than to make a buck. To Ebert: well, duh! He’s always been easy to like in his affable persona as an intelligent Everyman who insists on cutting to the chase, as it were. But here he reveals a remarkable layer of serious literary power – this is easily the best thing he’s ever written – which may have come his way due to what many, but not the author, might judge to be a personal tragedy.

In 2006, Ebert was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in a salivary gland, the disease reappearing after a span of almost twenty years. (This after successfully removing a thyroid tumor.) He needed an operation, but was anxious to get back on the air; he had learned (“all by myself, with nobody to blame”) of some pioneering work being done in neutron radiation, and — against his doctors’ advice – unwisely decided to try ”a shortcut that would avoid plastic surgery and a healing period.” Surgery after surgery followed, and Ebert finally lost the ability to eat, drink and speak. But not the ability to see and hear (the senses he needs to absorb a movie), and not his epistolary gift (the charming, personal way he tells us about it). Since it was revealed in a full-page Esquire magazine photo, Ebert’s deformed but still expressive face (“you don’t like it, that’s your problem”) has become second nature to his many admirers, and though he now requires an announcer to read his reviews on tv, he appears every week, usually in full smiling regalia to give the famous “thumbs-up” sign, but only when it’s deserved. There is no corresponding summative look at the critic for “thumbs down.” Still, his recuperation bravely managed by his superstrong, cosmically devoted wife Chaz, against all odds Roger Ebert has actually struggled back onto the air.

Roger Ebert in early 2011.

If you lose certain senses, do the ones you still have become heightened? There’s reason to think so. With Ebert’s communicative powers limited to the use of fingers on a keyboard, he began to write harder than ever: wouldn’t you? He started a blog, which quickly turned personal, and he writes that much of this book sprang forth from that experience. There are 55 rather short chapters, and one can see him fall into the rhythm of the blog post, a form of “first-person confession,” as he puts it, that he had scorned before his surgery.

“I was born inside the movie of my life,” he writes, and the first remarkable thing about this book is the arresting detail Ebert can remember from early on. He can certainly call up more about his early life than I can about mine, though there are some coincidences. As young lads, we both had dogs named Blackie. Our first cars were both 1954 Fords, though Ebert’s was closer to the showroom (he’s seven years older than I am). We were each formed by the newspaper life. But I doubt I could conjure my own earlier days with such minute accuracy.

Of course, Ebert’s journey eventually leads to the movies, and there’s plenty of that here. I’ve always found him to be among the most joyful of our film critics. He wants to like every movie he sees, and if anything, he’s been too generous over the years, in my opinion. Still, I’d rather read someone who occasionally errs in that direction than undergo the genuine nastiness of, say, John Simon (whom Ebert himself views with “repugnance”) or Rex Reed – and, let’s face it, Ebert has written enough pans to fill three perversely enjoyable books: I HATED, HATED, HATED THIS MOVIE, YOUR MOVIE SUCKS, and A HORRIBLE EXPERIENCE OF UNBEARABLE LENGTH.

Ebert is so easy to read because he follows the advice given him by Pauline Kael: “I go into the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me.” He doesn’t show off his knowledge of film history or technique – though he is an expert on both subjects – like a coffeehouse boor who’s just discovered the French New Wave. He simply writes about what happened to him, even in his highly commendable biweekly series of essays on classic films he calls “The Great Movies,” which have so far been collected in three books and a wonderfully useful iOS app.

Individual pictures have given Ebert great pleasure, but this book shows that the real benefit of the movie beat is the people you get to meet. Here are wonderful moments with Woody Allen, Werner Herzog, Lee Marvin, Martin Scorsese (whom Ebert pegged as a great one early on), John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and two people especially close to the author: Russ Meyer and Gene Siskel, whose relationship to Ebert was complicated and fascinating. Covering the movies also gives you a reason to travel, and Ebert knows London as well as a native; his early book THE PERFECT LONDON WALK is still guiding amblers today. Cannes, Venice, Paris, Rome – Ebert can close his eyes and imagine street corners and specific shops and hotels as he fantasizes “Being By Myself in a City Where No One Knows Who I Am and No One Knows Where to Find Me.”

Then there is the indefatigable Chaz, his wife of two decades, who literally saved Ebert’s life. He writes that he was unfit for marriage as a young man, partially due to Chicago-barroom-style alcoholism, which threatened to derail his promising career (“I believe I came closer than many people realized,” he writes) before he quit drinking in 1979. Without her, he insists, his illness would have withered him away.

A great gourmand (and, like all good Midwesterners, slavishly devoted to Steak ‘n’ Shake, the heartland burger chain, which gets its own chapter), Ebert insists that it’s not so much the taste of food, but the social aspect of dining that he misses: “Unless I’m alone, it doesn’t involve dinner if it doesn’t involve talking.” That yearning for communication is what pushed him into the world of blogging, and eventually led to this beautiful book, which I can’t recommend highly enough. “Maybe that’s why writing has become so important to me,” he explains. “You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner right now.”

1/6/15: Steve James’s documentary based on this book is sublime. I missed it at Sundance last year, but I finally caught up with it on CNN. Seek it out. It shows everything I’ve tried to tell.

*This one is the second best.

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