On April 4, 2013, a giant of print film criticism died. Roger Ebert was the Chicago Sun-Times chief film critic for forty-five years, right up until the time of his death. In 1975, he became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. But Ebert will be best remembered for turning his thumb into the main character of his PBS film-review show At the Movies. His thumb—along with the one belonging to his television partner, friend, and rival at the Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel—became so influential that studios often would feature them on the posters of their movies if they were so lucky as to receive the “two thumbs up” accolade.
Later in life, when cancers, radiation, and unsuccessful surgeries robbed Ebert of his health and iconic speaking voice, he found a new outlet for his voice in blog form. Ebert expanded the repertoire of his subject from film to include politics, literature, science, philosophy, religion, and autobiography. An online community grew around “Roger Ebert’s Journal.” Sometimes a single blog post would inspire 1,500 comments, and Ebert, always up for a good discussion, read them all. We know this because he often would answer the 1,499th comment.
You may already have read one of the many obituaries floating around the web or in print. This appreciation may have a different tone, since I am writing it in Ebert’s preferred point of view: the first person. When defending his use of the first person in his reviews, Ebert frequented quoted a sentence from a book by Robert Warshow: “A man goes to the movies. A critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.” Ebert never shied away from describing his feelings as the man writing the review of a movie, and it is this honesty that I want to celebrate.
I never met the man, I never had any personal correspondence with him, and I never participated in the online community of his blog. But Ebert was more than just a film critic to me, someone whose advice I heeded on whether or not I should see a movie.
A week after Ebert died, I was having a conversation with a friend about the movies we had seen recently. The subject drifted to Ebert’s passing, and I shared how I had never felt such grief at the death of a public, cultural figure. I said that I would miss Ebert’s views not only on movies but on life. Not familiar with Ebert’s writing, my friend challenged me: “What does a man who sits on a couch and watches movies for a living know about life? You sound as if you’re grieving the death of a great teacher!” He started laughing, and I joined in. Yet, the more I thought about what my friend said, the more I realized two things: One, you really can glean a great deal about life from the movies. Ebert did, and he passed on what he learned in his writings. And two, Ebert was a great teacher: Ebert taught me that we can use films to help us live better lives.
Roger Ebert thought that movies, at their best, produce elevation and empathy in us. Let me explain what I mean by elevation. For years when Ebert was asked “How do you know a movie is great?” He could only reply that he gets a tingling in his spine—a visceral reaction to the movie. Then he discovered research done by psychologists on the subject of elevation. In a blog post called, “I Feel Good, I Knew That I Would,” Ebert links to a Slate article which quotes University of Virginia moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who coined the term “elevation.” Haidt writes, “Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental ‘reset button,’ wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration” (January 4, 2009, citing Yoffe 2008). These feelings are connected to a physical stimulation of the vagus nerve, which is the only nerve starting in the brainstem and reaching down below the head to the neck, chest, and abdomen.
Equipped with the scientific explanation for his feelings of elevation, Ebert went on in the blog post to talk about the kind of movie moment that produced this feeling in him. He said, “It seems to come not through messages or happy endings or sad ones, but in moments when characters we believe in—even an animated robot garbage man [Wall-E]—achieve something good. I have observed before that we live in a box of space and time, and movies can open a window in the box. One human life, closely observed, is everyone’s life. In the particular is the universal… Elevation may be the emotion caused when we see people giving themselves up, if only for a moment, to caring about others.” Ebert searched for elevation in films; something that could overcome his cynicism and crack open his heart to experience hope, love, and empathy. Behind “character” and “script,” Ebert sensed real persons and real experiences. His reviews would pulse with the passion he had for the film, but also with the passion he had gained for living life well outside the film. Life is well lived when we have compassion for others with different life experiences than our own.
It is this passionate and compassionate quality in his writing that drew me to his reviews. Ebert was not trained in film theory; his bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was in journalism. He was dismissed in some film criticism circles for inserting too much emotion into his reviews, for describing the films and his reaction to them rather than analyzing their mise-en-scène. But growing up, I checked Ebert’s website every Friday for reviews of newly released films and for new “Great Movie” features about his favorite films. I would go to David Bordwell’s blog for a close analysis of a film’s visual style. I went to Ebert because, unlike any other reviewer I have known, he understood that the greatest films produced elevation and empathy in a viewer.
Ebert did not like watching films alone. “Movies,” he said often, “are an event.” They are meant to be watched in one sitting in the presence of others. In the above blog post, Ebert said, “And during a film where you hold your breath, the more breaths being held, the more powerful it seems.” Feelings of elevation and empathy are most powerful when those feelings are shared.
Ebert had empathy not just for film characters but also for underdog filmmakers. He taught me to lift up the unnoticed and the outsider as worthy of our attention. Although Ebert was not willing to commit to belief in the existence of God, he learned the value of having compassion for others from the nuns who taught him as part of his Catholic upbringing. In his vocation as film critic, Ebert lived out Jesus’ command to love thy neighbor as thyself by lifting up the unnoticed, the outsider, and the underdog in the film world. He believed that every person involved in the making of films was his neighbor, and he advocated on behalf of filmmakers who had made great films but were languishing in obscurity. He saw it as his duty to connect talented filmmakers from around the world with a greater audience. As perhaps the most prominent American film critic of his time, Ebert’s recommendations had great weight with his vast reader- and viewership. He was able to single-handedly pull filmmakers out of the shadows and into the public eye.
One notable example was Steve James’s 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams. Hoop Dreams followed the lives of two inner-city-Chicago, African-American children and their families in their quest for basketball stardom. Ebert exclaimed on his television show, “This is one of the best films about American life I have ever seen.” Ebert called it one of the best films of 1994 and later one of the best films of the decade. Siskel and Ebert both advocated for it to be nominated for an Oscar nomination for “Best Picture” and, at the very least, for “Best Documentary.” The film was snubbed for both. After the snubbing, Ebert shamed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences by revealing the corrupt practices of the documentary voters who effectively blocked Hoop Dreams from getting a nomination. Ebert’s advocacy helped the film receive greater press coverage and helped more people experience this intimate portrait of two kids battling the odds to live out their dreams. Ebert said of the film: “The greatest value of film is that it helps us break out of our boxes of time and space and empathize with other people, it lets us walk in someone else’s shoes. Hoop Dreams… gave me that gift” (Roger Ebert & The Movies, February 26, 2000).
Ebert gave me many gifts, gifts of films I might never have seen if he had not recommended them to me. In these films, I had experiences of elevation and empathy and even divine connection. Many of these films I count among my favorites of all time: Paris, Texas, The Decalogue, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, The Up Series, A Sunday in the Country. These were all foreign films or independent films or documentaries that I most likely would never have run across in theaters.
But Ebert’s greatest gift to me was the understanding that films could help me live a better life, a life of empathy and compassion. I knew this in my gut, but when I was a teenager, Ebert expressed this in words of wisdom scattered across his writing. I will miss Ebert dearly; he was a great teacher.
I’ll leave Ebert with the last word: “I believe a good critic is a teacher. He doesn’t have the answers, but he can be an example of the process of finding your own answers. He can notice things, explain them, place them in any number of contexts, ponder why some ‘work’ and others never could. He can urge you toward older movies to expand your context for newer ones. He can examine how movies touch upon individual lives, and can be healing, or damaging. He can defend them, and regard them as important in the face of those who are ‘just looking for a good time.’ He can argue that you will have a better time at a better movie. We are all allotted an unknown but finite number of hours of consciousness. Maybe a critic can help you spend them more meaningfully” (September 18, 2008).
Tyler Beane is Intern Pastor at First United Methodist Church and Zion Lutheran Church in The Dalles, Oregon.
Ebert, Roger. “I Feel Good! I Knew That I Would!” Roger Ebert’s Journal (January 14, 2009). http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/i-feel-good-i-knew-that-i-would.
_____. “‘Critic’ is a Four-Letter Word.” Roger Ebert’s Journal (September 18, 2008). http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/critic-is-a-four-letter-word.
Roger Ebert & The Movies. “Best of the ‘90s.” Buena Vista Television, February 26, 2000.
Yoffe, Emily. “Obama in Your Heart.” Slate (December 3, 2008). http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2008/12/obama_in_your_heart.html.