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Interview: Film Critic Roger Ebert About His New Book, Life Itself: A Memoir

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We know Roger Ebert as an excellent source on movies, not just his movie reviews, but his essays and books too. He is also quite funny — when I had the honor of interviewing him about a collection of his most negative reviews compiled in the book Your Movie Sucks I listed out his ten best putdowns contained within reviews. Example: “On Undead: Undead is the kind of movie that would be so bad it’s good, except it’s not bad enough to be good enough.”

I preface my interview with Mr. Ebert about his memoir, Life Itself: A Memoir, with that paragraph to explain that if you think this is going to be a memoir just about movies and his relationship with them you will be, as I was, pleasantly surprised. For Mr. Ebert has a lot to say about issues outside of film and while we talk in the interview below about how he’s sometimes taken heat for remarks he’s made on topics others than movies what’s really interesting here is that in his memoir the target of criticism is often himself.

This is not one of those memoirs that glosses over a person’s foibles and instead focuses just on his accomplishments. This is a warts-and-all memoir where he talks about everything from how he, his father and his mother all had bouts with alcoholism, to regrets to his own failings.

There are layers and layers to Mr. Ebert — not just a film critic but a journalist first and foremost (some of my favorite parts of the book are when talks about his early years in journalism before he even reviews his first film) — and he describes them all with eloquence in this book.

For example, he talks about deciding whether to cover or be involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

“So much of what happens by chance forms what becomes your life… I lacked the courage to commit myself by going south. Brendan Behan said critics reminded him of eunuchs in a harem: They see it done nightly, but are unable to do it themselves. I could argue with that, but in many ways I used journalism to stay at one remove from my convictions: I wouldn’t risk arrest but would bravely report about those who did. My life has followed this pattern. I observe and describe at a prudent reserve. Now that life has deposited me for much of every day in a chair comfortable for my painful back and I communicate largely by computer, I suppose I must be grateful, for I seem to have been headed this way all along.”

This is not to say he avoids talks about movies and movie criticism. He speaks movingly of his work with fellow film critic Gene Siskel and others. He writes about interviewing famous actors and directors with chapters on Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorsese and others.

I find this passage, in a chapter appropriately titled “The Interview,” interesting:

“My secret as an interviewer was that I was actually impressed by the people I interviewed: not only by Bill Clinton, John Wayne, or Sophia Loren, but by Sandra Dee, Stella Stevens and George Peppard. I am beneath everything else a fan. I was fixed in this mode as a young boy and am awed by people who can take the risks of performance. I become their advocate and find myself in sympathy. I can employ scorched-earth tactics in writing about a bad movie, but I rarely write sharp criticism of actors themselves. If they’re good in a movie, they must have done something right. If they’re bad, it may have been the fault of filming conditions or editing choices. Perhaps they may simply have been bad. I feel reluctant to write in a hurtful way; not always, but usually, I feel repugnance for the critic John Simon, who made it a specialty to attack the way actors look. They can’t help how they look, any more than John Simon can help looking like a rat.”

Roger EbertThe book also describes in detail how it is that he is currently able to speak only with the help of a computer as the result of cancers of the thyroid and jaw. As he writes, “I had difficult surgeries, I lost the ability to speak, eat, or drink, and two failed attempts to rebuild my jaw led to shoulder damage that makes it difficult to walk easily and painful to stand. It is that person who is writing this book.”

He had up until that point resisted efforts to get involved with social media, fearing it would take up too much of his time. But after he had suffered even more medical problems, fracturing his hip forcing him to miss his tenth annual Eberfest film festival, “then and there I wrote my first blog entry and began this current, probably final, stage of my life.”

He goes on to end his introduction this way, which is I think a good way to transition to the interview:

“My blog became my voice, my outlet, my “social media” in a way I couldn’t have dreamed of. Into it I poured my regrets, desires, and memories. Some days I became possessed. The comments were a form of feedback I’d never had before, and I gained a better and deeper understanding of my readers. I made ‘online friends,’ a concept I’d scoffed at. Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to. I didn’t intend for it to drift into autobiography, but in blogging there is a tidal drift that pushes you that way. Getting such quick feedback may be one reason; the Internet encourages first-person writing, and I’ve always written that way. How can a movie review be written in third person, as if it were an account of facts? If it isn’t subjective, there’s something false about it.

“The blog let loose the flood of memories. Told sometimes that I should write my memoirs, I failed to see how I possibly could. I had memories, I had lived a good life in an interesting time, but I was at a loss to see how I could organize the accumulation of a lifetime. It was the blog that taught me how. It pushed me into first-person confession, it insisted on the personal, it seemed to organize itself in manageable fragments. Some of these words, since rewritten and expanded, first appeared in blog form. Most are here for the first time. They come pouring forth in a flood of relief.”

Before even starting this book I was going to ask why, since your operations, you seem both more prolific and more reflective on areas beyond just movies, but you sort of answer that early on when you talk about the blog you started when you lost your voice becoming, essentially, part of your new voice. Is that a fair way of putting it? Is that what you mean when you write, “Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to”? And is this memoir an extension of those reflections you were doing while blogging and contemplating your life after losing your voice?

The blog  pulled me toward writing about myself, my memories drew me into the past, and it became something I was already doing even before quite having decided to do so.

What do you think people will find most surprising and interesting as they read about your life via this memoir?

My obsession with the flow of time and the curious fact that life and time even exist, perhaps. My whole life seems present to be in memory.

You speak pretty frankly about your alcoholism as well as that of your mother’s and father’s alcoholism. Did you have any reluctance or hesitation about disclosing something so personal? Was that one of your goals with this book — to provide an unflinching look at your life, warts and all?

How could I write honestly about my life and not deal with such a significant aspect of it? But this isn’t one of those confessionals by someone three months out of rehab. I took my last drink 42 years ago, so for most of my life I’ve been sober.

What do you think the biggest misconception or stereotype is about you and your writings? Or do you pay attention to those who describe in ways you don’t consider accurate?

Some people think I don’t “get” some new movies because I’m too old. I believe I “get” any movie that works. Transformers 3, for example. I “got” all too well.

Some of your chapters are quite moving such as the memories you share of Gene Siskel, Studs Terkel and others. Looking back did you have any idea how much the “thumbs up” would take off? Any regrets on how big that became? Was that your idea or Gene’s or both? Did you really copyright it?

My idea. A trademark. Some people unkindly reduced our criticism to the thumbs. There was a good side: It was a spur for me to begin things like the Great Movies reviews.

You have taken some flak for comments you have made in recent years, about, for example, the death of the Jackass star, about your comments suggesting video games can’t be art, etc. Do you regret commenting on things like that? Do you think you sometimes become a target when you talk about issues that are not what film critics traditionally talk about?

I was correct in suggesting that friends don’t let friends drink and drive. I wish I had capitalized Jackass to make the meaning of that tweet more clear! On video games, after thousands of comments, there is still a debate going on. Perhaps my column, right or wrong, was an inspiration for self-examination among gamers.

You talk about what real newspaper work was like back when you were getting started and how it’s changed over time. You might enjoy a piece I wrote satirizing the stereotypes of newspaper reporters. What do you think most movies and TV series get wrong about newspapers? Do you have favorite movies about your profession, journalism, and if so what are they? I had one editor who used to watch The Paper religiously, at least once a week.

At least in my early days, some of those stereotypes were still present in real life. It was a profession where success depended on writing, reporting ability and aggressiveness, and the doors were pretty wide open. Now it’s more like working for a corporation.

Sometimes a movie that seems good at the time… well, later on I  realize that it didn’t make as much sense as I thought it did at the time, that the jokes weren’t really that funny, that the plot actually had some holes in it “now that I think about it”, etc.  Do you ever experience this and, if so, do you give yourself some separation time between seeing a movie and writing your review of it?  Or is part of being a professional reviewer the skill of not being taken in by the fun of the movie theater experience, but being able to see a movie for what it really is upon viewing it?

I’m always reviewing on deadline. If I had more time, I’d still probably wait until the deadline was in sight. The Great Movies pieces allow me sometimes to take a revised, longer view.

How do you balance being true to himself, to the work you are critiquing, and to the need/sentiment of the many readers?

A critic goes to a movie and must write about what happened to him. It is subjective, first person. There is no objective truth in the process. It’s all opinion, and you must be careful to see that it is your own.

Do you think there was one defining moment or experience in your life that informed your career as a reviewer? If so, can you tell us about it?

Not one moment. I think some of the great movies I saw taught me about film, and educated me by the process of having to deal with them.

Are you still writing as many reviews and seeing as many movies as you used to or have you had to slow down while working on this book, dealing with your physical limitations, etc?

I write as much or more than ever. I love it. The blog is now on top of everything else.

While choosing questions for this interview I came across this piece of yours, “Roger’s little rule book” — this is intended as a guide or primer for all film critics, right? I quite like it and might encourage others to follow these rules when writing for the sites I write for.

Heh, heh. It always functions as a guide to what many media creatures actually do, unfortunately.

Lastly, how long did it take to write this memoir and what did you feel upon completion of it? I think it’s a excellent read and I learned a great deal about you by reading it. I am definitely going to recommend it to friends. Incidentally, I laughed when you mentioned you briefly thought the belly button must somehow be part of the sex process because I too used to think that. Why else would it be featured so prominently in photos of half naked women?

There you go! The book was written over a period of two years, but during the summer of 2010 I took some time off, holed up in the woods in Michigan, and worked full time.

(He writes at one point, “One night.. explained to me what men and women ‘did’ together, demonstrating with the fingers of one hand forming a circle and a finger from the other poking into it. ‘You know, like this,’ he said. All became clear to me, although I couldn’t figure out what the circle stood for. The navel, probably?”)

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.