Friday, June 21, 2013

Reading Log: A Farewell To Ebert

I had already intended to write this entry well before Roger Ebert passed away. When he died, I figured that was the perfect time to finally get it written up and posted as something of a tribute. Several weeks stretching into months later, here it is. Such is my sense of time.

This entry is a Reading Log because the shelf full of books I've purchased and read but not yet written about includes a copy of Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook 2004. I don't know where or when I got it. Probably a library book sale several years ago. I've been putting adhesive labels with my name and date of purchase inside every book I've bought for quite some time now, and it doesn't have one. I also don't remember when I read it. I know that shelf includes books that I read at least as far back as early 2009.

So, yeah, I'm pretty far behind on Reading Logs.

I bought this book for two reasons. I like movies, and more importantly, I like books that are divided into lots of independent sections, so that they can be picked up and flipped open to a random page, read for a minute or two, then put down again. I read at a lot of times when most people don't. While eating, while brushing my teeth, while drying off after a shower, etc. Novels don't lend themselves to such segmented attention. Magazines, encyclopedia-style reference books, and anything with the words "bathroom reader" in the title work much better.

I have a few of Roger Ebert's books. Besides the Movie Yearbook 2004, I have the 1985 and 1991 editions of his Movie Home Companion, and a copy of The Great Movies. I read the 2004 book the same as all the others. I started by looking up my favourite movies, then some of my least favourite, then just by random reading. Each one also got at least one complete read-through.

I took particular interest in The Great Movies, reading through it and considering whether I wanted to see each of them (assuming I hadn't already). I did the same a while back with IMDB's top 100 rated movies. Those lists led me to a few films I was very glad to have watched (e.g., Network, Seven Samurai, Taxi Driver) and a few that made me want the three hours of my life back (e.g., Apocalypse Now - if you place any value on your limited time in this life, don't waste a moment of it on the extended "redux" edition).

On that note, it's a cultural wonder that we live in a time when pretty much any movie ever released (and a few that weren't) is available to me virtually immediately. It's a far cry from the days when I'd read about some obscure horror film in Fangoria and have to either scour independent video rental stores for it (chains were always a waste of time), mail-order it at exorbitant cost, or resign myself to doing without.

If it sets you at ease, feel free to assume that by availability I'm referring to such modernities as Netflix, video-on-demand, and hundreds of cable channels that cater to every taste. The facts that my fibre-op connection can pull down 700 megs of data in no time flat (9.5 MB/second sustained!) and that I've modded my Wii to include a video player that can stream files across my wireless network may have nothing to do with it.

I always enjoyed watching or reading Roger Ebert's movie reviews. I started watching him and Gene Siskel on PBS many years ago. They were on late Sunday nights, sometime either before or after Monty Python. I started watching just for the chance to see movie clips and previews, a rare treat in those days when the Internet was barely a gleam in Al Gore's eye. Before long I hoped every episode that Gene and Roger would argue, and finally started paying attention to the reviews themselves.

I'm usually not interested in whether a reviewer actually likes whatever it is they're reviewing. The key is why they did or didn't like it. The body of the review is far more important  than their final verdict, be it expressed in stars, points on a scale, or thumbs. It's always possible that a reviewer may have a general dislike of a genre or style that the reader will enjoy.

A former co-worker and I used to discuss movies, using one another's opinions as a guideline whether to see a given film. If he liked it, that was reason for me to avoid it, and vice versa. We reached this conclusion when I told him although I had liked 28 Weeks Later overall, I hated the incredibly stupid scene when a low-flying helicopter's blade was used as a zombie-decapitating weapon. His response: "That part sounds awesome!" At that moment, we both knew we had no common ground.

As for Ebert himself, I enjoyed his writing. The man definitely knew and loved film, and spoke with a great deal of authority in that realm. As a philosopher and theologian he made a great movie reviewer, but we'll come back to that. His website, which has lived on in his absence, was and is an excellent resource. I just went there to get affirmation of my suspicion that the movie adaptation of World War Z is an artless, souless chunk of commercially safe garbage, and was not disappointed. My favourite part of the site was always Movie Answer Man, which Ebert stopped doing over a year before his death and which seems to have died with him.

I don't think I would have liked Roger Ebert much on a personal level, and I'm quite sure he wouldn't have liked me, which does not reflect poorly on him. I found him arrogant, both when speaking of film, where he was an authority, and everything else, where he was not. He regularly condemned philosophical or religious certainty with absolute certainty, never seeming to notice the irony of that all-too-common position.

He was a good writer, though, and no matter how much I disagreed with his positions, the expression was consistently thought-provoking and worth reading. He would even engage his critics in the comments sections, not with shouting but with discussion of ideas. That's rare, and his loss brings the Internet's average level of discourse down a notch or three.

He had other very admirable qualities. He clearly loved his wife, and faced the adversities toward the end of his life with amazing dignity, grace, and humour.

I've read a lot of Ebert's writing, and the one non-movie article that best encapsulates what I've said about him is one written toward the end of his life: "How I am a Roman Catholic", in which he explains at length that, contrary to his claim, he wasn't. The quotations that follow come from that article.

Ebert liked the ritual and traditions of the Catholic church, and did a good job of internalizing some of the social and moral lessons that the nuns taught him in childhood. Some of those social lessons are dubious. I don't see where the Bible (as opposed to the Catholic church - feel free to mentally add "Roman" in front of "Catholic" for the remainder of this article) endorses labour unions. In fact, Matthew 20:1-15 undermines the rhetoric I've endured from labour unions to which I've been forced to belong (union shops where if you want to work, you have to sign the card). I'm rooting for right-to-work legislation in Canada. In Orwellian fashion, Canadian unions argue that such a law would infringe on the right of workers to organize, when in fact it would only give them the right not to.

But I digress. Back to Ebert's article.

So Ebert liked some aspects of the Roman Catholic church. He had the courage to profess an essentially pro-life position on abortion ("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."), but through some cognitive dissonance refused to admit it and follow through ("I support freedom of choice."). At other times he resorted to the standard squishy if-you-don't-like-abortion-don't-have-one position. One could reply, using precisely the same logic, that if you don't like abortionists being shot, then don't shoot them.

A textbook cafeteria Catholic, though, he rejected the position of the Church when it became personally convenient or trendy, notably on matters of sexual ethics ("Is homosexuality a sin? ... My feeling is that love between consenting adults is admirable. The commandment about not coveting thy neighbor's wife had more to do with concepts of property in Old Testament times...").

However, his original premise of explaining his Catholic status goes out the window near the end: "I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God."


You simply don't get to call yourself a Catholic, or any other sort of Christian (of which Catholics are a subset), or any other sort of theist (of which Christians are a subset), if you cannot affirm a positive belief in God. Atheism or agnosticism place you outside these particular camps.

At this point, if this blog had more than five readers on a good day, I'd anticipate a reply in the comments accusing me of being "judgmental" (or maybe "judgemental"), probably quoting Matthew 7:1 out of context, thereby completely missing the point Jesus was making.

Observing that a person is not Catholic if they don't believe in God is no more judgmental than observing that a person is not a vegetarian if they have steak for supper twice a week. Enjoying the rituals and traditions doesn't make someone Catholic, any more than enjoying wearing white coats would make them a doctor. The word "Catholic" actually means something, and like any title, it comes with costs, responsibilities, and certain minimum requirements.

There are many reasons why I am not Catholic, most of which have to do with the elevation of human traditions to the level of doctrine. That said, even if I grew up in and still attended a Catholic church, I would understand that I do not get to apply the label to myself. I am not Catholic, and cannot be so unless I accept Catholic doctrine and teaching. The only reason to cling to an undeserved label or title is to cheapen and weaken said title, to damage its brand value.

Nancy Pelosi is a superb case in point, hiding behind the skirts of falsely claimed Catholicism while proclaiming abortion "sacred ground". And not just any abortion, although she likes 'em all, but late-term abortion, which makes even many pro-abortionists uncomfortable. The woman is either completely deluded, or deliberately slandering Catholicism.

But I digress. Back to Ebert.

He was a good writer and a fine film critic. I still read "his" website, but not nearly as often. Eventually I expect it'll become a website that I used to read.

Bonus fun fact: Blogger's spell checker sometimes flags the words "movie" and "movies" (but bafflingly, not always), which means there's a lot of red on my screen as I type this.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of something else my wife cooked and ate during her Year of Shrinking, during which she shed just shy of 100 pounds. I don't know why she photographed this, but there it was on the memory card.

1 comment:

RebelAngel said...

I am fascinated by the pomp and circumstance involved in Catholic Mass. I find many of the traditions beautiful. The same goes for Judaism, but I do know enough not to consider myself Catholic or Jewish.

Anyway, I never could get past the arrogance, so never really was an Ebert fan. I pretty much just did my own things with movies. I know what I like. Whether he or anyone else also did was of no concern, unless they were buying the tickets.