Bright Lights Film Journal

Reading Movie Reviews as a Religious Experience: Roger Ebert as the Rashi of Cinema

“The wonder of life and the resources of imagination supply all the adventure you need.” — Roger Ebert (in his Great Movies review of My Neighbor Totoro)

Sometime between the fifth and sixth centuries of the Common Era, the unwieldy corpus of Jewish legal argumentation, rabbinic homilies, and exegetical narratives that had been transmitted orally was transcribed into the text that became known as the Talmud. Despite this successful transcription, for many Jews it remained a closed text — unpunctuated, arcane, and hopelessly prolix. Save for a small cadre of elite scholars, it was still largely undecipherable for most readers until the eleventh century, when Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki (commonly referred to by his acronym, Ra-Sh-I, or Rashi) began to write his commentary on the Talmud. Rashi's endeavor to make the Talmud accessible to the masses was so fabulously successful that his commentary was selected as one of the two primary commentaries to accompany the Talmudic text in the standard published editions of the Talmud, and is still widely considered well-nigh indispensable in Talmudic studies.

If the canon of cinema were to be transcribed into literary form as the Talmudic text was, and the editors of such an authoritative anthology of film were tasked with selecting two film critics to flank the central film "text," the role of Rashi would indisputably be filled by Roger Ebert.

Just as Rashi's commentary enabled a broader swath of Jewry to study Talmud, Roger Ebert rendered sophisticated film accessible to the masses. And like Rashi, Roger succeeded fabulously, gaining a national following through his syndicated columns and TV show. Just as Rashi's commentary allowed average Jews to navigate the previously untouched waters of obscure Talmudic tractates (and concomitantly established precedents for later Talmudic translations and elucidations, such as today's popular Artscroll edition), so Roger provided moviegoers with entry points into the great undiscovered country of world cinema. His reviews provided the homme moyen sensuel with an awareness of the art-house films from Godard, Bergman, Fellini, and Ozu. And because of his championing of independent filmmakers like Scorsese and Coppola, the work of auteurs like Malick and Cassavetes could play in Peoria.

But Roger's and Rashi's non-elitist, accessible commentaries belied their vast intellects; Roger knew his English literature au fond, and Rashi's conceptual and analytic abilities were unquestionable. Even though they sought to provide their readers with the simple understanding of film and Talmud, they were by no means simplistic. Their erudition would occasionally slip through in little dollops of aperҫus delivered so nonchalantly that insufficiently attuned readers could easily miss them. Roger was a much deeper thinker than he was often given credit for; perceptive readers knew that his conceptual abilities were sometimes obscured by the unfair reputation he garnered from his television show as a shallow "two-thumbs-up" popularizer. Ontological queries were not beyond the scope and ken of a Roger Ebert review: writing about Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, he posited that his intense response to the film may have been due to "my obsession with who we are and who we think we are. The secret of communicating with another person, I suspect, may be in communicating with who he thinks he is." And in his essay on Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes in his 2003 book The Great Movies, he pontificated on the meaning of existence, asking "is struggle the only purpose of struggle?"

A Talmud teacher of mine was fond of telling us that there is great wisdom concealed in every comment of Rashi, and he implored us never to "skip a Rashi" lest we miss one of his stiletto-sharp observations. Not only did I adhere to his advice, but upon discovering the Rashi of film, I adapted it to film during my personal cinematic journey. In the thousand-plus films I have viewed, I never "skipped a Rashi." Roger was my cinematic Rashi, and his reviews accompanied each film I viewed as naturally as Rashi's elucidations accompanied each page of my Talmudic studies.

Roger particularly loved Citizen Kane, which always retained its "greatest film of all time" status in his mind. The Talmudic apothegm stating that "one who studies a text 101 times cannot be compared to one who studied the text 100 times" (Tractate Chagigah 9b) could have been said about Roger's relationship with Citizen Kane. Just as Talmud students know that they can always come upon a new interpretation of the text in each study session, so could Roger always find fresh insights in multiple viewings of films. Despite 100 (or so) viewings of Citizen Kane (including screenings in which he studied it shot-by-shot at film festivals), he was amazed at how he would always find something new that he hadn't observed in a previous viewing. For Roger, film became a text with ever-deepening layers of meaning that only revealed their secrets upon further study.

One of the subjects that most deeply interested Roger was religion, an area he wrote about rather frequently (though he had a knack for doing so in covert as well as overt ways), and in attitudes that alternated between praiseworthy, critical, curious, and admiring. Sometimes the most profound theological statements can be the simplest, and I heard such a statement from Roger at the September 27, 2011, New York TimesTalks Discussion with A. O. Scott: "Since we only live for a short time, we might as well be happy. We have to play with the cards we're dealt. I'm not angry that I got cancer. I'm happy I'm still alive and can keep making people happy."

Roger was a loyal cinematic companion for thousands of moviegoers. Cinephiles will be eternally grateful for the wealth of wisdom, wit, illumination, and unalloyed enjoyment he provided us. It will take some time to come to terms with the sad new reality that films will be released without an accompanying Ebert review; perhaps solace can be taken from perusing the work of the new critics Roger cultivated and brought into his website. Roger's work will be continued by writers whose reviews are suffused with his unmistakable influence. Rashi did not complete his commentary on the Talmud either; others, like his grandson Rashbam, assumed the task of completing his commentary. Yet, because Rashbam's distended, dilated prose was a far cry from the brisk, pellucid style of his grandfather, Rashi endured as the commentator new students of Talmud look to when they begin their journeys into the sea of Talmud. So too, Roger Ebert will always be the quintessential rhapsodist of the movies, and the writer to whom moviegoers turn when they embark on their own journeys into film. Roger's unintentional epitaph, written by him just a day before his death, rings true: "On this day of reflection, I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies."