No one in Chicago better embodies grace at twilight than Roger Ebert, who has written openly and frankly about the physical disasters that cost him his lower face, his voice, and his ability to swallow food. That they spared his writing gifts, sharpened his memories, and deepened his character is reason for rejoicing. Ebert’s new memoir, Life Itself, rollicks where you want it to rollick, but its most compelling quality is its comfort with the nearness of death.
We were at the Sun-Times together for several years in the 70s, but I was at the front of the large newsroom and he was in the back and we had nothing to do with each other. My friend Gary Houston knew him better. Houston was a feature writer who moonlighted in local theater, and his desk and Ebert’s were a few feet apart.
“As a social animal in the newsroom,” Houston reflected, in an e-mail he sent me, “he could be loud, ridiculing, obnoxious. He let his voice carry, not feeling constraints of desk-to-desk discretion but more or less obliging what he may have assumed to be a general desire in the room to hear whatever he was going to say. He could throw his weight around because the paper valued him so highly. He laughed at his own jokes, sometimes ones of derision, and I think expected others . . . to laugh along too. He enjoyed holding court.”
Houston recalled that on his last day at the Sun-Times in the mid-70s, Ebert invited him for a drink at Riccardo’s. “I thought I’d have the pleasure of his company all to myself, but it turned out to be something like a weekly Friday round table with him, [Bob] Greene and about five others. I hadn’t known of this recurring event. He and Greene seemed to compete with each other for laughs at their witticisms. I left early and Roger said, ‘Gary, God love ya.'”
That’s on the one hand. Houston had as much to say about the other hand.
“Contrast this with his writing,” his e-mail continued. “Agree or not with his judgments, he was comfortable in his writing skin. . . . His ease and unhurriedness were deceptive. You often couldn’t know he was leading to powerful observations. You might demur that they were really not observations of the movie in questions but more likely ones stimulated in his mind while watching it; yet even so this put you in the presence of an acute, sometimes warm and compassionate human and wise essayist who happened to write film criticism. . . . He was generous in spirit in writing about movies, and you felt this generosity extended to humanity. There was something petty about Roger in person, something the very opposite of petty in Roger’s writing.”
I ran these thoughts past Ebert. “Fair enough,” he replied, and asked me to remember one thing: “Many of his memories, if not most, date from my drinking days, and that makes a big difference.”
Life Itself owns up to Ebert’s alcoholism, but when he tells us he stopped drinking in 1979 because he was tired of the hangovers, it sounds about as hard as swearing off sharp cheeses to avoid migraines. For a better description of a drunk’s life, read Drunkard by Ebert’s Sun-Times colleague Neil Steinberg. Drink drove Ebert “into a personal life of evasion, denial, and concealment,” Ebert maintains, and if he hadn’t quit, today he’d be “unemployed, unmarried, and probably dead.” The reader supposes so, but we never see even Ebert’s job at risk. Steinberg tells us what it’s like when you hit your wife in a drunken rage and she calls the cops and you go to jail, and the next day it’s in the papers. He tells us what it’s like to find yourself sucking down the kitchen’s vanilla extract for the traces of alcohol in it. Steinberg is fighting his thirst as he writes. Ebert devotes a brief chapter to O’Rourke’s, the Old Town writers’ pub, and casts it in a romantic light, barely acknowledging that while AA would save some of these colorful characters, nothing would save others. Ebert writes neither to mourn nor regret, but sometimes without pain there is too little reality. In his reticence, are we seeing the effects of a life spent reviewing movies, where the critic’s task is never to say too much, to suggest the film without revealing it?
As Ebert sketched O’Rourke’s for us, so does he sketch his favorite city, London, and people like his TV partner Gene Siskel; his O’Rourke’s pal John McHugh, a man who’s lived his life as a succession of anecdotes; his Beyond the Valley of the Dolls collaborator Russ Meyer. He meditates on time, memory, and repetition. He describes time “slipping through our fingers like a long silk scarf until it runs out and flutters away in the wind.”
He believes in God as the subject of an always interesting conversation. He writes in his elegiac final pages that “I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’s theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, motions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting, and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many.” Memes aren’t immortality, but they’ll have to do. Reading this passage, we now see if we did not already that his book has been meditating on memes all along.
Sometimes we’d just drive up to Rantoul to see the Panama Limited go barreling through. “It must have been going ninety miles an hour,” my father would say, glancing at me because he said exactly the same thing every single time, no matter how fast it was going.
In grade school we went to Hudson Dairy on Race Street, a counter lined with stools, a strong aroma of milk, a malt that came with a metal can to hold the part that didn’t fit in the glass. “They give you a smaller glass so it feels like you’re getting more,” my father explained several dozen times.
The Marching Illini were playing “Hail to the Orange.” Opposite us, intricate designs were being formed by the Block I. “This was the first card formation in the country,” Daddy repeated before every game.
If this sounds like an insidious critique of the parochial limits of Ebert’s father, it is not. He is reaching through time for threads from that long silk scarf he can cling to. “These phrases are not tics,” he writes, “they are rituals in the continuity of life.” And he happily reports similar patterns of repetition in himself.
I’ve been back to the café several times again, always hoping for the same seat at the same table. Such returns are an important ritual to me. Chaz [Ebert’s wife] says it is impossible to get me to do something the first time.
I have [been] 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.
As Dan stood before a urinal he invariably intoned, “As the man says in the play, for this relief, much thanks.” I rarely urinate without repeating that phrase.
Every time I see Bill, I asked him to recite for me from memory the closing words of The Great Gatsby, and every time he does it. . . . This recitation is not merely a ritual. It is an observance in defiance of time.
Ebert cannot reconstruct Walter Ebert, an electrician, in all his fullness, but he can retrieve his father’s voice. “My first restaurant meal was at the Steak ‘n Shake on Green Street,” he tells us in chapter three. “‘A hamburger for the boy,’ my father said.” In chapter eight he returns to the hallowed venue: “The motto of Steak ‘n Shake is ‘In Sight It Must Be Right.’ This achieves the perfection of a haiku. There is no skullduggery going on in the back room. Take a seat at the counter and everything happens before your eyes.”
And in chapter 48, meditating on his loss of the ability to eat, he allows that the flavors of the great meals he’s had are gone from memory, “Yet I could if I wanted to right now close my eyes and reexperience an entire meal at Steak ‘n Shake, bite by bite in proper sequence, because I always ordered the same items and ate them according to the same ritual. It’s stored in there for me.” His tribute to the restaurant of his boyhood is a meme, a subject he keeps returning to obsessively. When he admits that in 1971 he “didn’t know what to make” of Werner Herzog’s Fata Morgana, “with its endlessly repeated images of a jet plane landing in the desert through air simmering with heat,” we understand Ebert felt something primal.
To what degree did Ebert learn his stoic grace from the thousands of movies he’s watched over his career? He doesn’t say. Certain filmmakers themselves have had a strong effect on him. “Every time I’ve met Marty,” Ebert says of Martin Scorsese, “the conversation has come around sooner or later to Catholicism and sin.” Of Herzog, he writes, “Each film has embedded somewhere the idea that we are mortal, that death is our destination, but we can stave off that certainty with divine madness. I instinctively identify with his work.”
But a Herzog film is a very occasional event in a life that Ebert writes, in a rare flicker of anger, “has been devoted in such large part to films of worthlessness.” All those other films, even the worthless ones, are what I’m asking about. A movie is a sort of celluloid meme. As Ebert has written, just slightly fewer times than Dan has given thanks at his urinals, “A movie isn’t about what it’s about, but about how it’s about it.” What it’s about, after all, is something movies are about time and time again. There are just so many stories, and one of the most common is the hero dealt a bad hand who doesn’t whine. Chaz made him want to live, Ebert writes. Did the movies teach him he had to measure up?