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Life Itself by Roger Ebert (2011) 415 p.

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I’ve been a reader of Roger Ebert’s writing for a long time, though I can’t remember how long – certainly it must be since at least 2010, since I remember reading his recollections of London when I first visited it myself. I mention that because he’s not a household name in my native Australia in the way that he is, I understand, in the United States, where Siskel & Ebert was a long-running movie review program syndicated nationwide. Australia’s version of this was Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, who after 25 years on our public broadcasters parted ways in 2014; Margaret the enthusiastic bundle of energy, David the stern, pessimistic headmaster figure. It irritates me not so much that they decided to retire, but rather that neither SBS nor the ABC has picked up the slack with a new full-length movie review show, leaving me at the office watching Mark Kermode on our BBC feed reviewing movies which might very well not come out in Australia for another year. Come on, people, what am I paying my four cents a day for?

Anyway: Roger Ebert was famed as a film critic, and while his movie reviews were brilliant, when I really started to find him fascinating as a writer and a person was when I started reading his blog. I understand he mostly took up writing this (and much of it is reproduced in Life Itself) after his thyroid cancer surgery in 2006 robbed him of speech. He covers all manner of topics: his memories of staying in an old London hotel, his walks around that city, his opinions on architecture, his love of physical books. He was an unfailingly honest writer – collected in this memoir are chapters where he talks about his alcoholism, his obesity, his failed relationships. He’s evocative, as when writing about his young days as a newshound working for the Chicago Sun in the 1960s:

“Come on, kid,” Royko said. “Let’s have a drink at the eye-opener place.” It was a bar under the tracks so cramped the bartender could serve everyone without leaving his stool. “Two blackberry brandies and short beers,” he said. He told me, “Blackberry brandy is good for hangovers. You never get charged for a beer chaser.” I sipped the brandy, and a warm place began to glow in my stomach. I had been in Chicago four months and I was sitting under the L tracks with Mike Royko in an eye-opener place. A Blackhawks game was playing on WGN radio. The team scored, and again, and again. This at last was life.
“The Blackhawks are really hot tonight,” I observed to Royko.
He studied me. “Where you from, kid? Downstate?”
“Urbana,” I said.
“Ever seen a hockey game?”
“No.”
“That’s what I thought, you asshole. Those are the game highlights.”

He can be very funny:

The first time I saw him, he was striding toward me out of the burning Georgia sun, as helicopters landed behind him. His face was tanned a deep brown. He was wearing a combat helmet, an ammo belt, carrying a rifle, had a canteen on his hip, stood six feet four inches. He stuck out his hand and said, “John Wayne.” That was not necessary.

And he can be poignant, like the closing lines of his chapter remembering his long-time friend and film critic partner Gene Siskel (who died in 1999), the two of them famed for their Statler-and-Waldorf bickering and arguing:

We once spoke with Disney and CBS about a sitcom to be titled, “Best Enemies.” It would be about two movie critics joined in a love/hate relationship. It never went anywhere, but we both believed it was a good idea. Maybe the problem was that no one else could possibly understand how meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love.

There was a lot of other stuff in here I wasn’t particularly engaged with; he lingers a long time on his childhood, and there are a lot of chapters devoted to his relationship with individual directors or actors who were mostly famous in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to someone who wasn’t an admirer of Ebert’s – or even someone who was. I do, though, recommend perusing his blog. The writing is what it’s all about, really. Who cares about the format?

You can to this day type in any movie and the word “ebert” into Google and, if it was released before his death in 2016, odds are he reviewed it. It makes me sad to think I’ll never be able to know his thoughts on movies that came after that point. But on the other hand, the whole canon of cinema is still sitting there, and Ebert saw ten times as many films as most of us will see in our whole lives. So I can still occasionally catch middling films from thirty years ago late at night on TV, watching them out of the corner of my eye while working on something else, and open another tab to idly check what Roger Ebert thought of some forgotten 1980s potboiler. I appreciate that.

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