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‘How I Believe in Roger Ebert’ (18353)

Reflections from the Register’s film writer on the passing of the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, TV host and blogger.

04/05/2013 Comments (31)

Roger Ebert as an altar boy (second from right).

Just over a month before his death on Easter Thursday, Roger Ebert wrote a blog post titled “How I Am a Roman Catholic” — a follow-up of sorts to a 2009 post called “How I Believe in God.”

For years I’d been toying with the idea of a response to that 2009 piece called “How I Believe in Roger Ebert”; for the last four weeks I’d been hoping to get to it sooner rather than later. I had hoped he might read it, perhaps even interact with it, as he had with at least two other pieces I wrote. Alas, I waited too long.

It goes without saying that, like many film critics writing today, I am incalculably indebted to Ebert. Of course I grew up watching him discuss and debate movies with Gene Siskel on At the Movies. I still remember bits and pieces of their discussions of certain movies in the early 1980s, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi.

The paper I delivered as a paperboy carried Ebert’s written reviews, and I was reading them sometime in the early- to mid-1980s. I may have bought book editions of his reviews in college in the late 1980s; certainly by the time I had Internet access, in the mid-1990s, I was reading him every week, along with a few other favorites.

As an inveterate reader of all sorts of writing and an aspiring writer, I quickly came to appreciate Ebert’s literary skill and engaging voice, as well as his critical insights. I don’t remember when I first became aware of a certain Catholic identity informing his writing, but it was something I appreciated long before I began writing faith-informed reviews and posting them on the earliest incarnation of Decent Films. Certainly he was one of the touchstones I looked to in finding a voice of my own.

Ebert’s review of John Carpenter’s Vampires is an instructive example of “how he was Roman Catholic” in his film writing. He opens this way:

When it comes to fighting vampires and performing exorcisms, the Roman Catholic Church has the heavy artillery. Your other religions are good for everyday theological tasks, like steering their members into heaven, but when the undead lunge up out of their graves, you want a priest on the case. As a product of Catholic schools, I take a certain pride in this pre-eminence.

Oh, I’m aware that Rome takes a dim view of sensationalist superstition. The pope wrote an encyclical about new age tomfoolery just last week. But John Carpenter’s Vampires gets its imprimatur from the Hollywood Catholic Church, a branch that broke off about the time the priest climbed the stairs to Linda Blair’s bedroom in The Exorcist. This is the kind of movie where the vampire killers hang rosaries from their rearview mirrors and are blessed by a priest before they harpoon the vile creatures and drag them into the sunlight for spontaneous combustion.

Having said that, Ebert goes on to note that the hero is not a priest, but a mercenary in the employ of Rome. “Yes, the Church, which once relied on prayer, holy water and crucifixes, now employs mercenaries to kill vampires. First the lay teachers in the parochial schools, now this.”

For viewers who had suffered through some of the more misguided incarnations of the “Hollywood Catholic Church,” Ebert’s reviews could be downright cathartic. Here is what he has to say about the horror film Stigmata:

Stigmata is possibly the funniest movie ever made about Catholicism — from a theological point of view. Mainstream audiences will view it as a lurid horror movie, an Exorcist wannabe, but for students of the teachings of the Church, it offers endless goofiness. It confuses the phenomenon of stigmata with satanic possession, thinks stigmata can be transmitted by relics and portrays the Vatican as a conspiracy against miracles.

He goes on:

Linda Blair was possessed by an evil spirit. Frankie has been entered by the Holy Spirit. Instead of freaking out in nightclubs and getting blood all over her bathroom, she should be in some sort of religious ecstasy, like Lili Taylor in Household Saints. It is not a dark and fearsome thing to be bathed in the blood of the lamb.

It is also not possible, according to leading Church authorities, to catch the stigmata from a rosary. It is not a germ or a virus. It comes from within. If it didn’t, you could cut up Padre Pio’s bath towels and start your own blood drive. Stigmata does not know, or care, about the theology involved, and thus becomes peculiarly heretical by confusing the effects of being possessed by Jesus and by Beelzebub.

Who but Ebert would note that the closing title card, which claims that the Gospel of St. Thomas was “denounced by the Vatican in 1945” as a “heresy,” illustrates the filmmakers’ “shaky understanding of the difference between a heresy and a fake”?

Ebert’s reviews weren’t always as well-informed by his parochial-school education as one might hope. I was a bit disappointed when, reviewing Kevin Smith’s Dogma, he remarked that “non-Catholics may need to be issued Catechisms on their way into the theater,” since “not everybody knows what a plenary indulgence is,” but failed to note that the movie itself seems not to know what a plenary indulgence is — possibly because his own understanding of plenary indulgences wasn’t too clear.

I used that line from Ebert’s review as a springboard for an early essay exploring the theological implications of Dogma. I don’t know if Ebert ever read that essay, but I know that he read another one I wrote around the same time, on Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

In that essay, I tried to mediate between two groups of people: thoughtful, non-devout film lovers and devout Christians who considered the film blasphemous. Evidently I succeeded with at least one thoughtful, non-devout film lover: Ebert himself.

In his 1989 review, Ebert had defended Last Temptation at length from the charge of blasphemy. Years later, in an essay that went into his book on Scorsese, Ebert graciously credited me with changing his mind on the theology, if not the film:

The film is indeed technically blasphemous. I have been persuaded of this by a thoughtful essay by Steven D. Greydanus of the National Catholic Register, a mainstream writer who simply and concisely explains why.

He then went on to explain why, in his view, it didn’t matter that the film was blasphemous. Fair enough. My essay wasn’t written to convince anyone to consider blasphemy objectionable; only to point out why, for those who do object to blasphemy, the film is objectionable.

That was the second time Ebert cited me in a review. The first time was in 2004, in his four-star review of The Passion of the Christ, in which he quoted some remarks from one of my essays on the film. (I’m told he also mentioned me on the TV show that week.) It has occurred to me that if controversial Jesus movies were more of a Hollywood staple, I might have scored a guest spot on his TV show.

My two prized mentions were characteristic of Ebert’s generosity toward younger critics, whom he mentored, encouraged and actively promoted. “Roger believed in me. I can’t overstate how much that meant,” tweeted Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, a young Russian-born critic, hours after Ebert’s death. Vishnevetsky co-hosted Ebert Presents: At the Movies during its one-season run in 2011-12, and has contributed reviews to RogerEbert.com.

In 2002, Ebert underwent surgery for thyroid cancer. Four years later, undergoing additional surgery, he lost his voice as well as his ability to eat and drink. Although the extent of his debilitation wasn’t immediately revealed, he would go on to be remarkably open about his condition. The loss of much of his jawbone startlingly transformed his appearance, but in 2010 he allowed himself to be photographed, sagging jaw and all, for a piece in Esquire. In a later essay, he candidly took sole responsibility for causing his own debilitating decline by ignoring medical advice and pursuing an alternate treatment.

In spite of the loss of his voice, Ebert continued to speak eloquently on his blog and via Twitter, not only on movies, but on a wide variety of topics: politics and culture, science and technology, and his own life. (His political tweeting could be abrasive; during the last election season I temporarily unfollowed him, but his blogging was almost always thoughtful and worth reading.) 

One topic that came up occasionally on his blog was his religious upbringing. Ebert wrote with consistent fondness of his experiences in parochial school, of the priests and nuns whom he remembered as uniformly kind and loving and whom he credited with forming his moral outlook. In an essay titled “Mary We Crown Thee With Blossoms Today!” he wrote about his “first-rate education” by the nuns at St. Mary’s in Champaign, Ill. Here is how he remembered the nuns: 

None of these nuns were “strict” in the sense usually meant. They simply assumed we would behave, and for the most part we did. No sister ever laid a hand on any student, as far as I know. Nor did they raise their voices. It was an orderly school. We regarded the nuns with a species of awe, because they were the brides of Christ and had the entire Roman, Catholic and Apostolic Church backing them up.

A humorous youthful experience of well-intentioned, if misguided, religious fervor from that essay is also worth noting: 

I was inflamed after reading a biography of Savio in which, as a lad in school, he attempted to teach his schoolmates the folly of violence as a means of ending disputes. Two of them had a grudge and announced they would settle it with a fight. Vainly did the Blessed Dominic attempt to talk them out of this. When they squared off, he removed a crucifix from his pocket and stepped between them, holding it aloft and telling them, “Throw the first stones at me.” Shamed, they lowered their heads, and he urged them to make a good confession. This struck me as exemplary behavior, and I went to school with a small crucifix in my pocket and asked two of my friends, Dougie Pierre and Jimmy Sanders, to start a fight so I could step between them. They said they weren’t mad at each other. “Then start one anyway,” I pleaded, not quite capturing the spirit of Blessed Dominic’s message.

In another essay, mischievously titled “My Vocation as a Priest,” Ebert wrote about his experiences as an altar boy and his pious mother’s hopes for his future vocation. Perhaps significantly, his father, “raised as a Lutheran,” generally stayed home on Sunday mornings, and good-naturedly resisted his wife’s and son’s efforts to convert him.

In my childhood the Church arched high above everything. I was awed by its ceremonies. Years later I agreed completely with Pauline Kael when she said that the three greatest American directors of the 1970s — Scorsese, Altman and Coppola — had derived much of their artistic richness from having grown up in the pre-Vatican Two era of Latin, incense, mortal sins, indulgences, dire sufferings in hell, Gregorian chant, and so on.

The parish priest was the greatest man in the town. Our priest was Father J.W. McGinn, who was a good and kind man and not given to issuing fiery declarations from the pulpit. Of course, in Catholic grade school, I took the classes for altar boys. We learned by heart all the Latin of the Mass, and I believe I could serve Mass to this day. There was something satisfying about the sound of Latin.

Introibo ad altare Dei.
Ad Deum qui laitificat juventutem meum.

“I will go to the altar of God. The God who gives joy to my youth.” There was a “thunk” to the syllables, measured and confident, said aloud the way they looked … 

You could go anywhere in the world and the Mass would sound the same, we were told, and the priests could all speak with one another in Latin. The dissolution of that practice at Vatican Two was the end of something that had survived for nearly two millennia. I loved the idea of Latin. I loved the hymns, especially Tantum Ergo, the solemn song at the Consecration of the Eucharist, which had been written by Thomas Aquinas.

One episode from this essay, somewhat inexplicably, brings tears to my eyes:

I was never abused in any way by any priest or nun. One incident remains vivid to this day. When I was perhaps eight years old, and new to serving Mass, my mind emptied one morning and I made a mess of it. When we returned to the sacristy, I burst into tears. “I’m sorry, Father!” I sobbed, and he sat down and took me on his lap and comforted me, telling me that God understood and so did he. Today, tragically, the idea of an altar boy on a priest’s lap has only alarming connotations. On that day, Father McGinn was only being kind, and I felt forgiven.

Ebert goes on in this essay to recount the rather untraumatic process by which he lost his faith. “It didn’t make sense to me any longer. There was no crisis of conscience. It simply all fell away.” The theory of evolution, which “in its elegance and blinding obviousness became one of the pillars of my reasoning, explaining so many things in so many ways,” was a big part of this process, although Ebert credits the nuns themselves with introducing him to evolution and teaching a non-literal interpretation of Genesis. Another factor, he admits, was his discovery of Playboy and his unwillingness to confess certain humiliating sins to his priest.

In his post “How I Believe in God,” Ebert waxed eloquent about cosmic mystery, mathematics and the universe in artful ways without ever quite directly confronting the fact, later squarely admitted in “How I Am a Roman Catholic,” that he didn’t believe in God — or, as he put it in the latter essay, “I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God.” That, of course, is trading one dodge for another: Just as the frank answer to “How I believe in God” would have been “Basically I don’t,” so the frank answer to “How I am a Roman Catholic” would have been “Basically I’m not.”

Yet, despite his loss of faith, Ebert’s continued identification with his Catholic heritage, and the moral outlook it instilled in him, were touchstones of his warm humanism, in the best sense of that word. Today the word “humanism” has often been debased as a virtual synonym for “secularism” or “irreligion.” There is such a thing as secular humanism, although in the long run I think there’s a contradiction at its heart that eventually leads to secular posthumanism.

Ebert was not a posthumanist. He was a man whose instincts and affections were fundamentally sound and wholesome, though not unflawed, particularly in the area of sexual morality. Early in his career, Ebert collaborated with notorious grindhouse filmmaker Russ Meyer on a number of exploitation films, notably writing the screenplay for the trashy cult film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Ebert rose above this lurid chapter in his career, but he never had a problem with movie eroticism, and, like so many lapsed Catholics, could never regard the phrase “impure thoughts” with anything but a smile.

Yet where some critics seem to wish to suspend all moral judgment, preferring to charge films only with aesthetic faults, Ebert was willing to invoke moral principles in his reviews, even at the risk of appearing uncool or unsophisticated:

Peter Berg’s Very Bad Things isn’t a bad movie, just a reprehensible one. It presents as comedy things that are not amusing. If you think this movie is funny, that tells me things about you I don’t want to know.

What bothers me most, after two viewings, is its confidence that an audience would be entertained by its sad, sick vision, tainted by racism. If this material had been presented straight, as a drama, the movie would have felt more honest and might have been more successful. Its cynicism is the most unattractive thing about it — the assumption that an audience has no moral limits and will laugh at cruelty simply to feel hip. I know moral detachment is a key element of the ironic pose, but there is a point, once reached, which provides a test of your underlying values.

Ebert even made a point of trying to reserve his zero-star rating for films that were not only devoid of aesthetic value, but in some way immoral as well. His approach was certainly an influence on my own attempts to work out a systematic approach to evaluating movies with respect to moral as well as artistic and entertainment value.

There is a generosity and empathy to many of his reviews, and in many of the films he appreciated. One of the qualities he most celebrated in a film was its ability to “take us outside our personal box of time and space and invite us to empathize with those of other times, places, races, creeds, classes and prospects. I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.” (If his celebration of empathy sounds over the top, consider that St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) arguably goes further: Empathy, she maintained in On the Problem of Empathy and other writings, is foundational to personhood and community, to knowledge even of the self, as well as others.)

If Ebert’s later career implicitly affirmed human value even amid debilitating illness, his recent blog post “How I Am a Roman Catholic” affirmed with startling directness the value of human life at its beginnings in the womb, even in cases of rape and incest:

I support freedom of choice. My choice is to not support abortion, except in cases of a clear-cut choice between the lives of the mother and child. A child conceived through incest or rape is innocent and deserves the right to be born.

Writing about great movies with profound religious themes, Ebert was capable of spiritual responsiveness. His “Great Movies” review of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest is a moving example. On Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc he also excellent, although he avoids actually engaging the film’s religious themes. I wonder if this might be because martyrdom was one religious theme that didn’t fit his worldview. His respectful but troubled take on Of Gods and Men is a good example. (Did he omit A Man for All Seasons from his “Great Films” project for this reason?)

Writing about Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Ebert describes a vignette that reminds me, somehow, of Ebert’s own relationship to faith: a climactic scene in which Max von Sydow’s knight Antonius Block, claimed by Death but seeking to perform one meaningful act before dying, saves a young family — a couple named Joseph and Mary (or Jof and Mia) with an infant — by distracting Death as they escape.

In my review of The Seventh Seal, I wrote that the scene suggests “a curious solicitude on Bergman’s part toward his little holy family”:

Like Block, Bergman is unable to enter into Jof and Mia’s way of life, yet still somehow seems to draw comfort from it. By the film’s end it’s clear that although the director has no wish to be like Jof and Mia, he nevertheless values their way of life and doesn’t wish to see them deprived of it.

That, I suspect, is something like how Ebert thought of the Catholic faith: He couldn’t believe it any more himself, but he was somehow pleased that it endured, and that other people continued to believe it. I’d like to think my own writing, when and where he ran across it, gave him this pleasure.

Two days ago, in what turned out to be his last blog post, Ebert announced that, due to resurgent cancer, he was taking what he chose to call “a leave of presence.” “What in the world is a leave of presence?” he asked rhetorically. “It means I am not going away.”

Those words — “A leave of presence” — sit at the top of the right column at RogerEbert.com, providing an unintended, ironic contrast with his frankly naturalistic account of death in his memoir Life Itself. “I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state,” he wrote. “What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function and that will be that.”

If Ebert was right about death, then, alas, he was utterly wrong about “not going away.” He is as absent as it’s possible to be, however fondly remembered he will be for years to come.

That, though, is not what I believe. And so I find myself giving my title — “How I Believe in Roger Ebert” — a further sense I didn’t originally intend. I believe in Roger Ebert … for real, right now. I believe that he has not gone away, not as absolutely as he thought. I believe he is still “present,” somewhere … and I’m confident that he wouldn’t have begrudged me this belief even in his last moments on earth. (Perhaps — who knows? — he may even be able to read this essay after all.)

I have no brief for his current condition. But I pray for him, with warmth, gratitude and hope, in the Latin he loved as a boy:

Requiem Aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetuae luceat eis. Requiescant in pace.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.

Filed under in memoriam