If there’s any doubt that Roger Ebert had talent as a screenwriter, look at the fact that the chapter on his first days as a film critic comes exactly a third of the way through his memoir, “Life Itself:” a perfect act break.
The first 22 chapters of Ebert’s account of his own life, before the one titled “My New Job” where he describes the genesis of his title at the Chicago Sun-Times, focus on a number of more personal areas beyond the career that would make him a household name. Although he intersperses a few anecdotes from his later life, particularly some storybook tales from his marriage to his wife Chaz, he doesn’t single out any particular review before he arrives at the critic part of his chronology.
His childhood assumes a kind of mythic quality, the source of a life, relayed with wonder, that naturally gravitated toward the cinema, where similarly anything was possible. From the start, writing was Ebert’s way to connect with people. He formed a makeshift official newspaper for his neighborhood and sending out individual acceptance letters to the few people who supported his boyhood fledgling stamp company. When he finally earned a place in the local paper’s newsroom, his recollections are radiant with tales of covering local sports and the thrill of meeting deadlines, all as part of a well-oiled team.
With all that youthful wonder, Ebert’s description of his younger days also reveals his realist side, writing with a self-awareness about the things were less than ideal: his lack of a compelling family lineage, his ability to strike certain college professors as irrevocably pompous, his various bouts with alcohol before his sobriety in 1979. At some stages, he hints that some of these realizations may have come in retrospect, but regardless of the reason, “Life Itself” presents the man in his entirety, or at least one not interested in submitting himself for hero worship.
Any discussion of his writing (or his work on television) has to acknowledge the fact that he was a funny fellow. Like the best of comedians, not all of his jokes landed. But he never belabored the point. His set-ups were quick, his quips were concise. The wit he engineered came in refreshing bursts. On going to private grade school: “I attended St. Mary’s for an excellent reason: I would go to heaven.”
Occasionally, Ebert would use that same direct snappiness to recall lists of items or people or attractions. Rather than list them as parts of a whole sentence, he would present them individually, without commas, each with their own period or exclamation mark. As a result, the pieces of memory, be they local theater attractions or volumes in his adolescent science-fiction book collection, jump out as individuals, rather than a part of a whole. You can almost hear the satisfaction in him reprinting the words of a high school English teacher’s admonition, that “the paragraph is a matter of style, and not of punctuation.”
From that style (or maybe the reason for it) is a reverent glorification of the taken-for-granted. His veneration of the Steak ‘n Shake restaurant chain is done in the hushed tones usually reserved for iconic heads of state or religious experiences. Yet, his genuine care and appreciation for these otherwise simple pleasures are palpable, done without condescension. The chapter extolling the virtues of dogs, particularly the one from his childhood, comes right after the one concerning his beloved burger joint. In tandem, they represent Ebert’s uncanny ability to link nostalgia with a lifelong passion, to remember fondly while bringing that love and happiness into the present so that it can be continuously enjoyed rather than relegated to a forgotten memory bank. Striking a balance between a respect for the old and the promise of the new. As he says when describing his various European travels, “These places do not involve only a visit, but a meditation: I have been here before, I am here now, I will be here again.”
The stars of his story were not him, but the characters who left impressions ranging from indelible to fleeting — the nun who was better at basketball than anyone at his grade school, the local high school sports beat writer, the owner of his preferred London hideout, fellow Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko, Milton the philosophizing copyboy. Any overseas trip is framed around his travel companions, those who accompanied him on his first trip to California, Cape Town, London, or Venice. Other players in the anecdotes of newspaper frivolity are afforded the lion’s share of dialogue, letting their words help characterize them as much as Ebert’s eagled-eyed descriptions. “You meet someone glancingly in a lifetime who has an unforeseen influence,” he writes of a college friend, but the reverse is also true. He exists as that influence for many of us aspiring to a certain level of critical/personal competence, though he may not have known it.
But maybe he did, which would explain the points in “Life Itself” where he offers up a slice of his memory as an offering to the reader, addressing his audience directly and giving permission to use a certain line or take on a certain mantra or adopt a certain pearl of aged wisdom. And it’s clear he doesn’t hoard the wise words of others. Some of the most important takeaways from “Life Itself” (like a mentor during his days at the News-Gazette once said about writing “One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damned thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end.”) come from those who helped mold him. For those not fortunate enough to work in a newsroom or travel Europe and acquire this sage advice for themselves, he offers a reading list for those looking for inspiration from the written word: ee cummings, Shakespeare and Thomas Wolfe.
And, of course, there’s the movies. There’s a certain satisfaction in learning some of Ebert’s personal connections to particular films, the moments of “8 1/2,” “Mean Streets,” “Cool Hand Luke” that peek through as anchors to his own experiences and further insights into the special place that all of film occupied for him.
You get the sense that Ebert had an encyclopedic memory. All details come through as important, but his stories overflow with so many of them that some seem like afterthoughts. In the paragraphs describing the scores of London shops that comprised potential stops on his city walks, it’s easy to skip over the finely remembered distinguishing features of their storefronts. Yes, he lived an unconventional life of public recognition and professional influence, but in recalling those tiny details, it gives you the impression that your own life is similarly rich with those small gems. All you have to do is remember and keep track of them.
But Roger Ebert makes a confession of sorts, recalling his days at the University of Illinois: “All my life, I’ve been able to absorb stories and repeat them nearly verbatim, and all my life, I have been unable to actually memorize.” You’d never know it from the photographic nature that his personal stories seem to possess. Yet, the fact that he’s able to so vividly and vibrantly capture his own life, it seems inconsequential if some of those details aren’t perfect recreations. Though he made a career writing about other people’s stories, his memoirs will stand as some of his most captivating work. He was already planting the seeds for his legacy even before a review byline ever ran on the pages of a Chicago newspaper.