Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert
by Roger Ebert
The Balcony Is Closed
A review by Chris Bolton
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.