Before the Night Falls

Ebert 2

‘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 am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

Like Stephen King and Harlan Ellison, Roger Ebert entered my life at an early age and forever altered the way I look at the world.  Even though I was too young to appreciate it, I still remember the opening credits to Sneak Previews – the ticket, the popcorn, the candy, the broken soda machine – which also means I must have seen at least a couple early episodes of Ebert’s review show with Gene Siskel.  I have stronger memories of At the Movies, the show that ran until Siskel’s death in 1999 (I don’t really consider Ebert’s pairing with Richard Roeper – which ran until 2006 – as part of the canon).  Since I was still a nascent film buff, the big appeal for me was the fighting.  Ebert and Siskel’s friendly – and occasionally not-so-friendly – rivalry was legendary, and I think many people tuned in to the show for the same reason I did, to watch these two passionate men argue about the medium they loved most.  Of course I came to value the show for the duo’s informed criticism, but for a while I just remember feeling a delicious discomfort when I saw Ebert getting hot under the collar.

Roger Ebert, Gene SiskelI know the common perception is that the two hated each other, but I think anyone who’s shared a passion with another person recognizes their own arguments in Ebert and Siskel’s squabbling.  My own friends and I argued constantly over such crucial topics as Star Wars or Star Trek? Conan or the Beastmaster?  Spider-Man or Batman? (Incidentally, Star Wars, Conan, and Batman are the correct answers.) The arguments were usually heated and often personal, but our friendship was never in doubt.  And of course that’s exactly what I came to see in Ebert and Siskel: you don’t argue like that unless there’s a core of love – for the medium and each other – at the heart of the dispute.

Ebert gives Siskel a couple loving chapters in Life Itself, his memoir, along with accounts of his life growing up in Illinois, stories of his newspaper days with the Sun-Times, anecdotes about some of his favorite celebrities, and meditations on all his loves: cars, breasts, Steak ‘n Shake, the movies, and, most crucially, his wife Chaz.  It’s a memoir with an air of the autumnal; at the time of its writing, Ebert had survived his cancer recurrence and three failed surgeries to repair his face and restore his voice, but there’s an inescapable melancholy to it, and the sense that Ebert was, in some ways, starting to close the curtain.

I think the thing that struck me most about the book is how much of myself I saw in it.  It’s likely I’m just projecting because I admire the man so much, but I noted several times his observation – which I’ve also had with increasing frequency – that none of us ever really change as we age.  It’s conventional wisdom that at some point we figure it all out, and we enter the later stages of our life secure in the knowledge that we can just ride things out with confidence and aplomb.  But I still – for better or worse – feel like the same dweeb I was at 16: thin-skinned, socially awkward, passive-aggressive, a romantic who doesn’t know how to talk to other people, teeming with an ambition that was generally nullified by laziness and procrastination, and given to fits of self-righteous indignation while still retaining a general hopefulness and optimism.  I was that guy then; I’m that guy now.

Ebert acknowledges this stasis in different ways, not least in the acknowledgement that many of his passions – especially breasts and the movies, in that order – remained constants throughout his life.  But we also see it in some of his offhand comments.

On being punished by his Catholic school teachers: “I felt humiliated and outraged.  It seemed to me I had been mistreated by people with no imagination or sympathy.  I suppose in another sense I was being a little jerk.  That pattern has persisted.”

On attending his 50th high school reunion: “Looking at my classmates, I wondered if perhaps the person we are in school is the person we will always be, despite everything else that comes our way.  All that changes is that slowly we become more aware of what matters in life.”

Rereading those quotes, maybe I’ve not accurately characterized Ebert’s point.  It’s not that we don’t change; it’s that when we do, our core remains the same.  For everything else the book does – and it does a lot – it’s this lesson that stuck with me, and, seeing my own experience reflected in Ebert’s, I find it oddly comforting.  This is the way life is; why fight it?

As good as the book is, there are parts that worked less well.  This is likely just a matter of taste, as Ebert’s candor and humor is a constant.  Still, I found myself drifting during some of his lengthy tales of workplace personalities at the Sun-Times, and I will never be particularly interested in tales of John Wayne or Robert Mitchum.  But there were more places that set my little movie-loving heart aflutter – entire chapters on his experiences with Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Werner Herzog – and the closing chapters, where he details his illness and recovery in heartbreaking detail, are worth the read by themselves.

The biggest influence Ebert has had on my life isn’t one from the book.  In one of his reviews – and I’d do unspeakable things now to remember which one it was – he said, and I’m paraphrasing: A movie isn’t what it’s about; it’s how it’s about it.  This is true of movies, but of books, too, and it’s a lesson I try to impart to my students.  The content of a movie – or book – is less important than how the director – or author – frames that content.  It’s not that a character is killed; it’s how that death is treated by the film.  Is it trivialized, or does it have gravity and import?  Context is everything, and it’s the respect, or lack of it, that a director brings to his characters and their struggles that dictates how much corresponding respect we should pay the work.

With that in mind, there’s just no way to look at Ebert’s memoir as anything but an unqualified success.  With life itself as the subject, Ebert is funny and unflinchingly honest in equal measure.  It’s a beautiful – but never regretful – elegy for a life well-lived, from a man who sees the end coming and knows that that’s the perfect opportunity to celebrate it.

*****

Current listening:

Jam setting

The Jam – Setting Sons (1979)

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