Roger (Ebert) & Me
How Roger Ebert’s “Life Itself” has inspired me
By Jason Webber
You must remember this — a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh, but a memoir is never just a memoir. Especially when it’s written by Roger Ebert.
I tore through Ebert’s just released, 417-page (index not included) autobiography “Life Itself” in just shy of seven hours. If you have an uninterrupted afternoon, you may be able to beat my time, because it’s that compulsively readable and that fascinating.
You don’t have to be a dorky film geek to find Ebert’s life story worthy of a big screen film biopic. Then again, maybe I’m just more partial to the subject than others because Roger Ebert changed my life.
Growing up a film buff in a household where movies like The Great Outdoors and Rambo: First Blood Part II, were considered art house cinema, Roger Ebert and the late, great Gene Siskel were my heroes. As a kid I only caught their show intermittently on TV because it was on so late, but when I did, I was positively glued to the set. These guys were talking about movies that didn’t have a chance in Hollywood hell of ever coming to the theaters in my Washington state paper mill town, but I kept an updated list on the duo’s “Thumbs Up” films and after a few months, I’d go rent the suggested titles at Hollywood Video. I felt a certain hipper-than-thou thrill when my folks would wrinkle their noses at some of the videocassettes I’d bring home. “What the hell is The Player about?” “You rented The Last Temptation of Christ? Isn’t that blasphemous?” “Cyrano De Ber … what?!”
The escapism of cinema was my Shangri-La and Roger Ebert was my St. Peter, showing the way to films that expanded my worldview and helped me imagine a future where I wouldn’t be dissed for liking Ingmar Bergman. In 1996, I was offered the chance to review films for my hometown newspaper The Daily News, and I would begin writing each article by asking myself the rhetorical question, “What would Roger do?” But admiration can be a double-edged sword. I would often read Roger’s reviews on the Internet (still in its toddler years in those days), and this sometimes resulted in severe writer’s block. This Grasshopper was simply no match for the Master. Fact: Roger Ebert is one of the best writers living today. Not just the best film critic or blogger (rogerebert.com is one of the greatest blogs on the Net); best writer. Period. The opening sentence to “Life Itself” reads “I was born inside the movie of my life.” Tell me that is not the “Call me Ishmael” of autobiographies.
Like all good things, my film critic gig eventually reached its final reel after three years, but I felt a great sense of pride and accomplishment. I had followed in the steps of one of my heroes, albeit on a much smaller scale, and I had forced my willful opinions on films like In the Company of Men, The English Patient and Crash (the crazy-assed David Cronenberg version) upon the unsuspecting citizens of Longview, Wash. I even received hate mail from a few women who took umbrage with my pan of Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, which I called “a 90-minute blonde joke with no punchline.” Hate mail? I was a real critic.
Even as I slowly evolved from a college-aged slacker film critic into a working stiff with a sensible job in the nonsensical “real world,” Ebert remained a part of my life. Each week, I would read his new batch of reviews and continued to enjoy watching him spar with critics like A.O. Scott and Richard Roeper (though Gene Siskel was sorely missed) and occasionally get involved in public spats with oversized personalities like Vincent Gallo and Rob Schneider. When he went through his too-close-for-comfort bout with cancer, I was genuinely distressed. I had never met the guy but just by existing, he had been one of my greatest mentors. When it was finally announced that Ebert had conquered the jaw cancer at the cost of his ability to speak, eat and drink, I was crushed. But an interesting thing happened — after losing his spoken voice, Ebert became an even better writer. His prose became more personal, more fearless, more alive than ever before. In a way, this made me identify with Ebert even more, since I had grown up a severe stutterer and first started writing as a way to communicate since my verbal skills were so limited.
After poring through “Life Itself,” I realize that very little has changed between the time I was a 16-year-old film buff and my present day 35-year-old self: I still want to be like Roger Ebert. Not only is he the best living scribe on the subject of film, but he is also a deeply caring individual who loves his wife Chaz to a degree that even makes a cynical bastard like me go “Aww…” A recovering alcoholic who doesn’t shy away from talking about his battle with the bottle, and even after having his face transformed by repeated surgeries and will never again be able to eat at his beloved Steak ‘n Shake, he retains a sense of optimism, joy and love of life.
So thank you, Roger. In the movie of my life, you’ve been Sundance to my Butch Cassidy, even though you didn’t know it. “Thumbs up,” good sir. Way up.
“Life Itself” is published by Grand Central Publishing.
Reach DCP freelance writer Jason Webber at JasonWebber@DaytonCityPaper.com.