Photo Credit: Kevin Horan
I am a midwestern son. There’s a sequence in the documentary ‘Life Itself’ that suggests that Roger Ebert styled himself as a Chicago journalist in an archetype of public figures like Studs Turkel. He was, for a time, hard drinking and hard living. Enjoying life in it’s ups and downs in a way that is both uniquely human and uniquely American. Seeing this film as I have now, in a time in life where for unrelated reasons, I’ve recently had to explain and often defend being both a New Yorker and American, it has given me pause to reflect on my midwestern-ness. It’s a claim I don’t often make about aspects of my personality and to say they are at best unsettled would perhaps be an understatement.
I grew up in California and having spent nearly a decade now in New York I’m often accused of being alternatively laid back (the West Coast side) or shall we say ambitious (the East Coast side). Sharing that I was born in Illinois and have fond childhood memories of returning to the Land of Lincoln and the land of my parents isn’t something that I’m oft to do unless you are close to me. I spent the formative years of my life learning how the world works from the perspective of diverse and conflicted California. By the time I had made it to Santa Cruz, a stereotype of California cool and a sign that you had made it by West Coast standards, I was constantly being accused of seeming East Coast. I lived blocks from the beach. I could hear the ocean crashing from my bed and on occasion sea lions barking – surprisingly – from miles away.
Eventually New York’s pull couldn’t evade me and I’ve made a happy home here and been able to watch Brooklyn change from my window and in some ways feel the gilded walls closing in in similar ways to Santa Cruz. Here people are compelled to say “Why would you ever leave?” In reference to California’s famous sun and weather and I say “Why not?” I couldn’t see getting to where I am now without moving. I’m a published author and have a successful independent business that has paid the bills for four years now. When I travel back to California and meet people from the tech industry out there I can’t help but feel that there’s not a snowballs chance in hell that I would have met them if I wasn’t where I am professionally in New York.
I’ve had a series of friends new and old visit from Europe and the continent and now that I’m an erudite New Yorker, I find myself having to explain my fellow countrymen in ways that don’t always feel natural. Perhaps that’s why the Ebert documentary hit me like a ton of bricks. When I think of celebrities, of artists, of people I admire and what I want out of life, there’s a certain midwestern quality that I find I am drawn to in somewhat inexplicable ways. It’s explained in ‘Life Itself’ that after Roger Ebert won the Pulitzer prize while writing for the scrappy Sun-Times – a commuter rag I can recall my Chicago suburban relatives explain to me – Ebert was courted by major publications like the NY Times and Washington Post. Roger was quoted as saying “I don’t want to have to learn new streets.”
When I think of celebrities, of artists, of people I admire and what I want out of life, there’s a certain midwestern quality that I find I am drawn to in somewhat inexplicable ways.
While on the one hand I’ve never lived in Chicago and on the other I feel deeply connected to the Bay Area and have a homey understanding of New York, there’s something about this sentiment that rings true for me. A loyalty to home, a sense of pride in the scrappiness of the paper. There’s something there that is American, heartland and Chicago. While in California, the dream is to be discovered and move up in the world and in New York, you wouldn’t leave because you feel well and true that this place is the best place on earth, the sense in Chicago that you stay despite being able to leave is both heartbreaking and wonderful. Something that I inherently feel and understand and fear perhaps that I’m overstating (as someone who isn’t from there) but I look at people like Studs and Ebert and Jean Sheperd and I feel like “yes” these are people who embody that spirit. They are people I aspire to be.
It’s why I felt so deeply hurt at news of Robin Williams passing. I can remember as a child seeing bits of my grandpa in him and feeling he was part of the family. It’s also why I think of Bill Murray as the archetype of the celebrity. There’s something in the spirit of Northern Illinois that is simultaneously understated and resounding – a midwestern cool. Look at Oprah! In ‘Life Itself’ we’re told time and again stories of unknown directors that Roger Ebert (along with Gene Siskel) pulled up from obscurity because they thought they deserved a voice. There’s a sense of Roger as an American success story both in his talent but also in his desire to give back. His humble beginnings were a tutorial for him on both the promise of the American dream but also the sense of duty to it. That’s perhaps what’s missing sometimes I feel as culture moves to the coasts. I’ve benefited greatly from being pulled up by others here in New York. It wasn’t always out of a sense of duty, but instead a sense kinship or reciprocity. In California I was brought in by the warmth of people’s generosity but it can often feel cold and individual there despite the sun. In neither place do I feel quite the same sense of humble duty. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist in either place, but rather it doesn’t exist in quite the same way.
There’s a wonderful reflection of death as a part of life in the documentary. The film doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of declining health as Roger Ebert went through many medical procedures towards the end of his life. It also confronts what death means in the context of life, cinema and America. I find intellectual communion in statements from Roger like: “Look at a movie a lot of people love and you’ll find something profound, no matter how silly the film may seem…” Through passages of the film Ebert is painted as both a sophisticated and stubborn egotist and at the same time a populist. At one point at a conference he’s asked why his opinion on a film matters more than anyone else’s and he says “because I have a Pulitzer.” It’s both harsh and true. Later though he’s lauded for his insistence that anyone can get a movie. Time and again we’re shown filmmakers like Errol Morris, Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese who basically credit Siskel and Ebert with making their films more palatable to audiences. Morris says “I don’t think I would have had a career if it weren’t for those guys.”
Yet when Siskel and Ebert at the Movies was growing in popularity there was a staunch refusal in the LA and New York markets to pick up the show. There was a sense that New York and Los Angeles film criticism was superior. Look at this article Ebert wrote on unfair criticism of Michael Moore’s Roger and Me where he staunchly rebukes Pauline Kael of the New Yorker, a woman he admired and credits for opening up the path of film criticism for a new generation. From the article:
Does Moore “demean” the subjects in his film, the “little people,” by holding them up to ridicule? I don’t think so. I think he is looking at the infinite goofiness of human nature — at the things people will say — with the same deadpan astonishment that I sometimes have when I watch the TV news.
Though respectful and accomplished, Roger Ebert seemed resolute in his dedication to the everyman ideal found throughout American storytelling. He believed in the American dream in both it’s promise and it’s faults and in doing so he embodied an archetype of the American journalist/writer we see manifest from time to time in literature and popular culture. Throughout the film ‘Life Itself’ A thread of a quote from The Great Gatsby is played and repeated. It is noted as one of Roger Ebert’s favorite quotes and one that embodies the American dream.
“Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning ——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Watch Bill Nack, a friend of Roger Ebert recite this passage from the Great Gatsby at Ebertfest
The Great Gatsby is a testament to American idealism, failure and reinvention. Famously read on stage, presumably ironically by Charlie Kaufman and retyped in its entirety by Hunter S Thompson, another iconic writer on the American dream from a previous generation, in order to gain insight on it’s rhythm. The story of Gatsby itself is an examination of the American dream through the lens of a midwesterner, Nick Halloway who is transported to the opulence of the East Coast to find the self-made Gatsby at once incredibly successful but as is described in the quote above, chasing an unattainable past. America allows for one to build their own path and for even the humble son of a electrician as in Ebert’s case to rise to the pinnacle of American journalism. But only to a point.
For all the optimism of the American dream, we can’t stop the inevitable passage of time. “He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him…” But what makes us American is our unwillingness to let that stop us from trying to reinvent the past by focusing on the future. What is sometimes seen by non-Americans as American ignorance of the past and the foolish, resolute pursuit of forward movement, is in fact laced with knowing fatalism and sadness, regret but optimism. Optimism in the belief that the failures of the past cannot be reconciled by dwelling on them. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning ——” And this is Fitzgerald writing nearly a century ago. What codifies the American spirit, and perhaps terrifies other non-Americans is the fact that we know the journey is unknown, we know the clock is impossible to turn back, but the only natural course of action we know is forward into the future. Even if it’s to chase an impossible past. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
What is sometimes seen by non-Americans as American ignorance of the past and the foolish, resolute pursuit of forward movement, is in fact laced with knowing fatalism and sadness, regret but optimism. Optimism in the belief that the failures of the past cannot be reconciled by dwelling on them.
What I’m reminded of watching ‘Life Itself’ as a Californian turned New Yorker is that while that indomitable spirit of constant progress may be born on the coasts, it’s the midwesterners who celebrate it, give it life and frame it in such a way as to make it sustainable. Roger Ebert’s gift to us wasn’t only the work he did himself, rewarding and important as that is. Like Gatsby, Ebert is as aware of the past though refuses to acknowledge it. Unlike Gatsby he’s aware of his shortcomings. Ebert’s giving life to the next generation is a way of addressing the inevitability of death while reminding us it isn’t an obstacle to progress but a motivator. For all his success he recognized our world isn’t perfect and sought to make the best world out of what he was given. He “beat on, boat against the current” and was able to give new life to others through the stories he chose to give light to and the stories he created in his own life. Ultimately he was adding to the story of what it means to be American and what make up American ideals by backing up his writing with action and determined spirit. His midwestern values informing his perspective. What could be more American than that?