Jim Cullen: Review of Roger Ebert's "Life Itself: A Memoir" (Grand Central, 2011)
Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is completing a study of Hollywood actors as historians slated for publication by Oxford University Press later this year. Cullen blogs at American History Now.
At one point in this memoir, longtime film critic Roger Ebert describes taking an undergraduate class at University of Illinois on the fiction of Willa Cather and being arrested by Cather's prose, which he describes "as clear as running water." Yes, I said aloud: that captures exactly what I've always so liked about Ebert. There's an artlessness to his criticism that could only be honed by decades of newspaper work. I admired Pauline Kael for her inimitable voice -- not that she's lacked imitators -- and the way I found her taste unpredictable. (I'd often try and guess in advance whether she was going to like a movie before I read her review, and as often as not was wrong.) I'm less interested in trying to guess with Ebert than just to hear what he has to say in that sensible, fair voice of his. I think of his plain-spoken sensibility as quintessentially Midwestern by way of Chicago, land of Royko, Terkel and Eppie Lederer, a.k.a. Ann Landers, three of many Windy City scribes who make appearances on these pages. (There are some amusing Ann Landers stories here, including one about Ebert, a recovering alcoholic, trying to take her to an AA meeting and being rebuffed by the participants. Ebert also used her as a prop in trying to pick up the woman who became his wife.)
As regular readers of his work are aware, Ebert has been struggling with various forms of cancer for a decade now, and has undergone surgery that has left him unable to eat, drink, or speak. But, he explains, this involuntary silence seems to have triggered a flood of memory, leading him to start an autobiographical blog that resulted in this book. It does indeed read like an untrammeled river of prose; as an affectionate but frank Maureen Dowd complained in her review, "The effervescent Ebert doesn’t realize ... that for an autobiography, he doesn’t need to include the names of every childhood friend, parish priest, funeral attendee, and even his phone number when he was a boy."
There is, however, a user-friendliness in the structure of Life Itself that comes straight from the Ebert reviewing playbook; I came to think of it as The Roger Ebert Companion, skipping essay-length chapters that I didn't find particularly compelling and savoring others, like his chapters on John Wayne and Martin Scorsese, that were deeply satisfying. Not all of the good parts were about the movie business. I found his evocation of an ordinary Midwestern childhood vivid and moving, and was fascinated by his early newspaper days at the Chicago Sun-Times. Ebert began there in 1967 and thus experienced the earthy working-class tinged culture of journalism before it got streamlined and professionalized in the closing decades of the last century.
Now Ebert himself is an emblem of a vanishing world. He was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize (in 1975) and has churned out reviews with astonishing consistency for forty years. At the same time, Ebert also symbolizes the transformation of journalistic culture. His longtime friendly crosstown rivalry with Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune led to a highly successful syndicated TV show under various names in the eighties and nineties before Siskel's death in 1999 (it continues to run in shifting permutations without him). Ebert's been around long enough to become a brand in his own right, and is now a cottage industry that includes book publishing and a robust online presence. He emphasizes that for all his setbacks of recent years he enjoys reasonably good health -- thanks in no small measure to his wife, Chaz -- and it's clear he intends to ply his trade for some time to come.
It's a good thing: we're not going to get anyone else like him. The days of the professional reviewer seem numbered in a fractured media culture where everybody's an expert and nobody can really expect to make a living as a critic. It seems increasingly exotic to imagine a time when Hollywood studios made it easy for journalists to go behind the camera and when stars would speak their minds without a publicist present. The old order had its corruptions (Kael, we now know, could be shameless in conferring or withholding favor). But Ebert's unselfconscious simplicity describing the old days engenders confidence in an essential decency that has remained intact through thick and thin. Call this one thumbs up.
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