Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Roger Ebert: Life Itself

I'm outsourcing my book reviewing! Not really. But below is a syndicated article written by a friend of mine, reviewing Roger Ebert's Life Itself: A Memoir.

This article is reprinted with permission from Movie Reviews by Dusty. You can find the original article HERE.

When hearing the name Roger Ebert, many people picture a short chubby man who argues about movies. Those who follow his work closely (like me) realize that he's also an accomplished writer who provides valuable insight on a range of topics including movies. With the publishing of "Life Itself" both casual viewers and loyal fans of Ebert get a extensive view of the man behind the image.

If you follow Roger's blog, you have a general idea of his health issues. He had cancerous tumors removed from glands in his neck a few years ago. The surgery was more extensive than had been predicted and required Ebert's lower jaw to be removed. After several failed attempts at reconstruction, he has resigned himself to accept his current status. He's no longer able to speak, eat, or drink.

While many people would retire or fall into depression, Ebert has remained active and arguably, is more productive than ever before. In my opinion, Ebert has had a surge of introspection due to his close encounters with mortality. I think the book says this too, but never in such a direct way. His online journal is constantly updated with personal stories and opinions while his following on Facebook and Twitter have never been better. He won the Webby "Person of the year" award in 2010 and was honored with a lifetime achievement award by that association. Though he's lost his voice, he's gained a powerful, inspirational voice in the virtual world.

"Life Itself" is a culmination of Ebert's personal journals. Many of the stories are actually reprinted directly from his blog. Other chapters contain interviews and essays he wrote earlier in his career. This may seem like a cheap way to make a book longer, but when read along with the new material one views the articles with a perspective that is otherwise impossible.

Before reading the book I never realized how well-read and well-traveled Mr. Ebert was. You wouldn't think a movie critic would have the time to bury himself in books. Yet, he does exactly that in both a literal and figurative way. There are so many books in his home office that he barely has room to open a door. With a bit of mortar you could build a life-size replica of the Empire State Building from Ebert's books.

His travels began at an early age. Roger enrolled in a college program that allowed him to spend time in South Africa. He also spends an entire chapter describing every step he ever took in London. There are similar fond recollections of Venice and Cannes. He has truly been a world traveler for his entire life.

The personal details revealed in this book are a testament to courage. Many reviewers have mentioned the passage where Roger describes losing his virginity to a South African prostitute, but it's the emotional disclosures that really impacted me. He talks at length about his alcoholism and its effect on his relationships, many that could have lead to marriage. Though he's never had children, he conveys a great desire to have them. He admits to sending money to a woman claiming to bear an illegitimate child of his. He's not gullible, but has a strong subconscious desire to be a father. Those paternal instincts have been at least partially fulfilled by his full acceptance into his wife's family. His wife is black and Ebert gives us his honest opinions about what it's like to marry into a black family. He refers to them as if they were blood relatives and you get the sense that he also thinks of them that way also.

Ebert's interviews with celebrites are considered some of the best. His style is unique and uninvasive. When he visits with someone like Robert Mitchum, it's truly a visit. He simply spends time with his subject and writes down every action they take along with every word they speak. This allows them to speak on their own terms which usually yields surprising results. He laments that his loss of speech has taken his ability to have a real conversation with people he admires. Though he is content in his current condition, he still desires to have intimate conversations with the current crop of movie stars like he did in his prime.

His celebrity profiles are excellent, but my favorite chapter is a profile of one of Ebert's friends. The man called Billy "Silver Dollar" Baxter turns out to be a bigger character than any movie star. Roger met him at Cannes where "Silver Dollar" was king. He was a beloved figure at the Cannes Film Festival even though he never called anyone by their name and never tipped more than a dollar. This chapter is a reprint from one of Roger's journal entries, but it absolutely belongs in the book. It exemplifies the unique writing style for which Ebert is known. Because it's a online journal entry I can link to it HERE. Consider it an excerpt.

"Life Itself" begins with Ebert's birth and ends in the current year, never sparing a detail. I'm not sure what else you can expect from a memoir. Even though I was already a fan, I found that Roger Ebert's life has a depth of character that most lives will never attain. If you didn't admire him before, you might after reading "Life Itself". If you already admired him, you will do so even more.