A new selection of Roger Ebert's writing presents an uneven montage.
One of the open secrets of film reviewing is that reviews of movies critics love don’t make for the best reading. Of course, a great film will sometimes drive a critic to write masterfully and with wonderful insight while still making deadline. But reviewing, as it is practiced in most American print outlets, is a high-volume business. And, for a tangled mess of reasons, great films often yield reviews that are frankly hard to write and boring to read.
For sheer fun, bad movies often make for better reviews. That’s why Roger Ebert’s I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie, a collection of pans, is so enormously popular. It’s reviewing as blood sport, full of wonderful zingers. But some of the best writing really talented critics do is in reviews of interesting films that are neither abominations nor “the best movie of the year!”
That point seems to have been lost on John Tryneski and Rodney Powell, the University of Chicago editors who persuaded Ebert to publish Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert. As Ebert puts it in an introduction, “it was their idea, they made the initial selection of material, and they overcame my doubts that such a book was possible.” A book of Ebert’s best writing is a sure thing, but this isn’t quite it.
Tryneski, Powell and Ebert have chosen to include the review of every film that landed at the top of Ebert’s yearly top-ten list from 1967 to 2005. These reviews comprise nearly 120 of this volume’s 453 pages, and some make wonderful reading. But are they “The Best of Roger Ebert”?
The volume seems to offer its own resounding response in some of the other collected reviews, interviews and articles. Far more of Ebert’s warmth and wit come through in his writing on foreign films, documentaries and the films lumped under the rubric “Overlooked and Underrated.” These reviews are fueled by Ebert’s recognition that he needs to persuade readers to care about these films. His writing about Michael Apted’s “Up” documentaries (Ebert’s reviews of 28 Up, 35 Up and 42 Up are collected here) provides moving and thoughtful considerations of the films and how they tell us something about aging and change. (Full disclosure: I have been a colleague of Ebert for many years, seeing him at screenings on a regular basis and engaging in casual conversations between films.)
But leaving aside this curious editorial choice, Awake in the Dark does go a long way toward illuminating the underlying concerns of Ebert’s writing. He is, as the pieces collected make clear, a humanist who believes that the most important function of cinema is to open the viewer to the variety of human experience. As he puts it in an essay on the job of reviewers, “Writing daily film criticism is a balancing act between the bottom line and the higher reaches, between the answers to the questions (1) Is this movie worth my money? and (2) Does this movie expand or devalue my information about human nature?”
In the heat of the controversy surrounding Do the Right Thing, Ebert wrote a heartfelt but measured review, in which he asserted, “I believe that any good-hearted person, white or black, will come out of this movie with sympathy for all the characters.” It’s easy to scoff at this as naive, but it is utterly consistent with Ebert’s view of what movies can do.
Much has been made of Ebert’s conversational tone by fans and detractors alike. Awake makes clear that Ebert has many different styles available to him. In reviews, Ebert favors uncluttered declaratives. Take this fairly typical example from his review of Leaving Las Vegas: “The man’s name is Ben (Nicolas Cage). The woman’s name is Sera (Elisabeth Shue). You will not see two better performances this year.” Though Ebert is a fan of writers like Dickens, his style often seems more indebted to Hemingway, by way of journalism.
Given Ebert’s massive output of reviews (thousands of them), the surprise here is that Ebert’s profiles and think pieces make for the most enjoyable reading in the collection. His essays on John Cassavetes and Pauline Kael (written shortly after their deaths), and his wonderful critique of colorization are by turns elegaic and impassioned. His profiles of Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum are priceless studies in using simple observation and quotation with little or no commentary to paint a portrait. His response to an attack by Richard Corliss is a brilliant example of civilized debate seasoned with a few sharp swipes at one’s opponent (in response to Corliss’s charge that Siskel & Ebert was too driven by Hollywood’s promotional agenda, Ebert quotes at length Corliss’s own gushy interview with Tom Cruise—ouch).
Perhaps it is simply a matter of timing, but the most moving piece in the book is the last one, the reprinted introduction from Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook, 2005. The piece was written after Ebert’s first bout with salivary cancer, and he uses his recovery from radiation and surgery as a starting point for a reflection on what movies mean in his life. He notes with pride that he didn’t miss writing a single review during treatment. Now, as he recovers from more surgeries related to a recurrence of that cancer, there have been no reviews streaming forth from this indefatigable man. Whether you agree with his opinions or not, whether you love his writing or not, it’s been an unsettling silence.
Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert (University of Chicago Press, $29) will be available September 15.