(Audio)Book Talk: LIFE ITSELF, by Roger Ebert

LIFE ITSELF: A MEMOIR by Roger Ebert (audio edition)  via Indiebound.org

Life Itself: A Memoir
Roger Ebert
Audiobook read by Edward Herrmann (IMDb)
Grand Central Publishing (September 2012), Paperback (ISBN 0446584967 / 9780446584968)
Memoir/essays, 448 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Hachette Audio, 2011, ISBN 9781611133226; Audible ASIN B005MM7F1S)
Reason for reading: Personal, via DearReader.com and the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast

Opening lines: “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. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website  

Roger Ebert is the best-known film critic of our time. He has been reviewing films for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967, and was the first film critic ever to win a Pulitzer Prize. He has appeared on television for four decades, including twenty-three years as cohost of Siskel & Ebert at the Movies.

In 2006, complications from thyroid cancer treatment resulted in the loss of his ability to eat, drink, or speak. But with the loss of his voice, Ebert has only become a more prolific and influential writer. And now, for the first time, he tells the full, dramatic story of his life and career.

Roger Ebert’s journalism carried him on a path far from his nearly idyllic childhood in Urbana, Illinois. It is a journey that began as a reporter for his local daily, and took him to Chicago, where he was unexpectedly given the job of film critic for the Sun-Times, launching a lifetime’s adventures.

In this candid, personal history, Ebert chronicles it all: his loves, losses, and obsessions; his struggle and recovery from alcoholism; his marriage; his politics; and his spiritual beliefs. He writes about his years at the Sun-Times, his colorful newspaper friends, and his life-changing collaboration with Gene Siskel. He remembers his friendships with Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, Oprah Winfrey, and Russ Meyer (for whom he wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and an ill-fated Sex Pistols movie). He shares his insights into movie stars and directors like John Wayne, Werner Herzog, and Martin Scorsese.

This is a story that only Roger Ebert could tell.

Comments: News and opinions about entertainment and popular culture weren’t always as readily available as they are these days, and even if everyone was a critic privately, the number of people who had a public outlet and audience for their criticism was pretty small. Roger Ebert didn’t originally set out to be among that small number, but his appointment to the position of film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times–a job he held for four decades–landed him there, and as the first movie critic to win the Pulitzer Prize and co-host a movie-review show on television, he ended up with a larger audience than many. Losing the ability to speak as a side effect of cancer several years ago may have forced him off TV, but it made him an even more prolific writer as he moved to the internet and became a much-followed Twitter personality. Ebert passed away in early April of this year, just days after posting on his website that he would be taking a “leave of presence” from his online activity. But he’s still not really leaving; RogerEbert.com will continue under the direction of his beloved widow, Chaz Ebert.

Ebert began working on his memoirs during the years of his illness, and Life Itself is a volume of “memoirs” in the old-fashioned sense–an individual sharing his lifetime of personal stories, but not necessarily following the chronological structure of autobiography–rather than the more limited-focus “memoir” writing we’re more accustomed to seeing now. That said, the first third or so of the book is pretty straightforward autobiography, and Ebert’s account of his mid-century, Midwestern youth sounds like it wouldn’t have been out of place in a movie; I found it evocative and quite charming.

And that said, I suspect that it’s easier to write about one’s youth in that fashion than it is to discuss the years that follow it; adulthood tends to be a far less linear passage than childhood. Life Itself becomes more sprawling and likely to double back on itself after its midway point, but many of the stories and insights get more interesting. There’s some name-dropping, but in a work life that largely revolved around movies and the people who make them, I didn’t find it ostentatious or out of place; I’d actually rather see the names dropped in than read coy guess-between-the-lines references. And mixed in with the life stories, there’s plenty of movie talk. Ebert includes versions of several of his profiles of classic movie stars and discussions of the filmmakers and movies he’s found particularly meaningful, and most of these are insightful, enlightening examples of the work he’s best known for.

Life Itself feels more like a collection than a cohesive work at times–there’s a sense that some of its stories have been told elsewhere, and more than once. But those stories are set alongside those that Ebert probably hadn’t told many times before–stories of his family, his alcoholism, and his romantic relationships, culminating with the twenty-plus years he spent married to Chaz. It’s apparent that the last chapters were written by someone who knew he didn’t have much time left to say what he wanted to say…and that he’d made peace with it. This is my favorite quote from the book:

“I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

The occasionally repetitive nature of Life Itself might have been a little tedious in print, but in audio–a format I rarely read for more than an hour at a time, with hours (or days) in between readings–it worked well for me, and I thought Edward Herrmann’s narration was a near-perfect fit for the material, beautifully done. (Many listener reviews on Audible were more complimentary of the performance than the book, and while I don’t think I’d go that far, I understand why.) Overall, Life Itself is an engaging exploration of life, work, and the movies, and its writer will be greatly missed.

Rating: Book and audio–4 of 5

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