One of my favorite writers died this week. For the first time in quite a while, next time I want to see whether I might be interested in a new movie, I won’t get to see what Roger Ebert thought about it. And that makes me even sadder than I thought it might.
It might seem unlikely for a composer-slash-armchair-theologian to say his favorite writer was a movie critic. I can’t help it; he was just that good. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, the first movie critic to do so, and achieved fame sparring with Gene Siskel on PBS. But his writing style kept right on improving after he lost his voice to thyroid cancer. His posts on his blog and twitter were little masterpieces. Ebert’s best writing combines a novelist’s revelry in the joy of language with a journalist’s economy and precision. You could feel his enthusiasm and interest whatever the subject — good movies, bad movies, politics, childhood memories, travel, his beloved wife Chaz.
On that note, I haven’t seen anyone else share my favorite story yet, so here it is: A reader once wrote in to chide him for commenting that Indian actress Aishwarya Rai was the most beautiful woman in the world, saying that surely Roger should have been savvy enough to give that honorific to Mrs. Ebert. Roger replied, “The question was about women, not goddesses.”
Of course the internet is overflowing with tributes already; more notable people than me have given their approbation, right up to and including his fellow Chicagoan the President of the United States. (My brother wrote a blog post, too, I should mention.) Even so, I feel like somehow I ought to give a personal note. Ebert’s writings meant more to me than just the pleasure of good prose.
I can’t tell a story about meeting him; that never happened, partly due to my idiotic and everlastingly regrettable decision that I was too busy to go hear him give a lecture that one time. (On making low-budget movies with a Mac. At the Chicago Apple Store, a mile from my dorm. Kick me.) I only really interacted with him once: He wrote a blog about traveling, and I commented with a relevant quote from Chesterton — “They say travel broadens the mind, but you must have the mind.” He replied with a relevant quote from Shakespeare — “Ay, there’s the rub.” Made my day.
Still, like so many others, I felt a truly personal connection through his words. I first found Ebert’s writing when I was a student at an Evangelical college in Chicago. Chicago, of course, was the home of Ebert’s beloved Sun-Times, where he worked from the newspaper industry’s heyday to its sunset days. Evangelicalism, on the other hand, was perhaps not the best venue for someone to develop an appreciation for film, or many of the other arts for that matter.
You know the kind of thing I mean: “Christian” movie reviews often judge a film’s merit by the number of swear words it doesn’t have, or by obsessively identifying whether it has a “Christian worldview,” which you tell by spotting all the catchphrases you remember from church. In the other corner, the watchword was, “Christians need to engage the culture!” What that means, I gathered, is you form a mental picture of yourself showing up with a pamphlet in front of this amorphous mass labeled “The Culture,” to which you have no connection whatsoever, and saying, “Excuse me, have you heard the good news about Flannery O’Connor?”
That’s beside the point, of course, but the point is that it is beside the point. From my immersion in this banal culture-wars posturing, Ebert’s reviews weren’t just a breath of fresh air, they were almost a revelation. Here was somebody who loved good movies because they were good movies, and hated bad movies because they were bad movies, enjoyed the very acts of loving and hating them. His dictum was, “It’s not what a movie is about; it’s how it is about it.” I picked this up mostly through osmosis, though this quote puts it quite well:
If you pay attention to the movies they will tell you what people desire and fear. Movies are hardly ever about what they seem to be about. Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may be.
Of course, he famously gave bad films no quarter, gleefully awarding a merciless “thumbs down” to any offenders. He was often at his most quotable when he was at his most critical, and published enjoyable books just of his one-star reviews. Sometimes the best part of watching an unimpressive new movie was realizing that it was just the sort of thing Ebert would have hated, and scrambling to the computer afterwards to find his review on his website. He rarely disappointed. I’ve seen lots of posthumous lists popping up of “Ebert’s 20 best movie putdowns” and such — oh, heck, I can’t resist including my own favorite:
This movie doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.
But it’s a mistake to think of him as the kind of critic who delighted only in criticizing. He also delighted in delighting. Here again was something to shake my complacency: I could complain at any length about music I disliked or ideas I disagreed with, but to see something positive described in a way that made me want to like it too, that made me realize my deficiency. Not content to tie his film writing to the schedule of latest studio releases, Ebert began a series of columns (and later books) appreciating the “Great Movies.” In the introduction to the first volume, he wrote:
Movies have been made for 100 years, in color and black and white, in sound and silence, in wide-screen and the classic frame, in English and every other language. To limit yourself to popular hits and recent years is like being Ferris Bueller but staying home all day.
I believe we are born with our minds open to wonderful experiences, and only slowly learn to limit ourselves to narrow tastes. We are taught to lose our curiosity by the bludgeon-blows of mass marketing, which brainwash us to see “hits,” and discourage exploration.
This is how I think about art now, not just the movies but music and literature and painting and all the rest. Of course there’s a difference between good movies and bad, but the difference has little to do with anyone’s pious attempts at moral judgments. The difference is whether it somehow becomes one of those “wonderful experiences.” We’ll only find that out by trying it, by keeping our childlike curiosity and enthusiasm.
But sometimes, when our sense of wonder is dulled and jaded by market-deadened consumerism or self-righteous platitudes, we need someone to show us what appreciation really looks like. Roger Ebert did that for me. He wasn’t the only one, of course, but there won’t be another one like him.
The last line of his final public statement was, “I’ll see you at the movies.” Thumbs up.
My brother’s tribute on The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond
Ebert’s own collection of his favorite zingers: In the Meadow We Can Pan a Snowman
The full list of Great Movies.
A lyrical blog post on loneliness.
Tweetable writing advice:
The Muse visits during the act of creation, not before. Don’t wait for her. Start alone.
— Roger Ebert (@ebertchicago) March 25, 2011
And finally, a famously negative review of a film Ebert hated, hated, hated…