Undoubtedly, there is an element of ‘opinion’ ingrained in every human being and consequently each one of us have an opinion on the movies that we see. What separates something as mere opinion versus a good movie review can lead to an introspection beyond this post. In this milieu, one would acknowledge how tough it can be to be recognized as an acclaimed film critic or reviewer. Roger Ebert is one who has created a remarkable name for himself in this role. Though he had been writing for Chicago Sun-Times for decades Roger Ebert is a name that a common man (or fan?) would easily recognize him for the excellent reviews and thoughts around the tinsel world. “Awake in the dark” is one of his best-selling books. A good read if you are someone who follows cinema (mainly Hollywood) and must read if you aspire to be a reviewer. This blog is a peep in to that book.
“Awake in the dark” can be segregated in to few key sections.
You will find an abundance of film reviews, mainly from Hollywood. Roger Ebert has listed his “best” film of the year that spans from 1967 to 2005. One can find reviews starting from Bonnie and Clyde through Nashville, Cries and Whispers, The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, God Father, Good Fellas until The Crash. The primary reason for me to buy this book was to indulge in this section. I must state that in the end I wasn’t fascinated by this section as much as few others in the book. Probably, I had very high expectations to see thing more ‘filmy’. If you view this from the standpoint that these reviews were written for a broader audience in a daily newspaper then any reservation you have will vanish. Imagine someone churning out quality review on films non-stop for 40+ years. The message for an average fan and holistic view are stand out aspects of his reviews. Most of the reviews are as written at the time, essentially retaining the immediate experience.
Beyond Hollywood movies, he has included few documentaries and foreign films too. But instead of calling them as the “best” he marks them as “selection” meaning he didn’t have to go through all those out there to pick the best.
This section is the one that I enjoyed most. Most think pieces try to challenge a certain fundamental aspect of the cinema world. And that requires a lot of courage. I definitely wanted to call out two of those.
“The case for an ‘A’ rating” (1990): Hollywood then had rating categories like G, PG, PG-13, R and X. Roger Ebert highlighted that this structure basically lacks a rating in between R and X. His argument was that there are scores of films that are without sexual content (X-rating) but still intended towards mature audience. A lot of good films such as The Cook, the Thief, Her Lover, His Wife, etc. suffered because of this gap. Lack of R simply does not equate to X. One can’t deny this. And today there is this NC-17 rating to fill the case.
“A Pulitzer for movies” (1997): Tony, Emmy, Oscar, Grammy, National Book Awards are awards chosen by jury representative of that industry. But Pulitzer prize is chosen by a independent panel consisting of experts without regard for popularity,s ales or sentiment. And movies are not considered for this. His opinion is that Oscars and other grand movie awards are heavily influenced by aspects such as box-office hit, reception by general audience and sentiment Pulitzer can help to identify the best movies in a more neutral fashion. Well, may be. Though I liked the thought I wasn’t all that convinced. In fact, he himself goes on to provide a counter. In case of a book, drama or music the final product reaches the audience by and large the same way as was conceived and created by the individual (creator). In case of cinema, it is more a collective product though there can be a dominating influence by the film director.
You could read a few more like these in this section.
If you read this section there is a good chance that you will feel become envious of Roger Ebert. At least, I did. How else would you feel about a person who got a chance to interview and interact closely with almost all the biggies of the industry during his period. Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorsese, Warren Beatty, Steven Speilberg, Lee Marvin, Paul Schrader, Robert Altman, Woody Allen and the list goes on. Interviews and reviews are sort of different ends of a pole. For Chicago Sun-Times, he does both. He himself has cited that providing a neutral review can be very challenging if you had interviewed someone and knew more. Irrespective of that he had continued to do an amazing job until his death.
On film criticism
In this section, he has dumped all his likes and dislikes in the cinema world. He mentions about his liking towards films that have real suspense (as against shocking the audience with siren sound) and those that have villains as the protagonists, then about his favorite film personalities (Martin Scorsese, Altman, Coppola), then about select scenes (culled out from Casablanca, Singin’ in the rain, The third man). And then about how good the silent and black and white films have been. And how the home-video robbed the theater-going culture from the public. And (in a bored tone) about the questions that the reviewers are always asked (few – How many films do you watch in a day? Do you really watch a movie before writing a review? How many times do you watch a film?). In a mocking tone, he reveals that people believe in whatever you reply as answer to these!
A memo to himself and certain other critics
He concludes his book with a key message in this last section. Amidst the flooding film releases and those that are already out there, it is the duty of a good reviewer to distinguish the good ones from bad and clearly articulate as to what one can expect in watching the film.
“Awake in the dark” is probably a metaphor to imply that unlike a casual film goer, a reviewer must remain “awake” with all his senses tuned after the lights go down in the theater.