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The Last Critic

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For the first 21 years of my life, I never knew life without my dog. She came along the same time as my brother. And picking her out amongst a sea of golden retriever puppies is one of my  earliest memories of anything. Her death as I was entering an age of adulthood signaled a true ending of a time frame for me.

As silly as that sounds, I think any of us can look back on people and things that were always there, even beyond our parents and siblings.  I recently realized Roger Ebert was always there too.

I remember discovering Siskel and Ebert at a very young age and having to see every episode. This was before I even decided I loved movies. I surely did not see that many. And through no fault of her own, taking me to see the next Werner Herzog film was not a priority of my mother’s at the time.

Shortly before Gene Siskel’s death, he talked about “The Thin Red Line,” as one of his favorite movies of that year. Roger Ebert preferred the “realism” of “Saving Private Ryan,” to the “poetry” of Terrence Malick’s “Red Line.” Siskel’s counter argument was the notion that there are no atheists in foxholes.  He preferred the poetry.

I watched this review and then went out and saw “The Thin Red Line,” the next day.  I have loved Terrence Malick films ever since.  And in the back of my mind, I always figured one reason for my love of his films, was my belief in God.   

It was one of the last films Siskel would have the energy to talk about on camera.  Just two weeks after taping his last show, he would die.  As Ebert himself got sicker and closer to death, he had a noticeable increasing appreciation for Malick.  I do not think this is wish fulfillment as a fan of both critic and filmmaker.  His 3 Star review of “The Thin Red Line,” (1998) seemed to grow over time into a greater love and admiration.  When Martin Scorsese named it the best film made in the 90s, Ebert gushed his admiration for it as well.

“The New World,” (2005) would receive his highest rating of 4 stars and “The Tree of Life,” (2011) would make Ebert’s final list of the Top 10 Films Ever Made. Malick’s “Days of Heaven,”(1978) would open EbertFest, a film festival with movies hand picked by the critic, just a week after his death.

So what? People’s admiration for an artist’s work grows over the years. Yes. But no director is more spiritual (in the best sense of that word I so often hate) than Malick. No one makes you think of God more, while often rarely mentioning Him. I’ve wondered if Ebert, like Siskel before him, started to love the poetry over the realism.

And being Ebert was a non-believer makes this observation all the more interesting to me. I preferred Siskel. I believe he was a superior critic based on shared preferences and arguments. 

But based on writing ability, Ebert had few equals. He was a hell of a writer. He could write about a film you did not enjoy (or did) and almost, convince you that you were wrong.  He could condemn a film in ways wanna be critics of today do not understand.  He could explain why with much more than “that sucked,” because he understood film.     

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAAEFRVQU14]

Writing about a film myself, I would make it a goal not to quote Ebert. But I usually failed with this; he was so extremely quotable.

Ebert was always at a computer; I am sure more so after he lost his ability to speak. As a follower of his on Twitter, one could feel more of a connection to him than any other “celebrity,” who might tweet where we could see their new film or stand up routine. Ebert would tweet throughout the day. Maybe 50 times a day. He would read every comment from his blog. He would often answer questions directly to you, if he did not find a place for them online (as in his Movie Answer Man Section). I know this because he emailed me with an answer to a question once. I do not remember the question or the answer, just that it appeared it was really Ebert corresponding with me.

In this insight of a kind of knowing, few famous people give you, you got to know Ebert a little bit.  And it wasn’t all great.  Ebert could be kind of an ass.

His condescending way of speaking could grow tiresome.  Bashing Right Leaning Christians, or anyone that has ever disagreed with him or voted differently.  My twitter account is a who’s who of people I do not agree with.  But Ebert would venture into the Michael Savage realm of unnecessary meanness in his arguments.  I know I unfollowed his account at least once.  

When a cast member of the film, “Jackass,” died in a car accident, Ebert quickly tweeted,“Friends don’t let Jackasses drink and drive.”

While alcohol may have been a factor, it was too soon to know for sure as well as highly insensitive to call a dead man a jackass. Ebert was disingenuous with part of his defense being, the deceased was on Jackass, so he therefore did not say anything wrong.

Other times he could be far more intelligent and clever with his venom.

His exchange with director Vincent Gallo is classic. Ebert reviewed Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny,” at Cannes, calling it the worst film he had ever seen play at the French Film Festival. 

Gallo responded by unoriginally insulting Ebert’s weight as well as wishing that Roger would catch colon cancer. Ebert responded by saying his colonoscopy was more entertaining than Gallo’s film. And concerning his weight, “Someday I will be thin, but Vincent Gallo will always be the director of The Brown Bunny.

After his initial illness and time off from his show. New partner Richard Roeper used various guest hosts, waiting in vain for Ebert to be able to return. Eventually “At The Movies” was retooled with Ben Lyons as a co host with Ben Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz was and is a respected critic. Lyons was horrible. The privileged son of critic Jeffrey Lyons, viewers not only felt they knew exactly why and how Lyons got the job, they also knew he wasn’t ready for such a leap.

And Ebert responded with a highly entertaining criticism in the form of an article titled,“Roger’s Little Rule Book.” In it he mentions rules for film critics. All of which were things Lyons was reportedly violating at the time. “Accept No Favors,” “Be Prepared To Give a Negative Review,” “Never Review A Film You Had Anything To Do With,” “No Posing For Photos,” (meaning actors or directors)” “No Autographs,” etc.

The producers of the show surely took on Lyons to attract a younger audience. But viewership immediately took a nose dive and the show Ebert had kept afloat for years was cancelled quickly. Ebert’s reputation only grew from the debacle. While he still gets some work, Lyons is mostly a joke now in the industry.

I don’t believe Gene Siskel was a religious man at all. I know Roger Ebert was not. He wrote of it often; his atheism, or agnosticism or whatever label he would accuse others of putting on him. “Secular Humanist,” is the label he came to prefer.  But for a nonbeliever, and one critical of religion, he did seem to acknowledge a continual religious respect of some kind. 

Maybe this was an example of a God-shaped hole theory, that all us knowingly or not want to fill. Maybe he just enjoyed the pomp of religion.

For Atheists,

There’s no good news.

They’ll never sing,

A song of faith.

In their songs,

They have a rule.

The “he” is always lowercase.

– Steve Martin

“If I were to say I don’t believe God exists, that wouldn’t mean I believe God doesn’t exist. Nor does it mean I don’t know, which implies that I could know.”-Roger Ebert   How I Believe In God

Interestingly, the former Catholic altar-boy married a woman that is from his descriptions, a strong Christian. 

“I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God. I refuse to call myself a atheist however, because that indicates too great a certainty about the unknowable.”   -Roger Ebert     How I am a roman catholic

“I believe mankind in general evidently has a need to believe in higher powers and an existence not limited to the physical duration of the body. But these needs are hopes, and believing them doesn’t make them true.” 

Concerning his awe of how we were possibly here in the first place He surmised quantum theory. And he did seem to be fascinated by it all.  “I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic. I am still awake at night, asking how? I am more content with the question than I would be with an answer.”   -Roger Ebert    How I Believe In God 

Ebert might have written a story he was unaware of.  I suppose his story could be read differently by everyone.  But I read a most fascinating journey, written out in opinion pieces and movie reviews.  Sometimes I would find beauty in his words; even in the way he would describe his non belief.  Other times he seemed to hit all around something and in my opinion, miss the true meaning.  Or just fall short of making a more perfect connection. 

“Some few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer “to” anyone or anything, but prayer “about” everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.”    -Roger Ebert         “A Prayer Beneath The Tree of Life”

Roger Ebert, was a lot of guys.  His reviews would show both aggravating closed mindedness as well as other times huge levels of open mindedness; to enjoy a film whose subject matter he might not agree with

“On The Passion of the Christ”:    “My own feeling is that Gibson’s film is not anti-Semitic, but reflects a range of behavior on the part of its Jewish characters, on balance favorably. 

I myself am no longer religious in the sense that a long-ago altar boy thought he should be, but I can respond to the power of belief whether I agree or not, and when I find it in a film, I must respect it.”     4 Stars

Other times Ebert was far less gracious for films that went against his view of things.  For the longest time, he refused to even see Ben Stein’s Anti-Darwin film, “Expelled.”  Eventually he did write a lengthy article about it, in which he eviscerates it completely.

If Ebert did have a religion, it was Darwinism.

Ebert’s death was a long time coming.  He knew his days were getting shorter, faster than most.  The way he decided to face this, might be what I admired about him the most.

“Movies idealize the dying.”  -Roger Ebert

He coined the phrase, “Ali MacGraw Syndrome.”

That’s the medical condition in which you grow more and more beautiful until you die,” he said. 

Ebert knew that is not the case.  His appearance in losing his jaw to cancer, was off putting to many.  While he was always “the fat one,” to Siskel’s, “the bald one,” his appearance was now such that he could not appear on television regularly.  But this did not stop him from showing the world what he looked like.  What dying looked like.  And how it did not resemble a young Ali MacGraw. 

He would liken his appearance to the Phantom of the Opera (the old silent film version).  A local NC comic, upon just recently seeing his appearance at the news of his death, joked he looked like the Puppets in Genesis’ “Land of Confusion,” video.

It is a blessing he possessed the Type A personality that would not allow him to die a recluse.  He probably worked as much as ever. 

“Here is a character who says, I see it coming, I will face it, I will not turn away, I will observe it as long as my eyes and my mind still function.”  -Roger Ebert  (Describing the main character in the film “Melancholia.”)     Melancholia Descends on Toronto

Ebert seemed in my outsider’s view to follow the way of Nature.  And I understand that.  But my prayer was (indeed to someone) that he maybe followed the way of Grace at the end as well. 

The last film Roger Ebert ever reviewed was Terrence Malick’s “To The Wonder.”

The least regarded film in the love him or hate him, director’s canon; Ebert found much to love in his 3.5 star review.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z28Mi6mUyKo]

“There will be many who find “To the Wonder” elusive and too effervescent. They’ll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.”

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About Matthew Bailey