Roger Ebert, Writer

Roger Ebert, Writer

Rober EbertIf you think of Roger Ebert (who passed away yesterday) as a movie critic or a TV personality first, let me recommend to you his beautiful 2011 memoir, Life Itself.

The New York Times damned his book with faint praise: “It takes him a third of the book to finish with school days” —but saying that very much misses the point. It’s the simplicity of the storytelling and clarity of memory for those school days that I think are the high point of Ebert’s memoir. It’s in those pages that he shows how the groundwork was laid for his career as a writer—and where the revelation comes that he very much aimed to be a writer more than anything else. The fact that his fame came through (a) being on TV and (b) talking about movies shouldn’t distract us from what a beautiful writer he was. And in Life Itself you have the treat of not only reading lots of that beautiful writing but also learning where it came from.

Roger Ebert, Life ItselfI remember how surprised I was when my dad and mom (who for years led an annual group trip to London) showed me a book in the late ’80s entitled The Perfect London Walk. What a coincidence! It was written by some guy also named Roger Ebert. No, that’s no doppelgänger: it was the very man himself. It seemed like an odd stretch to me at the time that a movie guy would dare to write so different a kind of book.

But the truth is (and always was) that he wasn’t just a movie guy. As Life Itself reveals, he pretty much backed into the film-critic’s gig at the Chicago Sun-Times by accident. He turned out to be so good at it because he was first of all so humane an observer and so deft a writer. But I’m sure glad he took the assignment to go to the movies that day.

And of course he was good, really good, at reviewing movies. I know I’m not alone in saying that I almost always felt that he could speak for me about films I loved or hated, both. In my experience, there’s really only one glaring exception: he “panned Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man as a “strange, slow, unrewarding movie” and hated Neal Young’s solo-guitar soundtrack for it. I think in this case Roger flat-out missed the call. But even this instance reveals much; the fact that I vividly remember (and am still irritated by) a review he wrote 17 years ago is an index of his greatness.

We were fortunate to be graced with Ebert’s work these past four decades. It’s sad to lose a great writer.