"I will write this book only once and might as well not make it fiction."
Roger Ebert is a man who relishes the art of film. His reviews are like no other and he's largely viewed as the pre-eminent writer of film criticism of the not just the last century but this one as well. Despite losing his voice, he's anything but silent. He's taken to the web to transform not just his writing, but film criticism as well. In a day and age where lengthy reviews have been overlooked for sound-bytes and hundred-word reviews, Ebert is writing not just more than ever before, but better than anyone could have imagined. With his absence from television, those who still value his opinion must see out his writing which has blossomed in ways no one ever could have imagined and the fruit of these labors are in his autobiography, Life Itself, one of the best modern biographies to ever be written.
Writing about music means a slew of rock God biographies are continually sent my way and while they're enthralling historical documents and often give the reader a certain perspective, we also are given a glimpse into their egocentric minds. A rock star acts like a child for a few decades before they settle down, make amends for their past and finish their book with a new look on life. Roger Ebert's book opens with a untainted view of the world and as he takes us down the corridors of his life, he shares dreams, desires and darkness but above all, he shows us a road map for making the most out of life. Ebert is an acute narrator fully aware of not just the intricacies of existence, but the gloom and glory that go hand-in-hand with it. Roger Ebert's Life Itself is one of the greatest biographies to ever be written because it is devoid of ego. Stepping into the past is a dangerous and treacherous road for many who write autobiographies. They wallow in it without regard for the reader. Not everyone's childhood warrants to be documented. That being said, what differentiates Ebert from most film and music stars is that he's a professional writer…one of the greatest of the last forty years.
Ebert outlines his journey, never hiding his feelings or falsifying the past in order to credit himself. When he was selfish, stupid and just wrong, he flat out admits it. His tales from Champaign, Illinois aren't selfish, but stoic and from there no stone goes unturned. He talks about the pain of losing his father while still a teen, the bottomless pit he felt when his trusty dog had died, the rush from writing sports articles for the local press, the high school crushes, a professor he let down once by criticizing his work, being overweight, his first job in Chicago, to his overseas studies, to a woman who had lied to him about being pregnant, to his long walks throughout London his extreme love for his wife Chaz and the friendships that painted his journey and give the narrative philosophical color. The tales of friendships are among the most profound. You've never heard of many of these people but you wish you could have dinner with them.The embarrassments, the humiliations and the accomplishments are so real, you half forget you are reading someone else's story. This is Ebert's brilliance, he peppers his stories with enough nuances to make him his own, but they're easily relate-able to anyone who has ever left a breath escape from their lips. Most people famous enough to write their own biography have this barrier between them and their audience. This is only natural after years in the limelight and having press agents and assistants doing the heavy lifting allowing the star to always keep their distance. Ebert's famous enough to be recognized by anyone who ever went to see a film between 1980 and 2000 and yet, he's still a humble and kind man. The film directors and stars who invaded his mind and heart get proper due here as well. He speaks in awe of the late movie greats like Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin, whereas when he writes about directors Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog, there is a brotherly bond there. Most biographies find the subject pointing fingers at those who had done them wrong and made them suffer. Ebert's book doesn't waste time on these people, instead it is about those who have enlightened his life.
There is a wonderful chapter on his relationship with Gene Siskel where he breaks down the differences between the two of them and a desire to always one-up the other. However, despite this fierce competition and the on-screen combating, deep down, there was more than respect, there was love. I spend a good amount of time hearing pitches from press agents and publishers about biographies they want me to write about. They're usually about a star who lived in excess, is stabbing a former friend in the back or wallowing about their misfortune. These stories make for good reads, but how many can you remember months later? How many stick with you? How many permeate your senses with a tale of hope and redemption? Do any provide a road map for the future? I have now read Life Itself three times. Each and every chapter of Life Itself is infused with a silver lining. He spends a good amount of the book reminiscing about the good old day of journalism, aged movie theaters, little European hotels and Chicago greasy spoons that have gone out of business. But in each one, while lined with nostalgia, the reader picks up on the zest he has for life which comes to a head in the book's final chapter.
There is a passage so insightful in the book's final pages, I feel it is my duty to reprint it here in full because it is simply one of dozens of passages that give the reader lenses to view the world in a brighter light. "'Kindness' covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this and I am happy I lived long enough to find it out."
Most art finds a way of bringing your dreams to life whereas Life Itself paints a picture of one's existence that is better than a dream. It's one thing to allow your imagination to take you away to a place where you view life through different lenses, but it's another entirely to find such euphoric wonder in the banalities of life. The rare few who can do this…Springsteen, Scorsese and Roger Ebert-they're the artists we learn the most from. They don't make us reach higher and father so much as make us realize the fortunes that have befallen us and that our dreams are living and breathing in the here and now. When you close the book upon reading the final words, you will feel whole in ways you've never felt before. He doesn't review life as an burden, instead he believes there is transcendence to be found in every facet of life, which if we bring closer for a deeper inspection, it will free our minds. I honestly believe with all my heart that Life Itself is more than a defining biography but one of the most life affirming books you will ever read.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter