I was nine years old, and I wandered into the living room to find my mother watching some show on PBS. It was a show about movies – there would be a clip of a new movie that was out, and these two guys would then talk a bit about whether the movie was any good or not. One of these guys was a thin, lanky guy. The other was a squat, fat guy. The thin guy was named Gene. The fat guy was named Roger.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s called Sneak Previews,” my mother answered. “Those two men are film critics. They tell us if movies are good or not.”
And I watched the thing. I didn’t know anything about movies, but these two guys were interesting to watch. Another year or two later, their show was off PBS, which struck me as a bummer…but they turned up again, in a syndicated show that was on, like many syndicated shows, at whatever time some station or other felt like putting it on. No matter, it was fun seeing these two guys, Gene and Roger – who worked for newspapers in Chicago – talk about movies.
So I watched Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert for years, off and on, right up until Siskel’s deeply saddening death in 1998. Then I watched Ebert and Richard Roeper (a good enough fellow, but no substitute for Siskel) for a few more years, until we no longer had cable and thus the show was beyond my grasp. And then, a few years after that, Ebert himself started to have health issues, which eventually resulted in unsuccessful surgeries that have famously left him unable to speak or eat (he takes meals through a G-tube, which is something I understand all too well, thanks to Little Quinn).
Siskel and Ebert were, in my view, one of the great duos in the history of anything. Those two had such astonishing chemistry together, that it was a joy to watch them agree positively on a movie, an even bigger joy to see them agree negatively on a movie (seriously, watching the two of them tag-team on a bad movie was always great), and the biggest joy of all when they disagreed. Then you could see some fireworks. I remember Ebert being astonished at Siskel’s thumbs-down review of Scorsese’s Casino; “Thumbs down?!” Ebert yelped. And there was another time – I can’t remember the movie – where Ebert liked it and Siskel did not, and Ebert said something like “I don’t think you wanted to like this movie”, a suggestion that seemed to physically hurt the usually more acerbic Siskel. “I love to like pictures!” he protested.
One time on Late Night with David Letterman, there was a segment that had Mujibur and Sirajul, the two Indian owners of a local store, reporting to Dave from somewhere in the country. And Dave says, “If you two are out there, who’s watching the store? Can we send a cameraman to see who’s in charge at the store?” So a cameraman goes into the store, to reveal a very stern-looking Siskel and Ebert. OK, I guess you had to be there.
Anyway, Ebert has been writing about the movies for decades now, and he is, by nearly any measure, the critic whose work I find the most illuminating and the most evocative. I’ve been reading him nearly almost as long as I’ve been watching him on teevee, and for a number of years, his annual review collections were required book purchasing of mine. Now he has produced a memoir, which he has titled Life Itself.
Ebert’s health struggles in recent years are well-known, and it’s been truly fascinating to watch him take to blogging in the wake of the loss of his physical voice, a medium he had initially viewed with suspicion but which allowed his authorial voice to finally blossom to its greatest strength. Ebert has always been a fine writer, but oddly, his disability-due-to-cancer has, for many, made him even better. Maybe it’s similar to that old saw about how when you lose one sense, the others somehow make substantial gains in acuity.
Reading his blog, I’ve mostly been struck by Ebert’s ongoing zest for life, even when there were occasional posts that took an especially elegiac tone that made me wonder if he was preparing for his own departure from this world. Ebert is still with us, though, and now we have Life Itself.
The book is more a series of vignettes than a straight telling of Ebert’s life. The vignettes are more or less in chronological order, but Ebert seems to be more exploring various themes in his life than the chronology of events. The book is something of a memory album that gives an impression of a life, which seems to me a good way to structure a biography. Sometimes when I read biographies, I get a sense of “plot” that couldn’t possibly be there. Ebert is well aware that life is plotless, and that many of the things that shape the paths of our lives for good or ill are often accidental, a function of our coming into the circle of this person instead of that person, or even something so prosaic as taking this flight instead of that one.
It’s telling that the book gives more of a sense of his development as a writer than as a critic; I suspect that Ebert believes that he would have been a writer no matter what, and it was just an accident of various circumstances that led to him writing about movies for the last forty years. There’s no “Through all my life the cinema has grounded my being” or anything like that; Ebert grew up as a talented kid who liked going to movies with his buddies on Saturdays. I love when he recounts his first reviews of avant garde films; finding himself in confusion as to what the films were about, he took the approach of simply recounting his experience in watching the film. This is an approach that has gone on to inform his entire approach to movie reviewing and film criticism.
Sometimes, in the course of his blogging over the last few years, a tone has crept into Ebert’s writing – that he seems to deny whenever it is pointed out, but it is there – that he is, in long form, saying goodbye to his life. I deeply hope that this is not the case. Ebert is, for me, to film as Carl Sagan is to science, and he’ll be missed by me in equal measure when he is gone.
Here are some excerpts from Life Itself.
On Mike Royko:
At about six p.m. On New Year’s Day of 1967, only two lights on the fourth floor were burning – mine and Mike Royko’s. It was too early for the graveyard shift to come in. Royko walked over to the Sun-Times to see who else was working. A historic snowstorm was beginning. He asked me how I was getting home. I said I’d take the train. He said he had his old man’s Checker car and would drop me at the L station. He had to make a stop at a twenty-four hour drug store right where the L crossed North Avenue.
Royko at thirty-five was already the city’s most famous newspaperman, known for compelx emoitons evoked with unadorned prose in short paragraphs. Growing up as the son of a saloon keeper, he knew how the city worked from the precinct level up, and had first attracted attention while covering city hall. He was ten years older than me and had started at the old City News Bureau, the copperative supported by all the dailies that provided front-line coverage of the police and fire departments. Underpaid and overworked kids worked under the hand of its editor, Arnold Dornfeld, who sat beneath a sign reading: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. When I met him he’d been writing his Daily News column for two years. It was his writing about Mayor Richard J. Daley that took the city hall word clout and made it national. He chainsmoked Pall Malls and spoke in a gravelly poker player’s voice. He drank too much, which to me was an accomplishment.
That snowy night the all-night drugstore was crowded. “Come on, kid,” he said. “Let’s have a drink at the eye-opener place.” He told me what an eye-opener was. “This place opens early. The working guys around here, they stop in for a quick shot on their way to the L.” It was a bar under the tracks so tiny that 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 glow filled my stomach. It may have been the first straight shot of anything I’d ever tasted. I’d been in Chicago four months and I was sitting under the L tracks with Mike Royko in the eye-opener place. I was a newspaperman. A blackhawks game was playing on WGN radio. The team scored, and again, and again. This at last was life.
“Jeez, they’re scoring like crazy!” I said, after the third goal in less than a minute.
“Where you from, kid?”
“Urbana,” I said.
“Ever seen a hockey game?”
“That’s what I thought, you asshole. Those are the game highlights.”
Chaz [Ebert’s wife] and I have lived for twenty years in a commodious Chicago town house. This house is not empty. Chaz and I have added, I dunno, maybe three or four thousand books, untold numbers of movies and albums, lots of art, rows of photographs, rooms full of comfortable furniture, a Buddha from Thailand, exercise equipment, carved elephants from India, African chairs and statues, and who knows what else. Of course I cannot do without a single one of these possessions, including more or less every book I have owned since I was seven, starting with Huckleberry Finn. I still have all the Penrod books, and every time I look at them, I’m reminded of Tarkington’s inventory of Penrod’s pants pockets. After reading it a third time, as a boy, I jammed my pockets with a pocketknife, a Yo-Yo, marbles, a compass, a stapler, an oddly-shaped rock, a hardball, a ball of rubber bands, and three jawbreakers. These, in an ostensible search for a nickel, I emptied out on the counter of Henry Rusk’s grocery, so that Harry Rusk could see that I was a Real Boy.
My books are a subject of much discussion. They pour from shelves onto tables, chairs, and the floor, and Chaz observes that I haven’t read many of them and I never will. You just never know. One day I may nee to read Finnegans Wake, the Icelandic sagas, Churchill’s history of the Second World War, the complete Tintin in French, forty-seven novels by Simenon, and By Love Possessed. That 1957 bestseller by James Gould Cozzens was eviscerated in a famous essay by Dwight Macdonald, who read through that year’s list of fiction bestsellers and surface with a scowl. I remember reading the novel late into the night when I was fourteen, stirring restlessly with the desire to be possessed by love.
I cannot throw out these books. Some are enchanted because I have personally turned all their pages and read every word. They’re shrines to my past hours. Perhaps half were new when they came to my life, but most were used, and I remember where I found every one. The set of Kipling at the Book Nook on Green Street in Champaign. The scandalous The English Governess in a shady bookstore on the Left Bank in 1965 (two dollars, today ninety-one). The Shaw plays from Cranford’s on Long Street in Cape Twon, where Irving Freeman claimed he had half a million books. Like an alcoholic trying to walk past a bar, you should see me trying to walk past a used bookstore. Other books I can’t throw away because, well, they’re books, and you can’t throw away a book. Not even a cookbook from which we have prepared only a single recipe, for it is a meal preserved, in printed form. The very sight of Quick and Easy Chinese Cooking by Kenneth H.C. Lo quickens my pulse. Its pages are stained by broth, sherry, soy sauce, and chicken fat, and so thoroughly did I master it that I once sought out Ken Lo’s Memories of China on Ebury Street in London and laid eyes on the great man himself, dining alone in a little room near the entrance. A book like that, you’re not gonna throw away.
On his wife:
I sense from the first that Chaz was the woman I would marry, and I know after twenty years that my feelings were true. She had been with me in sickness and in health, certainly far more sickness than we could have anticipated. I will be with her, strengthened by her example. She continues to make my life possible, and her presence fills me with love and a deep security. That’s what a marriage is for. Now I know.
One of the things I miss about Gene Siskel is that he’s not around to make jokes about my current condition. He would instinctively know that at this point I wouldn’t be sensitive, having accepted and grown comfortable with my maimed appearance. He wouldn’t have started joking too soon. His jokes would have the saving grace of being funny. Here’s one I’m pretty sure he would have come up with: “Well, there’s one good thing about Roger’s surgery. At least he no longer needs a bookmark to find his chin.”
I have seen untold numbers of movies and forgotten most of them, I hope, but I remember those worth remembering, and they are all on the same shelf in my mind. There is no such thing as an old film. There is a sense in which old movies are cut free from time. I look at silent movies sometimes and do not feel I am looking at old films; I feel I am looking at a Now that has been captured. Time in a bottle. When I first looked at silent films, the performers seemed quaint and dated. Now they seem more contemporary. The main thing wrong with a movie that is ten years old is that it isn’t thirty years old. After the hairstyles and the costumes stop being dated and start being history, we can tell if the movie itself is timeless.
What kinds of movies do I like the best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if the characters win or lose. The only true ending is death. Any other movie ending is arbitrary. If a movie ends with a kiss, we’re supposed to be happy. But then if a piano falls on the kissing couple, or a taxi mows them down, we’re supposed to be sad. What difference does it make? The best movies aren’t about what happens to the characters. They’re about the example that they set.
Casablanca is about people who do the right thing. The Third Man is about two people who do the right thing and can never speak to each other as a result. The secret of The Silence of the Lambs is buried so deeply that you may have to give this some thought, but its secret is that Hannibal Lecter is a Good Person. He is the helpless victim of his unspeakable depravities, yes, but to the limited degree that he can act independently of them, he tries to do the right thing.
What I miss, though, is the wonder. People my age can remember walking into a movie palace where the ceiling was far overhead, and balconies and mezzanines reached away into the shadows. We remember the sound of a thousand people laughing all at once. And screens the size of billboards, so every seat in the house was a good seat. “I lost it at the movies,” Pauline Kael said, and we all knew just what she meant.
When you go to the movies every day, it sometimes seems as if the movies are more mediocre than ever, more craven and cowardly, more skilfully manufactured to pander to the lowest tastes instead of educating them. Then you see something absolutely miraculous, and on your way out you look distracted, as if you had just experienced some kind of a vision.
May Ebert’s spot in the balcony remain reserved for years to come.