July 19, 2024
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July 19, 2024
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An appreciation: Roger Ebert FOR THE LOVE OF FILM: Gratitude from one film lover to another

Roger Ebert’s passing leaves a void in the tradition of critics who love film. His wit and insight added much to the criticism canon. His partnership with Jewish colleague Gene Siskel evoked Hillel and Shammai, whose debates are recorded for posterity (they were for the sake of Heaven). Ebert and Siskel – also at each others’ throats – displayed their shared love of film and each other. Perhaps their thumbs-up is the equivalent of our Talmudic inversion of logic with an upward swing of our thumb.

While many disagree about what constitutes a Jewish film, most agree that several films had serious Jewish impact. Catholicism aside, Ebert identified many significant lessons, as shown in several gleanings from his website, www.rogerebert.com.

From shtick to offensive, Mel Brooks’ humor ranges from Borscht Belt to smashing taboos. His film/play/ film, The Producers, is case in point.

This is one of the funniest movies ever made… To see it for the first time in 1968, when I did, was to witness audacity so liberating that not even There’s Something About Mary rivals it. The movie was like a bomb going off inside the audience’s sense of propriety. … I remember finding myself in an elevator with Brooks and his wife… A woman got onto the elevator, recognized him and said, “I have to tell you, Mr. Brooks, that your movie is vulgar.” Brooks smiled benevolently. “Lady,” he said, “it rose below vulgarity.”

Ebert embraced advances in technology, celebrating rather than criticizing. Describing two very different animated tales, he tells two sides of the Middle East conflict set thousands of years apart.

The story of Exodus has its parallels in many religions, always with the same result: God chooses one of his peoples over the others. We like these stories because in the one we subscribe to, we are the chosen people. I have always rather thought God could have spared man a lot of trouble by casting his net more widely, emphasizing universality rather than tribalism, but there you have it… The Prince of Egypt is one of the best-looking animated films ever made. It employs computer-generated animation as an aid to traditional techniques, rather than as a substitute for them, and we sense the touch of human artists in the vision… [This film] shows animation growing up and embracing more complex themes, instead of chaining itself in the category of children’s entertainment.

Waltz With Bashir is a devastating animated film that tries to reconstruct how and why thousands of innocent civilians were massacred because those with the power to stop them took no action… We may be confronted here with a fundamental flaw in human nature. When he said “The buck stops here,” Harry Truman was dreaming. The buck never stops.

No list of Jewish films can be complete without, perhaps, the two most important Holocaust films made. As difficult as it is for Jews to grasp and convey important lessons of this dark chapter, it is remarkable when others respond to our pain in meaningful ways.

In Schindler’s List, the best he has ever made, Spielberg treats the fact of the Holocaust and the miracle of Schindler’s feat without the easy formulas of fiction… What is most amazing about this film is how completely Spielberg serves his story… Spielberg, the stylist whose films often have gloried in shots we are intended to notice and remember, disappears into his work… The movie is 184 minutes long, and like all great movies, it seems too short. Spielberg is not visible in this film. But his restraint and passion are present in every shot.

For more than nine hours I sat and watched a film named Shoah, and when it was over, I sat for a while longer and simply stared into space, trying to understand my emotions. I had seen a memory of the most debased chapter in human history. But I had also seen a film that affirmed life so passionately that I did not know where to turn with my confused feelings. There is no proper response to this film. It is an enormous fact, a 550-minute howl of pain and anger in the face of genocide. It is one of the noblest films ever made.

It would be trite to end with a “thumbs up.” Perhaps it’s more appropriate to appreciate the significance of pointing up, a demonstration of hope, of higher expectations. As he wrote in his journal:

“To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”

Nathan Kruman is a local Jewish educator and specialist in Jewish Media and Cultural Arts.

By Nathan Kruman

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