Thank You, Roger Ebert. Now, Rest in Peace. [Updated April 6th.]

“A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.”

- Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

Perhaps we should remember more than Martin Luther King on April 4 from here on out. King’s birthday is already a national holiday.

Perhaps this could also be Cinema Day. It’s the birthday of Andrei Tarkovsky, and the day we bid farewell to Roger Ebert.

Give everyone the day off. We should all be allowed, even encouraged, to go to the movies.

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Without Roger Ebert’s relentlessly inspiring work, I would not love what I love, do what I do, or be who I am today. As I mentioned in my ‘Introduction’ to this blog, Ebert made a tremendous impression on me when I was only 12 years old, and his influence on my work has continued to grow over decades.

Describing the great filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, Ebert said he was “not only a great director but a great teacher, and after you know his films, a friend.” The same can be said of Ebert himself: He was not only a great film reviewer, but a great teacher. And after you’ve spent time with his writing, he becomes a friend.

When I was asked by the editors of Comment to write a “Letter to a Young Film Critic,” I responded trying to imagine the ideal film critic. I was writing, in short, about Roger Ebert.

In his tribute to Ebert, Matt Zoller Seitz writes,

Roger was the Giving Tree of film critics, and he was extraordinarily generous to me. Over the years he brough me out to EbertFest, published my video essays, and linked to my blogs The House Next Door and Press Play. We emailed each other almost every day, to alert each other to videos we liked or young critics we thought that the other should know about. He was a mentor as well as a friend. Amazingly, this experience was not unusual. To know Roger was to feel uniquely understood and appreciated. He had a rare gift of intimacy that turned strangers into friends – not just fellow critics, but readers and viewers.

How did he do it? Through a combination of eloquence, love and commitment. Roger could punch his weight with any film historian or theorist – when he still had a speaking voice, he could spend days analyzing beloved films shot-by-shot – but that wasn’t where his passions lay. Roger was an enthusiast, a standard-bearer and a talent scout. He lived for the new, the great, the wonderful. He saw with his heart.

That’s a great description.

And I must say, Seitz, a frequent correspondent of Ebert’s, is carrying on Ebert’s spirit of generosity. I’m grateful he invited me into this discussion of God, the supernatural, and morality in the films of the Coen Brothers. I asked him what he thought Ebert would have thought about that analysis of the Coens’ work, and he replied, much to my astonishment, “He read it and liked it, for what that’s worth.  I am pretty sure it was one of the last long pieces he read.”

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That was definitely the case for a colleague of mine. If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend you pick up this excellent book — Rule of Thumb: Roger Ebert at the Movies. It’s a remarkable survey of Ebert’s pioneering work and influence, written with personality and passion by Seattle Pacific University film instructor Todd Rendleman. From the very beginning it is a testament to Ebert’s generous spirit — at Rendleman’s request, Roger contributed the forward to the book himself.

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I’m not being sentimental when I say that it will take a long time before I stop searching, out of habit, for Ebert’s reviews of new movies. I’ve been looking for them in newspapers, on television, and elsewhere since before I was a teenager. I always have the sense that a review might suddenly turn and become something entirely different (like this response to The Reader). He did occasionally show a carelessness about revealing spoilers — I’m still sore about how much of WALL·E he spoiled in his review. But more often than not, he gave us something better than just a review.

Check this out:

How quickly do we grow accustomed to wonders. I am reminded of the Isaac Asimov story “Nightfall,” about the planet where the stars were visible only once in a thousand years. So awesome was the sight that it drove men mad. We who can see the stars every night glance up casually at the cosmos and then quickly down again, searching for a Dairy Queen.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is from his review of Star Wars, Episode One – The Phantom Menace. Yeah, I know.

And here he is on The Da Vinci Code:

Dan Brown’s novel is utterly preposterous; Ron Howard‘s movie is preposterously entertaining. Both contain accusations against the Catholic Church and its order of Opus Dei that would be scandalous if anyone of sound mind could possibly entertain them. I know there are people who believe Brown’s fantasies about the Holy Grail, the descendants of Jesus, the Knights Templar, Opus Dei and the true story of Mary Magdalene. This has the advantage of distracting them from the theory that the Pentagon was not hit by an airplane.

He was passionate about excellence, and willing to defend his position when he said that a movie “sucked.” (Check out his defense of his “thumbs down” on Transformers 2.)

His editorial on “the death of film criticism” became a lament about the destructive influence of what he called “the CelebCult.”

Frankly, I’d like to read Roger Ebert’s reflections on the work of Roger Ebert, the way he so beautifully celebrated the life of his longtime on-screen colleague Gene Siskel.

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His interests so often revealed longings that stretched beyond the excellence of movies, demonstrating a desire for the redemption of the world. Note this anecdote about one of his blog’s commentors:

One of the most prolific and intelligent contributors to the comments section of the blog is Soloman Wakeling. I wrote in curiosity, asking to know more about him. He replied that he is a 24-year-old law student from Australia, and that one of his problems is, “I read too many books.” There was one thing he said that I felt I needed to write about in the blog: “I find your work is filled with an essentially humanitarian philosophy, dealing with concepts like redemption.”

The first half of his statement I hope is true. The second part is certainly true. Let us set aside all of the films that are essentially entertainments (although they have their uses and pleasures, too). I am thinking now about the remaining titles, which deal seriously with human lives. The ones that affect me most deeply are the ones in which characters overcome something within themselves or the world, and endure.

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Looking back through the history of this blog, I’ve referred to Ebert’s work a lot. A lot. 

I praised his influence in this piece about my aversion to “rating” movies:

… I want to read perspectives and interpretations… not assessments of “I liked it” or “It sucked.” When I was a child watching Siskel and Ebert, the thumbs-up/thumbs-down was a suspenseful gimmick; I couldn’t wait to see the sparks fly when the critics’ thumb-ation of the film put them odds. But it was what they said beyond that, the thought process that inspired the thumb-arization, that affected me. They taught me that people could disagree on a film without one person being Right and the other person being Wrong.

One of the things I like best about writing on cinema for Filmwell, or Image, or Looking Closer, is that I know that nobody’s going to be able to say “Overstreet gave The Last Temptation of Christ four stars.” Of what possible use would such a rating be?

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I wonder how many people discovered him at a very young age, watching this…

YouTube Preview Image

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It may not seem appropriate to link to The Onion on this occasion, but their satirical post about Ebert’s passing is actually quite profound.

But if you read only one more piece about Roger Ebert’s passing, read this one: “How I Believe in Roger Ebert.”

Nobody’s reflections on Ebert’s life and work are anything like Steven Greydanus’s personal reflections on Ebert’s religious upbringing and how that affected his view of art and life. It’s amazing, how these aspects of Ebert’s life and perspective are so sorely neglected in other tributes and obituaries. I’m grateful to Steven for writing this.

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It already hurts to know that I won’t read his perspective on Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder* (see update below), Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, and Steve James’ upcoming documentary about… yes… the life and work of Roger Ebert. I can only hope that my own work will carry on some of Roger’s commitment to excellence, his enthusiasm, his curiosity, and his love.

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*Finally, I learned — five minutes after I published the first version of this post — that the very last review that Roger Ebert turned in was a review of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. While that is certainly not my favorite film by Malick, I find it incredibly beautiful that Ebert’s final written words on a movie were an exploration of such a profound meditation on love and life. If I had to give “thumbs’ up” or “thumbs’ down” reviews to movies based on whether they were good enough to be “the last movie I’d ever see,” To the Wonder would definitely get a “thumb’s up” vote.

I’m encouraged to know that Terrence Malick’s vision of life is the last vision that Ebert contemplated in a review.

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[April 6th Update: And here it is... Roger Ebert's last review. It's a beauty. It's almost like he knew this would be the the parting words. In the symphony of his work, these are grace notes indeed.]

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • http://chadthomasjohnston.com Chad Thomas Johnston

    Jeff,

    I’m totally with you on this. I will most definitely miss seeing Ebert’s reviews. When I didn’t know what to make of a film, I always read his work to get his perspective, and he enlightened me over and over. I have esteemed that man’s work for years, and I even invited him to watch movies with me and my friend Danny via Twitter one day (a fruitless shot in the dark). Ha!

    I will certainly miss that man. I am grateful, on the other hand, that you are such a talented film critic, such a thoughtful voice in the cinematic conversation, and that you still have so much more to say. I miss seeing your material on the IMAGE blog, and really miss saying, “Uh yeah, so uh—I write alongside Jeff Overstreet. No biggie.”

    Thanks for writing this, good sir. Hat’s off to you, and the biggest salute of all goes to Ebert for the gifts he gave us all so freely.

    - CTJ

  • Erick Nordenson

    You may yet have a chance to read Ebert’s thoughts on “To the Wonder”–I know I’m hoping to:
    http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2013/04/thinking_of_roger.html

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      Yeah, I caught that news yesterday right after I posted this. That’s just wild, that he “went out on” a Malick film. “To the Wonder” … indeed.


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