Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Roger Ebert, Catholic.

Veteran Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert died last week at the age of 70 after a long battle with cancer. Like many others, I can say that Roger Ebert had a perceptible impact on my life. Growing up in a small town in the years before the Internet changed the nature of communication, Siskel and Ebert and The Movies was my major source of information on new film releases; in a very real sense, Ebert and his colleague Gene Siskel expanded my horizons by drawing my attention to many foreign and independent films which I may never have discovered otherwise. As an adult, I regularly read Ebert's reviews of new releases as well as his writings on classic cinema (as I write this post, a copy of Ebert's The Great Movies peers down on me from a nearby bookshelf). For years, Roger Ebert has been my go-to film critic: his evaluation was the one that mattered most when I was deciding which movies to see, and with his death I feel like I've lost a trusted cinematic oracle.

The fact that I viewed Roger Ebert as a 'cinematic oracle' does not mean that I always agreed with him. In my view, Ebert often seemed to miss the mark in his evaluation of films with explicitly Christian messages. In his review of Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men, for example, Ebert effectively argued that the monks of Tibhirine wasted their lives by accepting martyrdom, when their prior "should have had the humility to lead his monks away from the path of self-sacrifice" by returning to France. Ebert's review of the Mexican war epic For Greater Glory was arguably even more egregious, as Ebert questioned the film's historicity on the rather flimsy basis that neither he nor a "Mexican-American friend, well-informed in Mexican history" had ever before heard of the Cristeros, going on to suggest that the film would have been "more effective" had it "not hewed so singlemindedly to the Catholic view and included all religions under the banner of religious liberty" - notwithstanding the fact that For Greater Glory was concerned with the persecution of the Catholic Church at a time when Mexico was overwhelmingly Catholic. Since Ebert would admit from time to time that he had been raised Catholic but was no longer a believer, my general tendency was to dismiss such comments as axe-grinding by a disgruntled ex-Catholic who also happened to be a brilliant film critic.

Of course, there is always more to the story. In an essay published about a month before his death, Roger Ebert again affirmed his longstanding agnosticism but also spoke affectionately of the Church in which he was raised. As Ebert emphatically affirmed, "I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God." It also emerged that Ebert was friendly with a number of prominent Chicago priests, including a Jesuit of my own province who preached at the film critic's funeral yesterday - a funeral that took the form of a Roman Catholic Mass at Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral. I do not know whether Roger Ebert "died in the Church," fortified by the sacraments, but in some sense he seems to have 'come home' at the end of his life.

Steven Greydanus of the National Catholic Register has a thoughtful take on Roger Ebert the Catholic, bringing together Ebert's various autobiographical jottings on his religious upbringing and parsing his reviews for signs of positive Catholic influence. Greydanus argues that Ebert's writings suggest that he "couldn’t believe [Catholicism] any more himself, but he was somehow pleased that it endured, and that other people continued to believe it." Greydanus finds that, true to his "lock, stock, and barrel" affirmation, Ebert was deeply committed to certain particularly Catholic values:
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....

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.)
Could Roger Ebert and Edith Stein have shared a common insight? After all, they were both baptized into the same faith and received elements of the same moral and spiritual formation. At the end of his life, Ebert may have been able to make an affirmation something like one offered by James Joyce, who held that, despite his own loss of faith, all the good that he had accomplished as well as his ability to overcome life's adversities could be explained by "the influence of A.M.D.G." - by a religious upbringing that maintained its hold on him in spite of his own professed lack of belief. Requiescat in pace.


At 4/14/2013 10:26 AM, Anonymous Bob Lannan said...

Have you read his review of Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ? He seemed very embracing of Christianity in that review.

At 4/14/2013 2:32 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

I certainly read that review when it was published, but I haven't read it again since - I'll have to give it another read.


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