Joshua Blu Buhs
The Life and Times of a Legend
Roger Ebert has blended prodigious energy, keen judgment, wide knowledge, probing insights, and a sharp sense of humor into some of the most perceptive commentary on cinema published in our time. In the tradition of George Bernard Shaw and Robert Hughes, he practices a graceful and deeply informed art journalism. Some pieces he writes are ephemeral, but nothing he writes is trivial. As he puts it in one essay, “It is not dishonorable to write for a daily deadline.” His best pieces will last a long time, and we are lucky that the University of Chicago Press has chosen to preserve them.
Most obviously, this book records some high points of an extraordinary career. Ebert has become an institution. As a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist (the first film critic so honored), he has become a mainstay of magazines and newspapers. His television show, which virtually founded television-based film reviewing, has been broadcast continually for thirty years. His books—not only of collected reviews but also of essays on larger film topics—have poured forth in a steady stream. He has taught courses on film at several universities, and he has held audiences enthralled for days with shot-by-shot analyses of classic films.
Ebert loves movies, but he also loves film. His writing incarnates cinephilia, the sheer savoring of the range and power of the medium itself, and his enthusiasm is infectious. His style isn’t as pungent as, say, Dwight Macdonald’s or Pauline Kael’s; perhaps its closest kin is the warm, conversational tone of Donald Richie. Ebert and Richie never strain to seem smart at the expense of the films or filmmakers; even their wisecracks radiate a certain gentleness.
The essays collected here reveal Ebert to be the most thoughtful and historically informed critic writing for a general audience today. No other writer can shift, in the space of a paragraph, from an appreciation of John Wayne to a subtle discussion of how Ozu presents movement in Equinox Flower.The essays are layered as very few film pieces are. A blast at colorization turns into a lyrical tribute to black-and-white cinematography, tethered to a precise explication of lighting changes in Notoriousand Casa blanca. No critic writing for the nonspecialist audience can move so gracefully from broad judgment to the fine grain of a movie’s shots, lines, and performances. Ebert’s unobtrusive craft respects the way movies engage us by their textures no less than by their stories.
Every critic has a writing persona, and most strain to create one of memorable eccentricity. Too many critics bully us to accept their tastes because of their greater expertise; one of today’s most famous often launches a piece by assuring us that he championed the film or the director long before anyone else did. Ebert never intimidates. He’s never clever at the expense of the movie, but neither is he utterly self-effacing. The quality he projects in his writing is that of a sensitive, curious appetite for new cinematic experience, whether coming from a blockbuster, an indie, or an import. In watching what transpires on the screen he tries to grasp, by means of his sympathetic imagination, the highest ambitions to which the film might aspire, whatever its genre or level of production. He serves the film, not his ego; his modesty doesn’t dissolve his standards but reminds us of how flexible those standards are.
Some critics define themselves by what they don’t like (often, it turns out, nearly everything). Ebert assesses each movie in terms of what it’s trying to do, what traditions it belongs to, and what distinctive pleasures it can offer us. He is our most generous critic, capable of praising both Howards End and The Bad Lieutenant, The Fugitive and Schindler’s List, Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump. It’s surprising that Ebert cites Macdonald as one of his influences, for Macdonald probably liked less than 10 percent of what he saw (and he didn’t see all that much). Perhaps the lesson he passed to the young writer was the need to find an independent voice. Ebert has been resolutely unfashionable, championing Michael Apted’s Up series as well as offbeat films like Trouble in Mind and The Rapture. He is alive to a wide range of cinematic appeals, and this breadth enables his writing to endure.
Endurance of another sort is evident from the sheer longevity of his career. Twenty-five years seems about the limit for a daily film reviewer before he or she longs to read books, any books, rather than watch a Rob Schneider movie. Each of the long-distance runners at the Times—Bosley Crowther, Vincent Canby, and Janet Maslin—managed to sustain their pace for nearly a quarter of a century. Meanwhile the unflagging Ebert is about to enter his fortieth year as the Chicago Sun-Times critic. Perhaps his marathon run has something to do with the breadth of his tastes. He can still love cinema because early on he accepted art films, mass movies, and (the hardest for most intellectual critics to stomach) middlebrow movies on their own terms, while still retaining a sense of what counts as true cinematic excellence. No one who reads the essays in the Great Movies volumes can doubt Ebert’s commitment to the classics, but returning to his daily reviews reveals that savoring the masterpieces hasn’t lessened his eagerness to spot glimmers of achievement in each weekend’s releases. If a current movie will be remembered, Ebert is likely to show us why.
So this collection would be noteworthy solely on the strength of Ebert’s critical accomplishments. But there’s an additional value here, for Awake in the Dark records changes at many levels of American film history and film culture. Perhaps more than Ebert himself realizes, he chronicled major developments in how movies were made, received, and talked about.
Film criticism became a respectable branch of American journalism in the 1940s, when James Agee and Manny Farber turned their talents to it. These two very different writers set a high standard. Agee’s reviews had some of the serpentine self-consciousness of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, while Farber championed B pictures and avant-garde cinema in a jazzy demotic that mixed Broadway slang with art-world jargon. Significantly, both men reviewed films on a weekly or monthly basis. This set the template for serious film criticism: it would be essayistic and not merely a matter of “covering” the new releases. A weekly or monthly (or better yet, quarterly) schedule gave the reviewer enough time to ponder the film and to sculpt a nuanced response.
In the 1960s, movies became a point of intellectual interest as never before, and suddenly critics for Esquire and the New Republic and the New Leader and New York Magazine found themselves celebrities. Macdonald, John Simon, Stanley Kauffmann, and a host of less-remembered writers appeared on television, toured campuses, and published anthologies of their pieces. Indeed, it was a zesty collection of essays and reviews, I Lost It at the Movies (1965), that propelled Kael to the center of U.S. film culture and to a long stint at the New Yorker. At the time, these writers offered a tonic alternative to the power of the Times chief critic Bosley Crowther. Crowther’s power was as immense as his tastes were deplorable. Bonnie and Clyde he considered “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy,” while The Big Sleep displayed “a not very lofty moral tone.” Compared to Crowther, the new generation looked sleek and smart.
These were critics of the Greatest Generation, born between 1916 (Kauffmann) and 1925 (Simon). Versed in modern art and literature, they were sensitive to the importance of the emerging European cinema of the 1950s, but not as sympathetic to new developments in American film. A notable exception was Kael, whose passion for popular cinema kept her alert to the emergence of the New Hollywood. A younger critic, Andrew Sarris, brought more controversy to the mix. Writing first for Film Culture, a magazine devoted to avant-garde cinema, and then for the Village Voice, Sarris imported certain French notions to America. He distinguished between mise-en-scène and montage, floated the idea that an adaptation might fruitfully betray its original, and calmly expected his readers to be acquainted with directors in the Cahiers du Cinéma pantheon, from Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini to George Cukor and Nicholas Ray. His most significant gesture was the unclassifiable compendium of director essays, The American Cinema (published in Film Culture in 1963 and in book form in 1968). With this book, he redefined the way critics thought about popular cinema. While many younger writers took their style from Farber or Agee, they got their tastes from Sarris. His influence is felt today not only in his continuing critical output (now for the New York Observer) but also in the work of the Film Brat Generation—above all, Martin Scorsese, whose proselytizing for the Hollywood tradition has become his personal revision of the Sarris canon.
If Kael and Sarris were godmother and godfather to the Movie Generation, Ebert became its voice from within. He channeled the erudition of the weighty weekly reviewers into daily bursts of insight and enthusiasm. In the process, he articulated the baby boomers’ pleasure in genre-breaking films like Bonnie and Clyde and 2001 and The Last Detail and Nashville while never disdaining the best films that brought in the mainstream audiences. So he could enjoy The Godfather, Rocky, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind as much as Taxi Driver and Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Perhaps as well, his outpost in the Midwest protected him from the cycles of discipleship and apostasy ruling Manhattan film culture. With many guides but no gurus, he was free to follow his own compass.
In his pluralism, Ebert proved a more authentic cinephile than many of his contemporaries. They tied their fortunes to the Film Brats and then suffered the inevitable disappointments of the 1980s’ return to studio-driven pictures. Ebert understood, I think, that the reinvention of mass-market cinema in the last two decades wasn’t simply a matter of stifling the “little picture” so prized by those who long for a return to the 1970s. He realized that Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Tim Burton, Robert Zemeckis, Peter Weir, and others were, in their own ways, reinventing the studio tradition for new audiences, and doing so with admirable skill and visionary ambitions.
Ebert’s oeuvre, then, is a fascinating historical record of how an exceptional intelligence reacted to massive changes in modern cinema. The reviews and essays collected here capture this flux, but so do the interviews and profiles. The latter show how rising stars like Warren Beatty and Meryl Streep were replacing the older generation, how critical hopes were pinned on nonconformists like Robert Altman and Woody Allen, and how Spielberg and Tom Hanks personified the megapicture as Scorsese and Errol Morris became emblems of the personal film.
The 1960s film boom never fizzled out; movies are still cool, to people of all ages. But a decade of information speedup has made us accustomed to instant, strident opinions. The intellectually challenging reviewing tradition maintained by other baby boomers ( J. Hoberman at the Voice, Jonathan Rosenbaum at the Chicago Reader) seems ever farther from the lightspeed punditry of the Web, which favors first-response witticisms. Even the good, gray Times has joined the scramble, setting its reviewers blogging from Cannes and trying to increase edginess in pursuit of a younger readership. (In 2004 a Times reviewer memorably compared Santa’s giant bag in The Polar Express to “an airborne scrotum.” Not a lofty moral tone.) Above this crackle and cleverness stand Ebert’s thoughtful, humane musings— also delivered at whipcrack speed, but richer and more thoughtful and almost always more charitable.
Awake in the Dark constitutes a record of a major critic’s sensibility and a precious history of our film culture over the last forty years. It is destined to sit on your shelf alongside Agee, Farber, and their very few peers.
– David Bordwell
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages xiii-xviii of Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert by Roger Ebert, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2006 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)