April 5, 2013
Roger Ebert, Writer
If you think of Roger Ebert (who passed away yesterday) as a movie critic or a TV personality first, let me recommend to you his beautiful 2011 memoir, Life Itself.
The New York Times damned his book with faint praise: "It takes him a third of the book to finish with school days" — but saying that very much misses the point. It's the simplicity of the storytelling and clarity of memory for those school days that I think are the high point of Ebert's memoir.
It's in those pages that he shows how the groundwork was laid for his career as a writer — and where the revelation comes that he very much aimed to be a writer more than anything else. The fact that his fame came through (a) being on TV and (b) talking about movies shouldn't distract us from what a beautiful writer he was. And in Life Itself you have the treat of not only reading lots of that beautiful writing but also learning where it came from.
I remember how surprised I was when my dad and mom (who for years led an annual group trip to London) showed me a book in the late '80s entitled The Perfect London Walk. What a coincidence! It was written by some guy also named Roger Ebert. No, that's no doppelgänger: it was the very man himself. It seemed like an odd stretch to me at the time that a movie guy would dare to write so different a kind of book.
But the truth is (and always was) that he wasn't just a movie guy. As Life Itself reveals, he pretty much backed into the film-critic's gig at the Chicago Sun-Times by accident. He turned out to be so good at it because he was first of all so humane an observer and so deft a writer. But I'm sure glad he took the assignment to go to the movies that day.
And of course he was good, really good, at reviewing movies. I know I'm not alone in saying that I almost always felt that he could speak for me about films I loved or hated, both. In my experience, there's really only one glaring exception: he panned Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man as a "strange, slow, unrewarding movie" and hated Neal Young's solo-guitar soundtrack for it. I think in this case Roger flat-out missed the call. But even this instance reveals much; the fact that I vividly remember (and am still irritated by) a review he wrote 17 years ago is an index of his greatness.
We were fortunate to be graced with Ebert's work these past four decades. It's sad to lose a great writer.