Tuesday, April 4, 2017

First Tuesday Book Club: Life Itself

Max in writer-director Adam Elliot's Mary and Max, joining us this month for the Last Cinema First Tuesday Book Club

Welcome to the Last Cinema First Tuesday Book Club, a monthly dive into the world of film through the pages of books. From memoirs and biographies to historical accounts and critiques, we will try to view the legacy of cinema through the words of those who shaped it and those who have explored it.

The Last Cinema First Tuesday Book Club presents:

Life Itself: A Memoir, by Roger Ebert (2011)

Four years ago today, Roger Ebert died. If you will forgive the whimsical contradiction, it feels like so much longer that we have been without him, but in ways real and imagined, it seems he has never left. Such is the impact of a great man.

I do not need to tell you Ebert was my favorite writer; that I have written copious words to that effect here and here.

I do not need to tell you Ebert’s prose stands alongside that of any of the giants held dear by the literary canon; that he could toss off in the middle of paragraphs words of such beauty and poetry other, lesser writers would base entire novels around them.

I do not need to tell you his opinions shaped the cultural conversation; that to this day, no lover of film goes to the cinema without wondering, ‘What would Roger think?’

Roger Ebert, in his office
I do not need to tell you praise from Ebert could craft the legacy of a film, of a director; that much of what we appreciate in the past half-century and more of moviemaking we owe both directly and indirectly to his influence.

I do not need to tell you any of that because you are here and, thus, must already know, but it bears repeating Ebert was the first and last word for most of the film-going public on what mattered at the movieplex.

In 2012, I was writing a feature on Little Miss Sunshine filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris in advance of their second feature, Ruby Sparks. While interviewing Dayton’s mother for the piece, I mentioned to her Ebert had given the film three stars and written kindly of it. She said, “Well, if Roger liked it, that’s good.”

Life Itself is a memoir filled with the recollections of a life well lived, deeply felt, and extensively explored, but it is as much about the idea of memory as the memories themselves. Though a fair portion of its chapters were pulled from the blog that made Ebert foremost among the internet commentariat, a majority of it was written as he approached the end of his life. He knew it was coming as his body betrayed him time and again – cancer – but his mind was as alive as or more so than ever.

The prologue of Life Itself is titled “Memory,” and it ends thusly:

The blog let loose the flood of memories. Told sometimes that I should write my memoirs, I failed to see how I possibly could. I had memories, I had lived a good life in an interesting time, but I was at a loss to see how I could organize the accumulation of a lifetime. It was the blog that taught me how. It pushed me into first-person confession, it insisted on the personal, it seemed to organize itself in manageable fragments. Some of these words, since rewritten and expanded, first appeared in blog forms. Most are here for the first time. They come pouring forth in a flood of relief.

From there, we are whisked away into the world of the most prominent film critic of his time or any other. All the highlights are there, the stories you want to hear about the glitterati and the celebrities, the film festivals and the films, but those tales – as wonderfully told as they are – are but a small fraction of the book’s intrigue.

Its heart and soul exist in Ebert’s reflections on his youth, particularly regarding his mother, his friends and their wild times in the Chicago newspaper scene of the late 1960s and ’70s, and most of all Chaz, his wife, the love of his life, and the person he credits with helping him hang onto this life as long as he did, in more ways than one.

He writes in chapter 19 “All By Myself Alone”:

Roger and Chaz Ebert
I may appear to suffer from some sort of compulsive repetition syndrome, but these rituals are important to me. I have many places where I sit and think, “I have been here before, I am here now, and I will be here again.” Sometimes, lost in reverie, I remember myself approaching across the same green, or down the same footpath, in 1962 or 1983, or many other times. Sometimes Chaz comes along on my rituals, but just as often I go alone. Sometimes Chaz will say she’s going shopping, or visiting a friend, or just staying in the room reading in bed. “Why don’t you go and touch your bases?” she’ll ask me. I know she sympathizes. These secret visits are a way for me to measure the wheel of the years and my passage through life. Sometimes on this voyage through life we need to sit on the deck and regard the waves.

More than anything else, Ebert’s memoir is an opportunity to sit on the deck with one of the great communicators of his time and regard the waves of one of the great lives of the 20th and 21st centuries. One wishes perhaps there had been just one more high tide, one more swell on the seemingly endless ocean of words and ideas he left us.

It is like the exchange between Steve Carell’s and Keira Knightley’s characters as they face down the possibility of oblivion at the end of Lorena Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. She says: “It isn’t enough time.” He replies: “It never would have been.” And isn’t that always the case? When we lose a loved one or a hero, we cry over the life lost, yes, but more, I believe, we cry over the life not yet lived. We wish for one more smile, one more joke, one more kind word, and while we recognize it could never be enough, well, at least we would have had one more.

I do not only think of Ebert when I sit in the dark of the cinema, though I always think of him when I am there. Rather, I think of him also when I read the news, when I look out on the world and wonder what the hell has happened. As cited before in this space, Ebert was the person who said movies are “like a machine that generates empathy.” I would argue Ebert’s writing functions in much the same way because throughout his life, particularly on his blog but in all his work, he focused on the experiences of others, on their lives, on their hopes, dreams, and fears.

He understood not one among us is better than any other, and he pulled no punches in calling out the hypocrisy and absurdity of believing any differently. Sometimes I am thankful he did not live to see the ugly turn this world and this country in particular have taken. But at other times, I wish we had just one more piece from him, one more reflection, one more word about the state of things. Maybe it would not change the state of things, but at least we would have one more wave to ride gently across the sea before we came crashing down again on the reality of the shore.

Next month: Young Orson, by Patrick McGilligan

No comments: