Roger Ebert, RIP

April 4, 2013

The news has come across the wire this evening that Roger Ebert has died. Just yesterday he wrote that, though his cancer had returned, he was nonetheless brimming with plans for the future: a new web site, his film festival, a documentary on his life. It makes for poignant reading tonight.

Like many people, I first encountered him through the television programme he hosted with Gene Siskel, only later discovering that he was primarily a critic in print. I remember being fascinated by the television show, principally, I think, because I had never before heard considered judgments and articulate criticism about much of anything, still less something as commonplace as movies. It was my first intimation that there might be more to the movies than just entertainment.  Those old shows, segments of which have made their way onto YouTube, still make for good viewing.

His print reviews make for good reading too. He could almost always be counted on to give a clear account of a film’s strengths and weaknesses, often with considerable wit. (Bad films, especially, seemed to inspire his muse, and his collection of critical pans, Your Movie Sucks, makes for terrific occasional reading.) High praise from him was often enough to convince me to clear some time for a film I might otherwise have passed over. I am going to miss my weekly visit to his site.

Readers of this blog might be interested in something he wrote exactly one month ago: a short essay called “How I Am a Roman Catholic”. Those who read him regularly will know that he grew up in a devout Catholic family, attended Catholic schools, but drifted — so I gather — from the practice of the faith in his adult years. Yet Catholicism remained in his bones, and he continued to circle around it. Indeed, in this recent essay he insisted that “I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock, and barrel”. True, this confession was confused to no small extent by his admission that he “cannot believe in God”. I take him to have meant that he had doubts, that he had no firm assurance of faith. If so, he would hardly be alone in that.

In that same essay he, rather surprisingly, staked out a position on a question of current moral controversy that was not calculated to endear him to people who matter. In other words, he was true to his critical task to the end: saying what he thought, with clarity and reason, and leaning into the wind when it blew contrary-wise.

Requiescat in pace.

4 Responses to “Roger Ebert, RIP”

  1. Matthew Says:

    He was a little beyond doubts about God or someone who merely drifted from his faith. Here’s an excerpt from his memoir that eloquently sums up his view of death.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for that, Matthew; I hadn’t seen it before. You are quite right that he was far from orthodox; whether he drifted there or not is hard to ascertain from the things that I have read. I’ve seen no evidence, for instance, that he had a particular reason for rejecting the faith of his childhood — only that he came to find it “unpersuasive”. (Such evidence might exist.)

    I made another mistake in my post: I said that his childhood home had been devoutly Catholic. In fact, only his mother was a Catholic. This I learned from an interesting essay by Steven Greydanus, who knows a good deal more about Ebert than I do.

  3. Douglas Says:

    He seems to have been very fuzzy headed and vascilate when it came to abortion, IMO.

    “For example, in the matter of abortion, I am pro-choice, but my personal choice would be to have nothing to do with an abortion, certainly not of a child of my own. I believe in free will, and believe I have no right to tell anyone else what to do. Popes come and go, and John XXIII has been the only one I felt affection for. Their dictums strike me as lacking in the ability to surprise. They have been leading a holding action for a millenium.”

  4. cburrell Says:

    Fuzzy, yes, and that quote is fuzzier than the parallel one in the essay to which I linked.

    To describe the papacy as engaged in a “holding action” is actually quite astute: that is exactly what it is supposed to be doing.

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