Thursday, September 19, 2013

Books: Life Itself

What surprised me the most about the late film critic Roger Ebert's memoir Life Itself was how little he left to the imagination. Normally, I tend to take autobiographies with a small grain of salt; after all, there are always gonna be places where the truth is stretched or polished up to a certain degree to serve the author's agenda. I don't get the impression that Ebert did that here. He covered almost his entire life, in vivid detail, in his book, to the point where by the end you feel like you know him inside and out.

It made me think of how I approach this very blog. I choose to write about my life in relation to movies because it's the one thing that makes me unique from other film bloggers. Initially, I didn't care too much about people learning details about me because I didn't expect a huge audience at first, but it wasn't long before I knew I had to set boundaries for myself. I simply wasn't comfortable revealing certain aspects of my life to strangers over the internet - and I'm still not. That won't change, and I'm fine with that...

... but reading Life made me wonder if I could ever be as candid as Ebert was if I had been in his position: an internationally known and respected film critic who, as a result of cancer and several devastating surgeries, had his face and body ravaged and was left without the ability to speak, eat or drink. Could I be anywhere near as open about my life under those circumstances?

I suspect part of the reason had to do with age. I remember when he kept up his blog he meditated a great deal about age, and time, and certainly death. He knew he was on the final leg of his life and he was able to come to terms with that. Still, he mentions somewhere in the book, which collects and expands on his blog posts, that he always had a tendency to say what was on his mind, even if it wasn't always politic to do so.

I couldn't do it. There may come a time when I'd find I'd have to return to appearing in public, because I wouldn't tolerate being a shut-in for long; I know that much. And I like to think I'd want to write, and perhaps engage with my audience in some way. I couldn't do it like Ebert did, though. Whatever it was that he had that gave him the fortitude to live his post-surgery life like he did, well, it should be bottled and sold in drugstores.

The stories he tells in Life are funny, sad, reflective, informative and heartfelt, a result of where he came from and how (and when) he came up: an overachieving, Midwestern Baby Boomer who came of age during a period of tumultuous change in America, and developed a liberal sensitivity that enabled him to cultivate not only a deep empathy for other people, but an insatiable curiosity about the world in general. Not everything is equally fascinating (he spends an entire chapter going into great detail about his family tree, for example), but the good stuff is really good.

I tend to be more cynical. Try as I might to stay positive and hopeful about life, I can't help but see the bad stuff and wonder how much longer it'll be before we blow ourselves up into smithereens, because we sure don't deserve this world. Ebert kept believing, though, and considering the hand he got dealt, you gotta admire him for shining a light in the darkness and keeping it lit. I don't agree with everything he says, and there were times while reading when I wished I could ask him about this or that point he makes, but that's okay. I understand that the kind of wisdom he had comes with age. Part of me hopes I'll live long enough to see from his perspective.

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