As I See It

Fr. Raymond de Souza

April 22, 2013

He spent a life chronicling show business, so why not a show at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago for the funeral of Roger Ebert?

The Hollywood Reporter said the homily was "Hollywood-centric." Perhaps it wasn't, but Hollywood usually fancies itself to be the centre of things. Or perhaps it was, in which case it would be fitting. Celebrity worship is at the heart of our culture, so to actually worship them in church on occasion should not surprise.

Roger Ebert died after 46 years as the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, seven years after losing the ability to speak and eat after cancer surgery, and two days after announcing that he would be cutting back on his film reviews to devote more attention to his website.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert

The last years were touched by heroism in the face of cancer, and he was remarkably productive, writing more than 300 movie reviews in 2012.

Anyone who subjected himself to 300 films a year, from Hollywood or elsewhere, would be easily excused if he took a rather dim view of human creativity and culture. Most of what Ebert spent his time watching was at best a distraction from more worthy recreations, and at worst deadening to the human spirit.

Yet he managed, despite having to summarize his judgment in terms of "thumbs up" or "thumbs down," to retain a literate style in his reviews.

The movies are a big part of popular culture, and at the heart of culture are the things of cult – the realm of the spirit, religion, worship, God. Ebert wrote appreciatively of his Catholic upbringing, of serving Mass at the local parish and receiving a first-rate education from the Dominican sisters.

LOST HIS FAITH

His reviews were attentive to the role of religion in the great drama of life, and he resisted the reflexive anti-Catholicism that infects so much of Hollywood. That said, he lost his faith as a teenager, though, curiously, he insisted, not his Catholicism.

Just a month ago, he wrote, "I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God."

So he had a Catholic funeral, with the priest assuring everyone that Ebert was in fact a believer, despite his writing to the contrary. God is merciful, the Church is big and perhaps it wouldn't hurt if at more funerals, the celebrant assured the congregation that the deceased was a believer, all evidence to the contrary.

It's sad to imagine that someone could take any serious art seriously – and somewhere in the midst of 300 films of dreck are some films worthy of being considered art – and yet subscribe to a view of the human person and human culture so impoverished by the banishment of the spirit.

DODGED THE QUESTION

In the end, despite Ebert handing out summary reviews of thousands of films, he opted to dodge the most fundamental question.

"I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic," he wrote in his autobiography Life Itself. "I am more content with questions rather than answers."

Actually, he wasn't. He gave answers his whole life to questions of rather passing interest. A good movie asks profound questions; a great one provides some answers. A question that goes unanswered remains unfulfilled.

One prays that now Roger Ebert is disappointed. For in heaven there are answers, even for those who prefer questions.

Fr. Raymond de Souzarjdesouza@sympatico.ca