J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

The Problem with Roger Ebert (and other so-called critics)

Posted by J on September 15, 2007

In his recent Answer Man column, Roger Ebert fielded an absurd question and gave his response:

Reader’s Question: My sister heard about a movie called “Corpus Christi,” in which Jesus is depicted as being gay. Is there such a movie? That would be sad.Ebert: It would be sad if it was a bad movie, not if it was a good one. A movie’s quality is separate from its subject.

If that’s the case, the potential is limitless. We could make a masterpiece about Roger Ebert the homicidal maniac. Or better: a great movie that defames Ebert’s family and friends, mocks his entire career, and jokes constantly about his past girth problems and his current health problems. Undoubtedly, if it were really great, Roger would give it four stars.

This idea, that the quality of a movie can be disconnected from its morals, has been Ebert’s fundamental presupposition for his entire working career. We have seen Ebert say again and again that “a movie is great not because of what it’s about, but because of how it’s about what it’s about.” This is the same thing as saying that the telling of the story is the only thing; a story’s contents and messages are not at all relevant. While we don’t dismiss the need to tell stories well, it’s clear that Ebert trots out the old “art for art’s sake” dictum whenever he needs it. So you want a movie about a gay Jesus? “Art for art’s sake and all beauty is truth!”says Roger. Ebert has sometimes followed this idea to its extremes, calling a nihilist’s nightmare (Pulp Fiction) a masterpiece and endlessly praising the “ground-breaking” Deep Throat (not the Watergate informant). In fact, if there’s one thing we’ve learned by reading Ebert for years, it’s that he enjoys naked women. He just likes his pornography cloaked by things that appear artsy.

Now, though Ebert says “a movie’s quality is separate from its subject,” he’s by necessity a hypocritical humanist. Roger can’t go too far in throwing out all values, or else he’d get the values he doesn’t like thrown back in his face. So of course he’s given zero stars–a very rare rating for him–to movies about which he thought the subject intolerable. The pseudo-documentary, C.S.A.: Confederate States of America, a what-if fantasy abou the Confederacy winning the Civil War, received Ebert’s utter disapproval because it came across as far too serious about its subject (even though the movie was attempting to be ironic). Similarly, Ebert castigated September Dawn for its portrayal of Mormons as murdering, intolerant fanatics because “the vast majority of the members of all religions, I believe and would argue, don’t want to kill anybody.” “There isn’t anything to be gained in telling this story in this way,” says Ebert, because “it generates bad feelings on all sides, and at a time when Mormons are at pains to explain they are Christians, underlines the way that these Mormons consider all Christians to be ‘gentiles.'” So in this case, the political and social morals that the movie depicts make a difference. Fancy that, the possibility that a movie will alter its viewers’ morals matters greatly after all! We wouldn’t want people to start hating Mormons because of September Dawn, would we? As usual, Ebert allows his liberal-humanist views to determine his movie experience and opinion, even when it counters his “a movie about anything can be great” dictum.

So morals of stories matter to everyone–even to those who say they don’t. It only depends, for the person involved, which morals a movie touts are important. For Ebert, a good movie about a gay Jesus Christ is like a good movie about hardcore porn: a “cultural triumph” that advances the causes of social progress. For almost all critics, the same is true. A movie can be good, so long as it’s socially acceptable or provocative, according with the idols of the day.

But for Christians, the entirety of Scripture lays out the rules for man-made stories by providing the moral foundations that should underlie them and by providing numerous stories that serve as capable models and examples. It probably goes without saying for you, but the Word of God is the basis for all thinking, watching, and reviewing of movies. We’ve seen many Christians give into the invented standards of secular critics, praising 300 for ground-breaking visuals or desiring to watch some actor’s stellar performance, while totally ignoring a movie’s contents and messages. Sometimes we want to let others–scriptwriters, film critics, actors who blah-blah about their new film–tell us how to view a movie. But as followers of Jesus Christ, there’s a better way: “be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.”

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” We acknowledge that this is sometimes difficult, but this is where we’d like to be. Select what movies you watch, and what stories you ingest, carefully.

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