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Saturday, January 6th, 2007
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Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert

by Roger Ebert

The Balcony Is Closed

A review by Chris Bolton

This was a tough year for movie lovers. Apart from the abundance of middling to outright bad films and ever-inflating ticket prices (inversely proportional, it seems, to a decrease in the quality of the moviegoing experience), there was the death of beloved director Robert Altman. And, for more than half of 2006, we had to endure silence from one of the nation's best film critics.

Roger Ebert has been MIA since July, when he underwent surgery for salivary cancer. He is currently in rehabiliation ("learning to walk again," he writes on his website, www.rogerebert.com) and has contributed only a couple of movie reviews since.

His silence is deafening. At a time when film critics are being excised from major magazines and newspapers, replaced by bloodless wire stories and online pundits who are often as hyperbolic as they are editorially challenged (go ahead, tell me with a straight face that you can actually read those horribly written, barely comprehensible, twelve-mile-long rants on Ain't It Cool News without wanting to smash your monitor), Ebert's absence is felt more strongly than I ever would have imagined.

With an uncanny sense of timing, the University of Chicago Press published Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert last September, just as I was feeling the effects of withdrawal. The book is a collection of reviews, essays, and interviews from more than forty years of working the film beat (the book even opens with a 1961 review of La Dolce Vita that Ebert wrote for his college paper at the University of Illinois).

The book works as a simple retrospective, as well as a tribute to Ebert's talent as a writer (he was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize). But it also serves as an invaluable time capsule, taking us through some of the most exciting and tumultuous changes in the film industry. Had Ebert been writing during the Studio Era, his work would have been no less entertaining, and he no doubt would have reviewed some true gems. However, it would have lacked the breathless excitement of covering the period of change that made American film so electrifying in the '60s and '70s, when the old men of the studio system began to retire and die off, and the young rebels charged into Hollywood.

Ebert was one of the first critics to champion Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, even as the film was being torn to pieces by the establishment (the New York Times critic, Bosley Crowther, famously dismissed it as "a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy"). He sang the praises of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey before it was even released.

You might argue that Ebert happened to stumble into the right place at the right time -- but so did every other critic getting published at the time, and how many of them are still around, still interesting, and have any kind of impact on the modern film culture?

Ebert's gift is to bring the same fervent love of cinema to that forbidden zone of reviewing, the middle-brow film. The majority of critics will outright dismiss lowbrow comedies, family fare, and studio blockbusters on principle, while hailing the most painfully obscure art-house flicks that are unlikely to be seen by even 1% of the world's population. Although he confesses that his early pose as a critic was "one of superiority to the movies," Ebert managed to outgrow this affectation, unlike so many of his peers, and learn to view each film on its own terms -- not for what he wishes it were, but for what it was intended to be. As Ebert writes in his revealing introduction: "...just when I had the exact angle of condescension calculated, a movie would open that disarmed my defenses and left me ecstatic and joyful."

At the height of the popularity of the TV show he shared with the late Gene Siskel, the pair were frequently lampooned and, it seems, even more frequently dismissed by "just folks." I can't even recall from how many people I heard sentiments to the effect of: "If they hate a movie, I'm sure I'll like it." The prevailing opinion was that Siskel and Ebert were movie snobs, completely out of touch with the taste of the common man.

On the other side of the aisle, film academics and those who reveled in obscurity dismissed Siskel and Ebert as mainstream sell-outs, sneering at their ubiquitous "two thumbs" verdicts. Among the essays in Awake in the Dark is a fascinating 1990 exchange from Film Comment magazine between Ebert, Time critic Richard Corliss, and Andrew Sarris (the influential Village Voice critic who helped import the theories of France's Cahiers du Cinema to these shores) on the culture of film criticism.

For my money, both extremes miss the mark. As a young film enthusiast, I watched Siskel & Ebert religously throughout the '80s and, before the Internet made his catalogue of reviews readily available, faithfully bought and devoured Ebert's Movie Home Companion (now called the Movie Yearbook) each year. While they didn't dwell in obscurity, Siskel & Ebert brought smaller films into my consciousness that I otherwise might never have heard about. If they hadn't devoted an entire episode to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, I likely wouldn't have seen one of the most important films of my life. Before "indie film" became hip, they introduced me to guys named Jarmusch, Soderbergh, and -- yes -- Welles. I can't imagine that I would have gone to the 50th anniversary rerelease of Citizen Kane without having heard their praise over the years, and thus would have deprived myself of a seminal moviegoing moment, when I realized an "old film" could be more powerful and visually absorbing than anything in current release.

Then again, Ebert is the guy who gave three and a half stars to Congo. So no one can accuse him of sitting in his ivory tower, glowering at the unrefined tastes of the unwashed masses.

He's also virtually alone among critics of any stripe in admitting when he's wrong. Ebert famously gave thumbs down to Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, then watched it again and realized he'd made a horrible mistake (in his defense, he says he was distracted by thoughts of his impending wedding). He rectified the matter with a four-star review and a spot on his Ten Best list, even while admitting his error.

Awake in the Dark is equally enjoyable as a tribute to Ebert's long and storied career -- offering reviews of his top film from 1967 to 2005, along with interviews and profiles of luminaries like Scorsese, Spielberg, and Bergman, plus a sampling of essays and Ebert's choices for most overlooked films -- and as a chronicle of the last forty years of film. It is an essential volume for Ebert's fans, and film lovers in general.

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