Roger Ebert’s Awake in the Dark, reviewed

Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert by Roger Ebert

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If pressed to name a movie critic, most people would probably say Roger Ebert.

Even though he hasn’t hosted the show he made famous in some years – indeed, he no longer can speak – he remains (and likely will remain for some time) the most famous critic of his time.

I recently finished a collection of his writings, Awake in the Dark, which reinforces that conclusion. While the book is primarily made of film reviews (which I’ll get to later), it’s the other sections that shine the most.

If Ebert is a good critic, he’s an even better essayist. Here he tackles the MPAA, Ted Turner and the colorization of film (an issue that Ebert likely helped defeat), digital projection and why the Oscars reward some movies over others.

A real treat in the book is an extended discussion on the state of film criticism, presented in a series of essays by Ebert, Richard Corless and Andrew Sarris. It’s an interesting look at two differing schools of thought on how criticism works and where it’s headed – Corless argues that shows like Siskel and Ebert are moving film criticism away from actual discussion to quick bursts of information and “if it’s any good” talk that spells out your taste for you.

A section of his profiles is a little more uneven. His looks at Woody Allen feels odd with the added benefit of hindsight and his piece where he drives around with Robert Mitchum doesn’t really go anywhere (much like Mitchum’s driving).

But others offer an interesting look inside the creative process. His piece on Ingmar Bergman takes you inside a closed set, where Bergman only filmed with the people who absolutely needed to be there. His piece on Tom Hanks examines what makes Hanks such a versatile and popular actor when people barely even know the real Hanks – without actually speaking to his subject.

His astute ability at breaking down not only why a movie, a character or a director is successful, but at how they impact the viewer is superb – few critics can really explain why things work like Ebert does, in simple terms that anybody can understand. These profiles often show this in exquisite detail. When he really clicks on a subject, it’s great reading.

The bulk of this book is a massive collection of reviews, 76 in all. The editors of the book wisely chose to go with Ebert’s original reviews when possible (some of them curiously brief). This gives the book a sense of immediacy his other collections don’t have. These pieces, written around the time of the movie’s premiere, offer an unvarnished look at each movie before the public reached a mass opinion.

It’s interesting to see how he reacted to movies like The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde and Do The Right Thing upon their original release. And it feels more honest to see this original reaction, not how he feels looking back.

The book doesn’t stick to just “classic” movies either. It offers a selection at world film, with reviews that range from Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Herzog’s Stroszek and Satayajit Ray’s The Music Room. These reviews offer a quick primer on world cinema and showcase that Ebert is interested in more then just the blockbusters.

There are also sections on documentaries – including several reviews of the Up series of movies – and on films Ebert thinks are either underrated or overlooked. His take at the works of Sam Peckinpah or the great car chase in To Live and Die in LA show that more then anything else, Ebert is somebody who genuinely likes movies.

It feels at times like by writing, Ebert is trying to share his enthusiasm with the reader, make it clear not that a movie is good (or bad) but that it’s worth your time. Ebert writes that film is a medium to be enjoyed and to be shared; what fun is it to watch a movie by yourself?

On the whole, Awake in the Dark serves as a great overview for Ebert’s career and a great look at how movies have evolved in the past 40 years. More then that, it shows the evolution of Ebert as a film critic – by taking one review from each year he wrote, you can really see how much he’s grown and further appreciate how lucky his readers are. For anybody interested not just in Ebert, but also in film, this book is must-read.

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