Life Itself: A Memoir (Roger Ebert, 2011)

I was born inside the movie of my life.  The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily.

These are the first lines from Life Itself, Roger Ebert’s memoir, which came out last year.  In straining themselves for an obvious metaphor, these are also the only poorly written lines in the book.  Better to have started the book a few lines down, especially since the title of this chapter is “Memory”:

I am flat on my stomach on the front sidewalk, my eyes an inch from a procession of ants.  What these are I do not know.  It is the only sidewalk in my life, in front of the only house.

Beginning with these first flickering images (and the metaphor of life being a movie, which is only carried through the first chapter), each successive chapter reads like a personal essay on some aspect of Ebert’s life, or some person important to him.  This isn’t surprising, as the memoirs grew out of material originally written on his blog.

In light of this, it would be more accurate to call this book a series of personal essays, culled from the life and memories of Roger Ebert, than a memoir.  While these stories follow a more-or-less chronological order, the order of events begins to get fuzzy when self-contained stories require a span of multiple years.  Suddenly Chaz is mentioned in stories before Ebert meets Siskel, or Ebert’s alcoholism is conquered before it officially ends, or it ends before we get to the chapter that discusses the details surrounding Opening Soon at a Theater Near You, which predates Ebert giving up drinking.  A string of chapters in the middle of the book, each concerning a different person, most of them actors and directors, destroys any sort of narrative flow that may have existed prior to their inclusion.  Ideally, a few of those chapters would have remained where they were (the ones on Russ Meyer, Billy Baxter, Werner Herzog, and Bill Nack, for example), the rest gathered into an appendix.  Though they are well-written, they shift the focus away from Ebert for too long, and work better as self-contained pieces than as part of a memoir.

And then there are the events that I wish Ebert had written more about.  One of my favorite chapters in the book is the one on Gene Siskel, but in a 415-page book (not including the acknowledgments, index, or about the author sections), does he only merit a 12-page chapter and several references elsewhere?  Since they worked together for so long, I had hoped for more (perhaps even detailing that famous fight they had concerning Full Metal Jacket and Benji the Hunted).  As for winning his Pulitzer Prize, Ebert mentions it, and there’s a photo of him looking at the Chicago Sun-Times headline that reads “Our Roger Ebert Wins Pulitzer,” but he shares no thoughts on the win.  Pauline Kael is mentioned, but she doesn’t receive her own chapter.  For someone whom Siskel joked should have “Full Disclosure” as his middle names, there seems to be a lack of disclosure in this book.

We do, on the other hand, get much detail about Ebert’s love and sex life, and why he remained single for so long (the short answer: drinking and his mother).  He also provides his thoughts on his unsuccessful surgeries, his death (hopefully not for many, MANY years), and religion.

Some of the best parts of this memoir, however, are from the years leading up to Ebert’s job at the Chicago Sun-Times.  Reading about his childhood, I remembered mine, thought roughly 40 years separates them from each other.  His experiences in Cape Town reminded me of mine in London.  And then, of course, he writes beautifully about Gene Siskel (the chapter on him is directly from this blog post) and about his wife, Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert (the chapter on her was posted on his blog the day before their 20th wedding anniversary).  Also included in the book are 42 photos of family, friends, and Ebert himself.

As a memoir, it’s an enjoyable read, but it’s not in the pantheon of great memoirs, like Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant or Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, where time, circumstances, and personal introspection combine with excellent writing in tying together not just the events of their lives, but in giving them meaning.  Ebert, sometimes, is too much of a newspaper man, relating a dizzying amount of facts and details, but not spending enough time in pulling meaning from them, or in transitioning from one story (article) to the next.  We get a good sense of what Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, and John Wayne are like, but there’s a distance in Ebert’s descriptions of them.  He does not judge; he observes.  Biographies and autobiographies observe, as well, but memoirs require observation and reflection.  We get some of that in Life Itself, but not enough.  In the end, I left marveling at the writing, but felt a bit unsatisfied at the content.