Roger Ebert–Let light perpetual shine upon him

I suppose I am not alone in saying that Roger Ebert taught me how to watch movies. I was a huge fan of “Siskel and Ebert” from the first time I saw it back in the seventies. As a kid from a small town without a movie theater and limited to whatever came to the small towns near us, or if we were really adventurous, to the early multiplexes in Toledo, Siskel and Ebert gave me a critical lens through which to think about the films I did see. I don’t know when I fell in love with the movies; it was probably in Boston in the early eighties, with the wonderful series at the Janus cinema, and the great double features at the old Harvard Square theater. Ebert remained my guide after the arrival of the vcr and video rentals. His paperback guide to the movies helped me negotiate the vast catalog of foreign films and Hollywood films from before the seventies that I had never seen.

For a few years, I was an amateur movie critic as well. That was well after the emergence of the internet. Ebert’s reviews were a crucial first-read when dealing with movies that I’d never seen but had to write about.

I always found his insights into the spiritual and religious aspects of film enlightening. Although not a conventional believer in any sense of the term, he had a keen sense of the deeper meaning of movies and the deeper questions that human beings ask, and he could write eloquently about both.

In 2011, he wrote about his own death here in the essay, “I do not fear death

A few weeks ago, he wrote about Cathoiicism on the occasion of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation:

I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God. I refuse to call myself an atheist, however, because that indicates too great a certainty about the unknowable. My beliefs were formed long ago from good-hearted Dominican sisters, and many better-qualified RCs might disagree.

His review of Terence Malick’s Tree of Life is beautiful, insightful and self-revelatory.


Roger Ebert on the “Ten Best Films of All Time”

Every decade, Sight and Sound polls critics and directors for their list.

Here’s what Ebert had to say before selecting his 2012 list.

Here’s what he has to say about how he ended up voting in 2012.

Here’s how he voted:

Aguirre, Wrath of God (Herzog)
Apocalypse Now (Coppola)
Citizen Kane (Welles)
La Dolce Vita (Fellini)
The General (Keaton)
Raging Bull (Scorsese)
2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
Tokyo Story (Ozu)
The Tree of Life (Malick)
Vertigo (Hitchcock)

Pretty good list, I would say, but I’ve never understood people’s preference for Vertigo among Hitchcock’s films.


As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m a huge fan of Martin Scorsese. I saw Hugo this afternoon and I’m still processing it. The difficulty is not so much the movie itself; it’s beautiful, well-made, and a delightful paean to the power of imagination, dreams, and film. The puzzle for me is fitting it into Scorsese’s oeuvre.

First, if you’ve not seen it, some other reviews:

There’s a moment in the film when Hugo, the young orphan who lives in the train station and is trying to repair the automaton because he believes his dead father will deliver a message from beyond the grave, and because as a boy on his own he is seeking to end his loneliness in the company of this magical creation, talks about his place in the universe. He imagines it as a giant machine. Just as machines have no unnecessary or superfluous parts, so too the universe. He must have a place in it.

The film, on one level, offers praise of technology. But it is technology that has the power to bring our dreams to life. There is Georges Mulies himself who begins as a magician, creates an automaton that can write, and when he encounters the movies of the Lumieres brothers, imagines the power of film.

On another level, the film is a hymn to technology, to the power of technology to transport us from the lives we live into an imagined world, limited only by our imaginations. Scorsese plays off the power of film, using the story of the first viewers of the Lumieres brothers movie of a train entering a station, an experience so powerful that the first audience flinched and ducked as they feared the train hitting them. We see the train again, entering the station in Hugo’s dreams, then again, when Hugo tries to rescue the automaton from the tracks.

We see the power of imagined worlds–Scorsese’s, Hugo’s, the world of the first film-makers, and the world of books. The latter comes to life as Hugo and his friend Isabelle look at a history of movies and see pictures in a book come to life.

We see the possibility of a different world, a possibility opened up by the power of art, and love. But we also see technology. The mechanisms of clockworks dominate the film, mechanisms that make a toy wind-up mouse run across a store counter, the mechanisms that make clocks tick, automata do their magic, and movie cameras create the new worlds. Scorsese seems to be saying that this technology can create dreams, bring our dreams to life, and help us find our place in the universe. But as he looks back at the history of film, he also is calling for the importance of the preservation of its past, and the power of that old technology, and old dreams, to transport us as well. He seems to be saying, even as he makes superb use of the most modern of technology, that the vision of the first film-makers is as powerful as his own. It’s a beguiling vision.

But I’m still thinking about what he is saying about technology, even as he makes use of it. Reviewers like Roger Ebert have made a great deal of his use of 3D. I’m going to confess that this is the first 3D film I’ve ever seen. I found it curious. As a neophyte, my first exposure was not to Hugo but to the trailers that were shown first, a series of animated movies that were advertised and visually, in 3D seemed over the top and over-stimulating. Hugo was quite different. The 3D seemed to add a dimension (duh), to add depth, rather than force itself on the viewer. But I wonder what it added, other than another level of special effect to a technological marvel.

In the end, I suppose Hugo is another example of Scorsese’s love of film. He has been a leader in the preservation of of film history. In addition, it reminds of the care he takes in creating a vision of a different world for his audience. Whether it was The Age of Innocence or Casino, Scorsese draws us into the world he creates and invites us to imagine that world.

It’s also a remarkable confession of faith–to assert, as Hugo does, that everyone has a place in this universe is a remarkable statement of faith.