Remembering Roger Ebert 1942-2013

Roger Ebert died one year ago today, on April 4, 2013. It is hard to put into words the influence this wonderful man has had on my life. His views on politics, religion, culture and really, life itself have had a profound impact on the evolution of my own perspectives. I was enthralled reading his reviews; I read every one that I could, whether I was interested in the movie or not. I still remember the excitement I felt when I realized that his blog would become a way to know his thoughts on an ever-expanding array of topics.

When I read Ebert’s words, I can often feel myself growing in wisdom and compassion. I feel that reading Ebert taught me things that I could only have hoped to have learned by the end of my life. To know these things now and use them to inform my daily life as I live it out is a gift.

I know that many reading this will think it odd to feel such affection for a man I never even met. Indeed, it may be odd. But Roger Ebert opened up new worlds of thought and ways of processing emotion to me that continue to inform my worldview today. His emphasis on kindness, optimism, compassion, and honesty creates a standard that I often fall short of, yet always strive to reach.

With that, I offer you a collection of some of my favorite writings by Roger Ebert:

From Roger Ebert’s Journal:

Reviews (in no particular order):

Roger Ebert Defending a Film at Sundance:

TL;DR: Roger Ebert is one of America’s most important writers. I miss him. 

 

Read This: Stoner by John Williams

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“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.” ― John Edward Williams, Stoner

The three novels written by John Williams should be required reading for everyone. Stoner is the one I read first and perhaps for that reason, still love best. It is the life story of a young man sent to college to learn new farming techniques; instead, he falls in love with literature and becomes a professor. He has a disappointing marriage and a beloved daughter who is turned against him.

He watches young men sent off to two world wars, grows old, lives into his profession. This story is not about revealing plot but character. Williams observes the minutiae of Stoner’s life with a poet’s eye and is able to make even the simplest gestures express so much.

This book is wonderfully written. If you think a book with a sparse plot about a literature professor’s life sounds boring, let me assure you it is anything but that. In his keen observation, Williams reveals truths about the human spirit and our role in the universe that stay with me like a rock in my shoe, provoking me to reconsider its ideas just when I think they’ve finally been tossed loose.

“It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” -Roger Ebert

As Ebert indicates, a movie (or book) about any subject, no matter how fascinating it sounds on the surface, can be crushingly dull if not done well. Likewise, a film (or book) about even the most ordinary daily routines can be transcendent in the right hands.

Fortunately for us, the life of William Stoner teaches us vivid truths about the human condition through a novel with a plot that would not be described as ‘exciting’. Don’t let that stop you; the prose of John Williams is often breathtaking and will stay with you long after that last page is turned.

Stoner is written in the most plainspoken of styles….Its hero is an obscure academic who endures a series of personal and professional agonies. Yet the novel is utterly riveting, and for one simple reason: because the author, John Williams, treats his characters with such tender and ruthless honesty that we cannot help but love them.
— Steve Almond, Tin House

Additional reading about Stoner:

TL;DR: Stoner by John Williams is an astonishing masterpiece that should be read by everyone.

Steak ‘n Shake

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From Life Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert: 

Steak ‘n Shake is a fast food chain, the first except probably for White Castle. Certainly it’s the best. How many fast food chains bring you a glass of water and silverware, and serve you on china? Friends in Los Angeles took me to In-N-Out Burger, and I consumed a mushy mess on a soft bun and shook my head sadly. The very names of the two chains describe the difference in styles of sexual intercourse between California and the Heartland.

Some days I think that last sentence is the finest sentence I’ve ever read.

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How to Watch Movies

At some point, it occurred to me that others were watching movies much differently than me. They saw things I didn’t see, they understood references I didn’t get, and they saw films as communicating messages I didn’t understand.

Gradually, I came to realize that film is its own language. Filmmakers that understand what they are doing and have a vision make deliberate choices that force you to see the film from the perspective they desire. Ozu’s Tokyo Story is a vivid example of this. He forces you to interact with each character, as they look and speak directly to you.

I think this language of film is the reason why so many religious films are often poorly received, especially by critics. It has less to do with the religious content, than the fact that directors of religious films often do not understand the language of film. They are passionate about the content yet they do not speak the language necessary to translate it.

How to Watch Movies

If you are serious about developing an understanding of movies and the language of film, I would recommend a few simple steps:

  1. Be open to all films of all subjects.
  2. Start watching movies critically; that is, engage your brain. What is the director trying to communicate? Are there interesting camera angles, sound choices, etc.? Why?
  3. Find a few film critics you respect and read their reviews of movies you’ve just watched. Do you agree or disagree? Why? I personally find the archive of Roger Ebert’s reviews to be engaging and informative.
  4. Watch better movies. There is no shortage of lists of great movies. I personally suggest Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, which has the added benefit of an extensive review for each film by the greatest film critic that will ever live (I’m biased).
  5. Begin with films you like or that you think you will like. This isn’t homework, after all. I found that as I began to better understand the language of film, I wanted to view progressively more challenging films.
  6. Finally, put away the phone/tablet while watching. You can’t understand the visual language of film if you’re reading Twitter through most of it.

If you are someone who can’t fathom why anyone would like a movie that is subtitled or doesn’t have explosions, try some of these steps. You will be surprised at how the language of film will speak to you in ways you never dreamed possible.