Awake in the Dark, Roger Ebert

University of Chicago Press, 2006, 476 pages, $18.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-226-18201-8

A few months ago, I concluded my review of Roger Ebert’s bad-movies-reviews compendium Your Movie Sucks by promising that I would follow up with a book about his great movies.  Hence Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert, a retrospective collection bringing together forty years of interviews, reviews and opinion pieces about cinema.  If nothing else, this collection shows the depth of material available from someone who’s been writing about movies for such a long time.  Even devoting large sections of the book to specific material (such as reprinting his “best movie of the year” reviews), there are enough treats here to surprise and delight.

The introduction sets the tone, as Ebert describes his first experiences with cinema, and early adventures in the newspaper trade.  A number of interviews follow, most of them from the earlier part of Ebert’s career when he spent more time doing feature pieces.  (An explanation for that is found later in the book, in discussing the stranglehold that press agents now have on serious film journalism.)  Then it’s off to a selection of Ebert’s favourite movies of every year, from 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde to 2005’s Crash.

I skimmed over the next two sections, about foreign films and documentaries, and didn’t read everything in the overlooked and underrated films segment –but the following “Essays and think pieces” are all interesting, and present a sampling of issues that have infuriated Ebert over the years: the inequality of black actors, colorization of black-and-white films, the lack of a truly-adult film rating in the United States (with consequent infantilization of American cinema), and the appeal of celluloid over digital projection.  The last section, “on film criticism” features a virtual symposium between critics Richard Corliss, Andrews Sarris and Ebert on the future of film criticism.  The coda of the book discusses the early stages of Ebert’s cancer that would eventually rob him of his voice and give him a new one as a top-notch online writer.

It’s not exactly useful to rate the book on whether you agree with Ebert:  I certainly don’t, especially when he starts feeling nostalgic about the quality of celluloid films over new digital projection technologies.  And I just have to browse the list of his “films of the year” to start rolling my eyes at some choices.  (Crash?  Ergh.)  But the true mark of Ebert’s value as a professional writer is how pleasant to read his pieces remain even when they present disagreeable viewpoints.  It helps that despite decades of experience reviewing films, Ebert still sees them with the eyes of an ordinary filmgoer: It’s not difficult to understand why he still likes the movies, why some of them work better than others, and how much he wants every film to be successful.  Reading a selection of the films he loves is reading about a fulfilled Ebert –quite a different experience than reading one angry pan after another in Your Movie Sucks.

Trying to fit a forty-year career between two covers is a tough assignment, but the editors responsible for selecting the pieces in Awake in the Dark have done a good job, and while this won’t be the final word on Ebert for a while (especially given the astonishing quality of his current online writing), it’s about as good a career retrospective could be as of 2006.  There’s a lot of fine reading in there –although, since much of the book is made of short reviews or essays, Awake in the Dark is best read in small chunks spread over a long period of time.

For movie lovers, film reviewers, Ebert fans and anyone interested in critical cinema commentary, Awake in the Dark is an eloquent achievement: An entire life spent watching films, glimpsed throughout hundreds of short essays. It may not be as bitterly amusing as reading six years of awful movie reviews, but it’s far more interesting –and it shows Ebert at his best while discussing the best.

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