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Roger Ebert's memoir Life Itself reads like someone's life flashing before their eyes; this is probably because, well, it is. Ebert was not particularly certain he was dying, but he was musing that he probably hadn't long to live in the way that all people approaching 70 probably do, and that as the number of things he'd never be able to do again mounted, the increasing certainty that he'd never see certain people again. It was a lot like someone aware that, in the film reel of their life, this was the final act. This was the four chapters in Paul Schrader's Mishima concluding simultaneously as the blood red sun rises, set to a Philip Glass score. Though, as he describes, Ebert saw himself remembered in his 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk speeding by a cornfield in rural Illinois.
He tells a compelling story of someone with, like many great social critics, a complicated relationship with the places, and people, he comes from; the son of pre-WWI German immigrants enthusiastically willing to shed the last vestiges of their Germanic life in fealty to the moral certitude that American was the only way to be, the product of a Catholic mother who wanted him to join the clergy and an autodidact father certain his son was destined for more that he would never explain anything about his work as a university electrician.
The complexity of Roger Ebert, however, comes through in his reconciliation of his heritage with his commitment to progressive leftist politics; he attends the university his father was an electrician for, a place his aunt tells him would've entered a dark age without the handiwork of a father, he joins Students for a Democratic Society, he visits apartheid South Africa as a graduate student, only to become involved with and enchanted by the Black culture that, both, he and they could be prosecuted for cataloging amidst Afrikaner hegemonic cultural and political oppression. He is a liberal through and through, no great thinker of the left, even of his own era (he mentioned receiving his SDS membership papers from Tom Hayden personally at the end of a queue, for example), but he understands political reality of the United States more than most, as a Midwesterner.
Towards the end of the book, he describes the treatment of his friend and historian Studs Terkel at the hands of HUAC, Terkel having been smeared as a communist (something Ebert vehemently insists is untrue, makes a compelling case for Terkel as a New Deal Democrat), he makes references to the Midwestern views of FDR as (not inappropriately) their savior in an indifferently capitalizing society, willing to let the working class simply starve rather than reinvest.
Life Itself is fundamentally a book about this distinction between the society produced by viewing federal government as investing in, rather than spending on, the propagation of the human spirit. In Ebert's decision to make Chicago his home for the rest of his life, even when other Midwest mainstays eventually left the loop, and even saw themselves as outsiders, perhaps incorrectly, like Dave Letterman (someone Ebert was close to), the text speaks to the post-war attitudes of people who were forged, and propagated, politically in the shadow of New Deal in the Midwest, and raised their families there (Ebert, having had no genetic children, considers his "memes" enough of a legacy– his writing, criticism, cultural impact writ large). Ebert, repeatedly, takes pride in UIUC's supercomputing capabilities, the impact on the Midwest in the social sciences, and overall, the deftness with which they did not lose sight of the role of a well-organized community in a healthy society for inclusive consideration of the arts; something, for example, that attracted the interests of Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev in 1959 amongst other Midwestern expressions of post-New Deal sociopolitical ethos in labor and agriculture and infrastrucuture.
He laments, on the occasion of his 50th high school reunion, returning to Champaign-Urbana and visiting the sites of old, generationally-culturally significant, local sites, only to find they'd been razed, and redeveloped for less permanent, more contemporary (perhaps so much so as to age out of the cultural moment in real time) architectural projects. He is, however, no crank about modernity: He laments the new directors and artists he will never get to know, the lost futures of cinema he will never experience. He doesn't begrudge youth and modernity, he mourns the lost futures of an architectural legacy the people of today will no longer experience because of the disposable aspirations of the production culture that produced it, even if the ideas and aesthetics of said culture are not.
They say you can "meet people where they are"– anyone lamenting the past in this perhaps relateable way can be reached on that level to understand their enemy isn't youth or modernity or perhaps not even a disagreeable aesthetic, but that the turnover, and the rush to overthrow dead culture, is all a function of capitalist accelerationism. But an acceleration to what? Well, the quickest path for capitalism to profit is through, not around, and that lack of consideration for what may be there, and by definition will become lost history as well as a lost future, but also the history and future that will never be written about what replaces it as the reiterations come faster and more thoroughly the next time, is the imperative force.
This is what Roger Ebert tried to teach us about humanity, not as such, but through his experience as a Midwestern liberal who became a critical authority on culture that he often found wanting; without that aggregated, and critically analyzed, corpus of human achievement, what really can we be said to have done with our time here, if we only leave monuments to late capitalism behind?
An image that brought me great comfort while reading Life Itself in the 8 years since Ebert died is that he describes moments of experiencing life the same way he experienced art; you are meant to picture both in the same way you remember a scene from a movie, even if you're just being told a story about his life. You're in a cinema, talking with a friend while kids run around, adults mess around with arm rests, cupholders, etc. the lights start to go down, the room becomes quiet, and you're in a hotel bar one night in 1999, with a dying-but-hasn't-told-anyone Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, having asked a spiritual question, discussing death from the perspective of Judaism, discussing "the important things".
Siskel says to Ebert during that "deepest and longest" discussion, "The importance of Judaism isn't simply theological, or, in the minds of some Jews, necessarily theological at all. It is that we have stayed together and respected these things for thousands of years, and so it is important that we continue." You are meant to understand the import of such a statement to mean this is something all humans can find some applicability to, something in society with which this sentiment resonates, and understand it to be a beseechment to make something of the society we have, rather than focus on individual legacy, but what you, as an individual leave to it in the ways you feel you participate. Are you an artist, a commentator, an educator, a recordkeeper, are you just a participant, an individual loved and valued by dozens of other individuals, of whom dozens of others love and value them, and so on.
This isn't so much about Ebert as a man, but Ebert's personage as an idea; he told his individual story, but much of that story depends on people who impacted him, and what he believes his impact was on them (something he minimizes). It was a fascinating book because he takes a lot of time confessing sins (raised a Catholic, after all), as well as acknowledging where things could have begun to shape his life differently, but he does not explore lost futures, only acknowledges them, and focuses on the one way history actually happened. The takeaway for a reader, one sufficiently motivated to read it politically, is something like, "When you know you life is ending, and you have time not just to make a statement, but project your entire life before everyone else's eyes, with the drama, moral failure, but also triumps and redemption of a life taken on-balance, what will you say about your life?" For Ebert, the answer was to write one last movie about the human spirit that he would never have to review.