I’ve been reading Roger Ebert’s film reviews for as many years as I can remember, but one review for the 2001 gore-fest Jason X stands out. He began his review by responding to one character’s line, “This sucks on so many levels, writing: “[It’s] rare for a movie to so frankly describe itself. Jason X sucks on the levels of storytelling, character development, suspense, special effects, originality, punctuation, neatness and aptness of thought.” All of which is to say that anyone who has ever come across Ebert’s written reviews or TV appearances over the last four decades knows that this man was born with that thing so many writers struggle to find: A voice.
When, after a battle with thyroid cancer, he had to have his jaw removed in 2006, one of the many tragedies was that Ebert lost his ability to speak. And yet, as fate often strangely goes, it was this very circumstance that ultimately motivated Ebert to give his voice its greatest, most vulnerable chance to shine yet — in his recently released memoir Life Itself. This Tuesday, joined by his wife Chaz and spoken for by his computer voice “Alex,” Ebert sat with New York Times Chief Film Critic A.O. Scott for a TimesTalks about his life, career, and how his darkest days inspired what is the most personal review he has ever written: The review of his own life.
The seed for Life Itself began when Ebert was in the hospital after his operation. He began blogging to curb the feelings of isolation. He explained, “It was a way to express myself and convince myself I still had a voice.” He began to interact frequently with his readers, though, he admitted at first only because “I didn’t want any trolls on my blog telling me I sucked.” Ultimately, blogging “cheered me up,” said Ebert. Then, the daily diversion began to take on more meaning. “Memories kept springing from the back of my mind,” he recalled. Though he thought he’d never write a book about himself, he was beginning to think a memoir was a real prospect.
For someone who’s spent his entire life writing about others, Ebert faced a unique challenge: “I wasn’t reviewing a movie, I was reviewing myself.” He had to grapple with some “painful” and “intense” matters like his ideas on death and the afterlife. His personal stance? “I don’t believe in an afterlife. I was born from a void to which I will return…. I am the total of my memories, and once they’re gone, so will I be, but that doesn’t bother me.” He knew this perspective would be controversial but ultimately decided, “Since I was only going to write it once, I might as well be honest.”
Life Itself was only one of a number of subjects Ebert covered in his TimesTalk. He discussed his fairly recent allegiance to Facebook and Twitter — for the record, he has 530,000 Twitter followers, which he quipped that he’s still “not up there with Justin Bieber” — which he uses to advertise when his favorite movies are streaming on Netflix. Yes, Roger Ebert, is pro-Netflix. He is most definitely not pro-3D, which he dismissed as an “abomination” and deemed “a waste of a perfectly good dimension.” And, showing a side of himself from the Siskel & Ebert days, when Scott begged to differ, Ebert asked with a pointed finger a glint in his eyes, “You’re not seriously telling me you like it, are you?”
That said, Ebert is not worried about who will follow in his footsteps after he’s gone because he thinks “we’re in a new golden age of [film] criticism right now because of the Internet.” He admitted he never imagined he would be writing about movies today, but that his love for movies “has only grown over the years.” Having gone through intense personal struggle and lived to tell the tale, Ebert affirmed, “I’m happy that I’m still here today.”
The Must List: What’s Hot for the Week of Sept. 12, 2011