Book Review: Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert
I can still recall where I was when I heard the news that renowned film critic Roger Ebert had passed away at the age of 70 on April 4, 2013.
I was sitting in my cubicle at work, taking a brief respite from editing an article to scroll through my Twitter feed. When I came across the headline, I froze. Ebert had battled the cancer that ravaged his body for 11 years, yet it still felt sudden and the news jarred a gasp out of me. I informed my colleagues, all of whom commented softly on the sad news. But I continued to sit there in front of my screen, reading article after article. His death gripped social media as both colleagues and complete strangers took to various outlets to share their fondest memories of a man who shared their passion for cinema.
I didn’t know Ebert personally. The death of a famous personality, especially one we associate with our youth, can often provoke strong reactions in us. You don’t have to have met a person to be profoundly affected by their passing. If that were the case, the public would never mark the deaths of Hollywood elite with fan tributes. With the news of Ebert’s death, a part of my childhood died.
Granted, I didn’t truly delve into Ebert’s work until I was in university. It took me awhile to fully comprehend his place in the world of cinema; his influence on how we viewed what we saw unfold on the screen. But I was always aware of his name. After all, Ebert and Gene Siskel had been lending their thumbs to films that I’ve loved for years. Ebert loved Jurassic Park and, to the third grade version of myself, that was all that mattered. He shared my taste in film. The TV commercials told me so.
A couple of months back, I dusted off my copy of Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Ebert himself wrote an introduction that detailed his early days as a film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Initially, Ebert’s goal was to become a political columnist, but his career path took a sudden shift in 1967 when his editor asked him to replace the recently retired Sun-Times film critic. Ebert admitted to having heard of film critic giants Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, yet struggled to find his voice at first.
Ebert entered the world of cinema during a time of great change in Hollywood. The old studio system was gradually dying off and 1967 proved to be a seismic shift in the future of American filmmaking with the advent of Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate. It was with Bonnie & Clyde, however, where Ebert truly left his mark as a reviewer. He was one of the earliest film critics to openly embrace Arthur Penn’s hyper-violent crime drama. Film critics of the old cast turned a cold shoulder to the young auteurs masterpiece, but Ebert applauded its bravado and remarked on the impact it would leave on the landscape of American film.
That was one of the many things I admired most about Ebert. While he certainly had a knack for recognizing the merits of obscure arthouse gems, he also never shied away from praising the big budget blockbusters he enjoyed. Regardless of whether you agree with his assessments or not, rereading his reviews of Jaws and Forrest Gump is refreshing if only for the obvious enthusiasm he holds for them both. A film didn’t have to be a masterpiece on the scale of The Bicycle Thieves or 2001: A Space Odyssey for Ebert to sing its praises. It need only provoke a significant response in him; something that kept him thinking after the final credits.
Awake in the Dark provides readers with a greatest hits collection of his best essays, reviews and interviews—from actors Lee Marvin to Tom Hanks and directors Werner Herzog to Steven Spielberg, among others. It’s easy to overlook Ebert’s ability to catch the finer details in a film or pinpoint a unique feature while interviewing an actor when you only read his articles as a one-off. But bind them together in a book and it makes for one of the most astute observations about the world of film that you’re likely to find.
Always thoughtful and thought-provoking, Ebert was ultimately film’s biggest fanboy at heart. Putting pen to paper, Ebert shared his passion for film with us and we couldn’t help but sit up and take notice. This collection is a must-have for aspiring film critics and movie fans, in general.