In 1975, Chicago Sun-Times writer Roger Ebert became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer and took his first steps toward becoming the most famous film critic in America when he and Gene Siskel, his counterpart at the Chicago Tribune, launched Sneak Previews, the first of several film-review shows Ebert co-hosted with Siskel until Siskel’s death in 1999. Over the past decade, Ebert has remained an active critic while dealing with high-profile health problems stemming from a battle with cancer that left him unable to eat, drink, or speak. Not content to be defined by his difficulties, Ebert has, since his forced silence, blossomed as a different sort of writer via the personal essays on his blog. That writer dominates Life Itself, Ebert’s new memoir, which chronicles his life from his early years in Urbana, Illinois, his career as a journalist, the way time and experience have tempered the views on race and other topics inherited from his upbringing, his battles with alcoholism, his relationship with his wife, and his recent health struggles. Ebert has long worked autobiographical details into his reviews, but this book’s direct, self-searching style may surprise even long-time readers. Via email, Ebert answered a few of The A.V. Club’s questions about his life, the movies, and the way those topics intertwine.
The A.V. Club: You end one chapter in Life Itself with the words “Why do I remember that?” Did you ask that question a lot when writing the book?
Roger Ebert: Yes, because many of the memories came to me during the process of writing. What I learned is that our minds seem to retain countless memories lying dormant until something triggers them.
AVC: You’ve never shied away from incorporating autobiographical details in your reviews. Did you find writing autobiographically without the springboard of a film a different experience?
RE: Not really. In my reviews, I feel it’s good to make it clear that I’m not proposing objective truth, but subjective reactions; a review should reflect the immediate experience.
AVC: Were you ever made uncomfortable by having to write about the past? The passages dealing with your relationship with your mother can’t have been easy to write.
RE: They weren’t. I loved her, she wished me the best, but we had our troubles, and since I was only writing this book once, there was no purpose in not trying to tell the truth.
AVC: When you write about Urbana, there’s nostalgia for the way things were, but also a sense that some of the beliefs native to that time and place were less than laudable. Was that a balance you tried consciously to strike? Did it come naturally?
RE: It grew from the material. I grew up in a different America, one both better and worse. Young people today may not imagine the degree of racism in those years. There is still racism, but the situation has changed enormously.
AVC: You write that people treat you differently, as if you were a bit slower, now that you can’t speak. Why do you think that reaction is so common? And do you have any strategies to circumvent it?
RE: Actually, I depend most on the web. My voice is still intact there, and I write furiously to demonstrate that. In person, strangers still see me and make a snap judgment. I realize I sometimes did the same thing. Maybe it’s human nature. A paraplegic friend told me he sometimes wanted to shout, “Hey, there’s a person down here!”
AVC: Ebert Presents At The Movies recently reran a “Best Of 1978” show wherein you and Siskel worried about blockbusters overtaking more serious forms of filmmaking. How do you feel about that fear now?
RE: Blockbusters run the mainstream industry. We may never again have a decade like the 1970s, when directors were able to find such freedom. Today, marketing decides many projects. Moviegoers are hammered by ad campaigns, and alternative films lack good distribution.
AVC: In one chapter, you talk about the many now-defunct movie palaces in Chicago, which have largely been overtaken by multiplexes, as they have throughout the country. Do you see any significance in the way we go to movies shaping our expectations for those movies?
RE: I think it was a pleasure to join large, knowledgeable audiences, and watch movies on very big screens. Comedies in particular benefit from large crowds. Many directors, coming with their films to my [annual] Ebertfest in Urbana-Champaign, at the restored Virginia Theater with 1,600 seats, say they’ve never seen their movies with such a large audience.
AVC: Often critics’ opinions harden over the years, and their judgment grows harsher. I have the impression that you write more positive reviews now than ever before. How do you avoid getting cynical about movies?
RE: I am more aware of the miracle it requires to make a film at all. I do suspect my star ratings average too high. But of course star ratings are ridiculous. I’m stuck with them.
AVC: Life Itself talks about the gratifying relationship that’s developed between you and your online readership. When you post something that stirs a passionate response, such as your argument that videogames can’t be art, do other people’s opinions ever sway you to revisit your thoughts?
RE: Not often, but I read and vet every comment. And often I learn from them. On videogames, I revisited the topic and said I shouldn’t have said they would “never” be art, but that it wouldn’t happen in the foreseeable future. Never say never. I believe time spent reading or watching (some) films is better employed, and produces more interesting people.
AVC: What’s the most tremendous change you’ve seen happen in movies during your lifetime?
RE: Black and white is now virtually against the law. American mainstream films are angled more toward world markets. Film societies and repertory theaters are threatened. Home video and streaming have opened up availability of titles to everyone.
AVC: I once saw you introduce the film Ikiru as one of the few movies that could make viewers a better person. What are some others?
RE: I avoid making lists. I’d propose films that powerfully move us to empathize with people who exist outside our own boxes of space and time.
AVC: You’ve said you feel comfortable living on in memes. What contributions of yours to you foresee living on in that form?
RE: Well, not “comfortable,” because I’d prefer living on as myself. But some of my often-repeated phrases may hang around for a while. “A film is not about what it is about, but about how it is about it.” “No good film is depressing.” “3-D is the waste of a perfectly good dimension.”