I take myself to Life Itself, Steve James’s documentary about Roger Ebert. I get a Diet Coke, napkins. I anticipate tears. I sit in the last row, blink like a French New Wave heroine. Confession: Roger didn’t introduce me to Anna Karina or Jean Seberg. Salt-sharp thoughts before I confront my past.
Movies, books, cities—what is life but an accumulation of shared experiences that trigger our individual stories? My facts are common: twenty-nine, a woman raised in Chicago’s suburbs. These days, I only return to the Midwest for holidays or deaths.
My husband wanted to accompany me to the film.
“Ebert was important to you,” he said. “I don’t know anything about him.”
But I want to be alone with my memories, trembling moire-ish things that won’t affix to narrative or mortal laws. I want tears, thick in my throat, docking my breath.
Dock: to cut short (an animal’s tail).
Dock: related to Flemish dok ‘chicken coop, rabbit hutch.’
On April 4, 2013, I turned on the radio: Roger Ebert had died. I stared at the dumb Holyoke range in stupid Massachusetts. I flicked my Illinois license, the one I won’t replace. I looked at my home address.
My family moved on Halloween, 1991, the year I was six and Rapunzel, and my mother drove me to a wig shop. Crowded with hair, heads and mannequins maimed at the neck gaped at me—white, brown, peach, like Barbies, sporting turquoise eyeshadow and human eyelashes. I left with a fall, synthetic brown tresses that would be braided and pinned to my scalp. My costume was completed by an old bridesmaid dress, the burgundy of seats in the cheap-o cinema. But we weren’t living by the cheap-o cinema anymore. Our new house was secluded, in a hilly neighborhood without sidewalks or children.
I am the youngest person at the theater. There are five couples. I can’t discern men from women. Lovers, siblings, colleagues, friends—they could be strangers who met in the lobby. They all have white hair.
One single old man at the end of my row. We are by ourselves.
I wonder if Ebert ever sat here, in a plush blue corner, like me. I wonder if he preferred certain films alone.
Now my parents subscribe to the Trib, but, in 1991, I dashed down the driveway for the Chicago Sun-Times. My morning ritual: running barefoot to suffer and endure. Snowy, wet, icy, hot, spiky (pebbles), wriggling (worms)—perils awaited me, but I’d bear anything for the paper, which was like a giant candy in its orange sleeve. I was so excited, I’d unwrap it before chomping my cinnamon toast.
“Education. Resources. Engagement,” reads an advertisement. Shots of eager viewers. Everyone is missing a tooth.
I refused to only peruse pictures in the paper. Garfield introduced me to lasagna; after that, I was done.
That’s when I discovered movie reviews.
One morning in December, I sat in the kitchen, trawling through mud-colored Cocoa Wheats, scanning the headlines: Cook County Jail guard slain in her home, Ditka in silent relationship—my eye stopped.
“Hook tries to soar but thuds.”
Life Itself opens with skyline. Gray drizzle off Lake Michigan; skyscrapers, parks, pedestrians a thunderbolt from dissolve.
Confession: In Chicago, there are more places I’ve never been than been.
Red marquee, yellow lights. The Chicago Theater is across from the Siskel Film Center, where once I sat so close I got hit with Slavoj Žižek’s spit. Two blocks from formerly-Marshall Fields. 929 miles from Massachusetts.
“The ads for Steven Spielberg’s Hook ask the question, ‘What if Peter Pan grew up?’ but the answer, alas, is … he would probably star in a lugubrious retread of a once-magical idea … ‘Peter Banning’ is a busy executive with more time for his cellular phone than for his children, until fate launches him back once again into combat with Captain Hook,” Ebert wrote.
Lugubrious, retread—I wasn’t that advanced. But two stars said it all.
A few weeks later, I saw Hook and discovered that I, six-year-old JoAnna Novak, didn’t have to agree with a critic. I could have my own opinions—and learn from someone else’s.
Teeth, hands, pens. Glasses, turtlenecks, mustaches. A hospital room, and Roger, living out his last months of life, jaw flapping like a steak.
Chin hanging loose.
In first grade, we shared gym space with deaf children who frightened me. Their voices: a decibel louder than mine. In first grade, dashing beneath a rainbow parachute, I discovered a cyst, grapefruit-big, on the back of my left leg, like a giant Jell-o jiggler.
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Since 2006, as the surgeries (salivary, thyroid cancer) have robbed from Roger (speech, voice, food), I’ve found him hard to view. I hated my weakness. Today, I don’t blink. Gauze scarfs what remains of his chin, jaw, throat—anatomy so essential it’s hard to make a face without it
Childhood flashback: an industrious boy flinging newspapers.
On screen, I see University of Illinois for the first time. I never visited a college. I never partied in a dorm; rarely did I party.
I couldn’t blame my cyst for my friendlessness. After all, in elementary school, popular kids achieved all kinds of things with casts—blank canvases for their acolytes to doodle love.
After my surgery, I read fairy tales. Many featured mermaids, which I believed must exist in some grotto, probably in Wisconsin, the way I knew death was like chicken pox—something all the kids would get but me.
Young Roger wants a PhD. But his education is stymied. Hired by the Sun-Times, he’s a film critic after four months. Owlish, serious, horny, thirsty.
Chicago is nothing but midnights.
He reviews Bonnie and Clyde, where Faye Dunaway’s eyelashes are as pretty as a girl’s fanned fingers. He reviews The Battle of Algiers, “a deeper film experience than … audiences can withstand …” He cranks one out in thirty minutes. He drinks Johnnie Black, doubles, stumbles out of Old Town.
My cyst scar was Scotch-Tape thick, but I couldn’t see it. For a time, I forgot which knee had been stitched.
In my favorite movies, heroines underwent total transformations. You might be a bookworm, but Fred Astaire’d come along, wipe that dust off your cheeks and present you to a sylphic doyenne. You’d be whisked off to France and nail soufflés. You could look chic with a cropped coif, a poodle you carried like a clutch.
Change was easy for Audrey Hepburn, but by middle school I realized I couldn’t become like other kids. The lonelier I felt, the more I needed films. Names led me to the old ones: Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, Edith Head; Ebert’s weekly recommendations showed me the new.
Life Itself cuts back and forth, past progressing toward present. I dread the convergence; I know this documentary’s end.
Goodbye, Ale House. Hello, hospital. Roger wears green glasses. Liquid is suctioned from his G-Tube. Roger eyes the nurse: blinking, strained gaze shut.
“This,” he shares, via automated voice, “is a great thing nobody ever sees.”
By seventh grade, I believed movies were unsuspecting Mad Libs. You just had to be creative. Replace the heroine with yourself, the conflict with your drama, the love interest with your crush, the setting with your bedroom, and the antagonist with your parents.
Sometimes it worked. You could dissolve into dark. Become someone else.
Your odds of dissolving improved if you watched the same movie over and over while your parents dozed. Your odds of dissolving improved when the story was regular, a rom-com with—Roger’s lingo—a good meet-cute. Your odds of dissolving improved if you needed to lose yourself, badly, in seventh grade, when you took over the role of Jules from Julia Roberts and starred in My Best Friend’s Wedding as a harried food writer who’d go to extremes to win the prize, loutish Dermot Mulroney transformed into a drummable ribcage.
Conspiracy Theory, a year earlier, had rescued Julia from the slump that ugh, yes, Hook, had begun, a slump which slid her into haircut hell (Mary Reilly). My Best Friend’s Wedding, Ebert assured me, subverted the rom-com genre; watching it while I starved myself, the movie subverted me.
Confession: Until I was sixteen, I didn’t know Mike Meyers stole from Roger Ebert when, in Austin Powers, a mod yells, “This is my happening, baby, and it’s freaking me out.”
I didn’t know appropriation. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
Confession: In seventh grade, I brought the Austin Powers soundtrack and my CD player into the bathroom. I listened to “The Look of Love” on Repeat, soaking in Sun-Ripened Raspberry bubbles.
Roger’s wife, Chaz, is a woman with a headband.
Cinéma vérité: “We had to push his chair past the morgue,” she tells viewers; this one is appalled.
I forgive Ebert’s early carnality because he was a drunk, a bad one, the best—he wrote, Pulitzered. I forgive because he changed: he got sober, chubby, married.
Love is a woman who adored a big man’s confidence. Love is permanent faith. “People are interested in what you have to say,” says Chaz, “—not how you say it.”
Damn my repulsion. 2012-Roger’s mouth is a portal, a peephole, a window to his neck. I sink lower in my seat.
February 20, 1999: Gene Siskel died. Brain cancer.
“He was young,” my mother said. I did the math: fifty-four. Ten years her senior.
My family was crammed in a Tennessee hotel room, heading to Disney. I’d witnessed my mother grieve once for a celebrity, when John Candy died in 1994. But her tears for Siskel were inescapable. I’d already offered to refill our ice to take a circuitous path and burn secret calories. I stared at the TV. I was crying, but I couldn’t tell if it was for my mother, Siskel, or Ebert, who’d now, surely, be alone.
Young Gene Siskel’s handlebar mustache, his romps in the Bunny Jet, his frolics with titty mermaids in a plashy lagoon: sweetness. Biography dampers the profane.
We arrive in the eighties; the suits are saner. When Siskel and Ebert go to the movies, they have favorite seats: Gene preferred last row, off to the side. Why do I presume the fat man wasn’t finicky? Roger liked “twice as far back from the screen as the screen is wide.”
Confession: the only movie I ever reviewed was There’s Something About Mary, which Ebert and I both liked.
I craved smut and sophistication. Three Kings, American Beauty, American History X, Pi. In high school, I bought screenplays, VHS, DVDs, hungry for anything “good.” I needed taste to survive. I copied Ebert’s favorites into my diary, highlighting what I’d seen. I was proudest of tracking down Claire’s Knee.
Two thumbs up for Gates of Heaven. One thumb down for Three Amigos.
Populist is a refrain.
Cutting away from tears is instant. Gauze, dressing, swabs.
I began college afraid of alcohol: calories.
I once followed floor-mates to a party, where a guy pressed his dick to my thigh as Lil’ John blared. I fled. In my dorm, at least I could pause Requiem for a Dream.
When I read Laura Mulvey in Film Theory, I stopped reading Roger Ebert.
When I started dating future-husband, I stopped checking the Sun-Times. Switched to the Trib.
When a professor recommended Pauline Kael, I called her “my favorite.”
“He’s a solider of cinema,” says Werner Herzog, sounding like God. “He plows on … he reenforces my courage.”
Revision: I began college afraid of alcohol (calories) and life (brain chemistry). I began college, OD’d on acetaminophens twice in three months. Began college, wanted to die.
As filming proceeds, Roger deteriorates.
“How have you kept your spirits up?” the director asks.
Roger: “When you’re doing something you’re good at, you get in the zone.”
How could I have wanted to die? How could I have been so afraid of my work?
Flashback to Roger’s wedding. Girls, petals, lingual aisle. 10,000 steps. Tracing the cancer to boyhood radiation, Roger admits, “I have no fear of death.”
Denouement: rot after bloom.
“This is the third act, and it is an experience,” Ebert emails. I barely watch: more suctioning, pain searing Roger’s face, Chaz crumpling. My sob: ovine snort.
I’ve read The Great Gatsby three times:
In sixth grade (I understood nothing) and in high school (nothing but the sounds).
In college, after presenting the book to the man who’d become my husband.
It was okay, he said, returning it.
That’s when I revisited the novel and remembered how to disagree, even with someone I loved.
Watching Life Itself, I didn’t learn what pen Roger preferred. I did learn where he stayed at Cannes (Hôtel Splendid), his petit dejeuner (croissant, cafe au lait). I didn’t learn his writing regimen. I did learn he died at 1:40 p.m. I learned, with one Chicago chum, Roger always strolled through the Caldwell Lily Pond and this friend would recite The Great Gatsby’s end.
Here, Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Here, the second half of the second line of my introduction to Ebert’s reviews, an unremarkable remarking in a history of remarks, somehow akin to Fitzgerald: “…fate launches him back once again into combat with Captain Hook.”
“When I am writing,” types Roger, “I am the same person I was.” He is not only referring to his voice. He was never only reviewing a one film.
When I am writing, I am alone, writing with those who came before and I kneel, humbled: let me into that zone. I thought Roger taught me to watch, to look, to see. I thought he taught me to formulate opinions, discern a smart plot from schlock. I was wrong. He taught me that writing drives a stake into our time, priceless, however brief.
My mascara bleeds, my eyes sting. I can’t wait for the old man in the aisle. I squeeze past, toss my Diet Coke, push into the restroom. Lock myself in the last stall.
I never wrote to Roger Ebert. Not a Facebook message or a tweet. Most shamefully, not a letter. Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry, okay, the whole cast of Friends, even David Schwimmer—as I child, I wrote to dozens of celebrities, asking for advice, as though their assistants’ cursive could save me.
The responses were never personal. Jim Carrey’s headshot was Sharpied, “Spank you very much.” Tim Allen’s: “Be good to your tools.”
Why didn’t I write to Roger? I read him Fridays and Sundays. In bed I giggled away a night with I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie.
What would I have said in a letter? If I had written, maybe something cosmically would have been different, for me or for him, like in those choose-your-own-adventure stories I once read, where everything in a character’s life hinged upon whether or not she drank a glass of orange juice one Friday at breakfast.