Sunday, July 9, 2017

Life ItselfLife Itself by Roger Ebert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"'Kindness' covers all of my political beliefs. [...] I believe that if, 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. [...] We must try to contribute joy to the world."

Roger Ebert's autobiography Life Itself (2011) came highly recommended by a real-life friend of mine (Paine on Goodreads) so I expected a lot. And indeed, totally enraptured by the book at its beginning I was envisioning literary delights of the highest caliber. Then, quite suddenly, the tone of the book changed and I realized I was not that interested in reading any more. I managed to finish, alas with a feeling of deep disappointment, despite the wonderful words of wisdom that Mr. Ebert offers in the closing passages of the book (and quoted in the epigraph above).

The autobiography begins with an affecting collage of memory snapshots from the author's childhood: the reader can identify with a little boy facing the big, real world of the 1940s and 1950s. Mr. Ebert's love of his parents is evident and the reminiscences of his extended family are touching as well. He mentions the names of his cousins, aunts and uncles to let all these people exist a little before time dissolves them into nothingness. The nun-run grade school, then the Urbana High School, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and finally postgraduate study at the University of Cape Town are vividly recounted. On the backdrop of waning years of "the last generation of innocence" before the advent of the turbulent late 1960s the author writes about his first contact with movies and his loss of religious faith.

To me, the worthwhile part of the book ends when Mr. Ebert recounts the poignant and almost mystical experience of suddenly finding himself in harmony with the Universe at a cafe in Cannes. This is a brief moment of transcendence, a fleeting glimpse into an alternative universe of consonance and clarity, free from everyday struggles of the real world. The book goes downhill from there. And fast.

The mind-numbingly boring name-dropping and - in Mr. Ebert's own words - "place-dropping" begins about page 140. The readers will not find any transcendent, luminous passages on the remaining 280 pages; instead they can find gossip and trivia about The Famous People, particularly about their romantic and sex lives. Russ Meyer might be a great director, but why on earth would the reader need to know which women he slept with? How could this knowledge affect the reception of his art?

Mr. Ebert writes about his interviews with Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, and other stars. Some of these interviews achieved almost a cult status in the movie world and yet their claim to fame is based solely on the fame of the actors. If exactly the same dialogue transpired between Mr. Ebert and a random person off the street, it would not be worth memorializing. The pieces about Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Werner Herzog, and Gene Siskel are not as gossipy yet they are about the people rather than about their art. Is the reader supposed to care what kind of people the great artists are in personal life? What difference does it make to their art?

On page 332 of my edition I find the following literary pearl:
"Although some strange stories have gone around, it is not true to say Oprah and I ever dated."
My God! Why should I care whom Mr. Ebert dates? The only reason for including this sentence is that Oprah is An Extremely Famous Person, and this - in a way unclear to me - is supposed to make the dating information important to the readers. And yet another momentous revelation, 35 pages later:
"At Cannes we bought a chicken sandwich for Quentin Tarantino in a beach restaurant [...]"
So what, might I ask? Mr. Ebert has amply demonstrated in the past that he can write about the art of movies like almost no one else, so why all the tabloid fluff?

Roger Ebert's last eleven years were filled with the unimaginable horror of a losing fight against cancer of thyroid and salivary glands. Three major facial surgeries failed and the loss of jaw rendered him unable to eat, drink, and speak. I do not believe there are many people who have suffered so much and went through so much hell in the waning years of their lives. Yet the author's clarity of mind, his optimism, and understanding what is important in life shine in this autobiography written during his last years and published two years before his death in 2013. His manifesto "We must try to contribute joy to the world" rings loud and true. I wish his autobiography did not cater so much to one of the lowest human instincts, the obsession with famous people. The celebrity cult that the book is drenched in cheapens its message and hides it behind the avalanche of trite and worthless gossip.

A five-star book followed by a one-star mess. Three stars. Sorry, Paine!

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