How Roger Ebert Taught Me – And Probably You – How To Watch Movies

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– By James Powers –

Today, as I’m writing this, it’s April 3. Tomorrow, April 4 (by which point I will have hopefully finished this thing) is the sixth anniversary of the death of Roger Ebert, a man who almost single-handedly sculpted America’s relationship to movies. He is one of my favorite writers, obviously one of my favorite film critics; whenever I watch anything that came out before his death, I make a point of getting his two cents on it. Honestly, his perspective on film has largely shaped my own. But now I’m just sitting here, stuck with serious writer’s block as I try to come up with a good way to commemorate him. Not sure why that is…but my best guess at this point is just that there’s so much that could be said, I’m not sure where to start.

I can’t remember the first time I read one of his reviews, rather like I can’t remember the first time I watched a movie. Movies have always just kind of been there for me, and so have Ebert’s hot takes on them.

And I’m not alone in that. He is probably the only film critic (apart from his sometime compatriot Gene Siskel) who’s ever managed to become a household name; the first one to win a Pulitzer Prize; the only one to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Even if you’ve never read a word of his writing, you know who he is. Whenever a new movie came out, America wanted to know what he thought about it. He was an influencer before influencers were a thing. It’s mysterious and kind of amusing, really, how this nerdy blonde guy from Urbana, IL ended up with so much of Hollywood at his mercy. Why did people care so much about what he had to say?

Hmm. Maybe that’s what I’ll write about. Why did people care what he had to say, filmmakers and audiences alike? And why should we care still?

For one thing, he knew how to say what he had to say. Writing was his thing since day one – allegedly, he started his career in journalism as a little kid, keeping the neighbors informed about (very) local events with “The Washington Street News.” At age 24, he was pursuing a doctorate in English at the University of Illinois and working as a general reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. When the paper needed a new staff film critic, they threw Ebert into the ring, and his first published review was of the 1967 French film Galia. Right from the get-go he sounded like he knew what he was talking about – and like he didn’t particularly care what was or was not trendy among film sophisticates at the time. As he put it in that first review, “Georges Lautner’s ‘Galia’ opens and closes with arty shots of the ocean, mother of us all, but in between it’s pretty clear that what is washing ashore is the French New Wave.” Lol.  

That has always been one of his major selling points for me: his combination of intelligence and approachability. The guy was a doctoral candidate, yet nonetheless wry enough to know that audiences like a pithy brand. Thumbs-up or thumbs-down – simple. But he never talked down to his readers; nor, conversely, did he ever try to level up from his mainstream Midwest newspaper to a more “highbrow” publication. He was just as thoughtful and honest with shoot-em-up blockbusters as he was with the French New Wave. No matter the genre, with any movie he would simply say what he liked, what he didn’t like, and why. And there was almost always something to like; empathy and generosity came to be a hallmark of both his writing and his personal philosophy.  

Which is another one of the things I’ve always loved about him. There were definitely films that Roger Ebert hated, but he could find something praiseworthy in the vast majority of them. Many’s the time he defended a movie against the “meh” reaction or even outright dislike of his colleagues. If a movie swung for the fence and missed, Ebert was first to praise the effort, if not the execution. I think he essentially believed that there is a little bit of good in everyone; ergo, there is a little bit of good in every filmmaker; ergo, there is a little bit of good in (most) every film. But when he did opt to give a title the infamous thumbs-down, he really meant it. All his reviews were on a four-star system, so if a movie got a thumbs-down it meant that, in his heart of hearts, he really saw nothing redeeming in it – nothing to even merit a paltry half-star.

And here’s where things get interesting. Despite Hollywood’s reputation for thriving on morally bankrupt stories that use sex and violence to appeal to the lowest common denominator, the fact is that Ebert frequently held them accountable by bringing a strong moral compass into his criticism. The vast majority of his thumbs-down reviews were given, not so much for technical or artistic incompetence, but for simple depravity. If you scroll through the list of all his thumbs-down, you’ll notice it’s full of raunchy comedies and sadistic slashers. In fact, he refused to give any rating at all to the 2010 torture-porn piece The Human Centipede, saying, “the star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.”

Granted, Ebert’s standards were waaaay more lenient than those of Pure Flix or the Legion of Decency, but at the end of the day he strongly believed that filmmakers have a responsibility to somehow improve the lives of their audiences through the stories they tell. There are a thousand and one ways for them to fulfill that responsibility, but it exists all the same.

And here is where things get really interesting. What did it mean to him, for a film to somehow improve the lives of its audience? As a critic, and a morally-driven one at that, he clearly had a sense of what “good” and “bad” are. Upon what did he base those standards? Well… honestly, a lot of it had to do with Catholicism.

Although he remained cheerfully ambiguous about religion and philosophy during his adult life, he had been raised Catholic. And unlike so many former Catholics, he had almost nothing but good things to say about that experience. For him, the Church didn’t represent hypocrisy or oppressive dogmatism. Rather, it represented beauty (“There was something satisfying about the sound of Latin…There was a ‘thunk’ to the syllables, measured and confident, said aloud the way they looked”); curiosity (“In school every morning, the first period was given over to Religion, and…Sister Rosanne permitted free-wheeling discussions…She didn’t pound dogma into us. She seemed, as I think of it, fond and amused”); and also – surprise surprise – morality (“It was from these nuns…that I learned my core moral and political principles… Many of them involved a Social Contract between God and man, which represented classical liberalism based on empathy and economic fairness”).

Ebert eventually drifted away from the faith, but Catholicism nonetheless left an indelible mark on him as a human and as an artist. As he famously put it, “I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God. I refuse to call myself an atheist however, because that indicates too great a certainty about the unknowable.” Heh, okay. A glib attitude, and kind of intellectually lazy, but honest.

Honest to a degree, anyway. I find it perplexing how someone could spend a lifetime steeped in stories as he did, without coming to believe in the one Storyteller, the Logos, who is behind all of them. Especially if he already knew about Him, at least in theory. But obviously that’s a question only settled between the two of them – God and Roger Ebert. In the end, I think he really loved mystery and surprise, and that is why he loved movies so much. Like life, they are full of surprises. Like the people who make them, they can never be entirely explained. Like all day-to-day experience, they introduce as many questions as they answer. Maybe he felt that organized religion ruins the delicious mystery of things. If he did, joke’s on him – I find that life is much more intriguing, exciting and mysterious with my faith than without it. And it makes movies that much more exciting and mysterious as well.

Perhaps Ebert was never really able to shake that connection between faith, mystery, and stories. Even if he couldn’t make a conscious profession of faith, I feel like he nonetheless kept an unconscious inkling of where all stories really come from. Which made him so well-suited to understand them, and help others (like me) to understand them.


About the Author

James Powers is a staff writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.

For all articles by James, click here.

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