awake in the dark-roger ebert

it’s rare that one gets to write a memoir of her/his life and a memoir of her/his work. roger ebert is one of those unicorns who can do this. i feel like this one is the bookend to life itself, and i’m great-full for all of his contributions to the bizness of commenting on cultural works.

“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 a 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.” (xiv, foreword, David Bordwell)

two thumbs way up.

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3 thoughts on “awake in the dark-roger ebert

  1. do the write thing:

    “A week or two before the world press premiere of his /Malcolm X/, Spike Lee said he would prefer to be interviewed by African American journalists, when possible. He never made a demand that only blacks talk to him, and he never said he wouldn’t talk to whites. But most news reports gave that impression, and at least one midwestern daily pulled its white movie writer off the assignment in a huff.
    Two things emerged during the press weekend itself: most of the press people who talked to Spike were indeed white, and many papers and TV stations didn’t have an African American they could send.
    Lee was making a point, something he does effectively. Blacks buy 25 percent of the movie tickets in America, but represent a nearly invisible minority in the entertainment press. If his request offended white editors, how do they deal with one of the sneakiest open secrets in movie journalism, the way big Hollywood stars and their publicists ask for-and get-upfront approval of writers?” (75)

    “/Mississippi Burning/ is the best American film of the 1988, and a likely candidate for the Academy Award as the year’s best picture. Apart from its pure entertainment value-this is the best American crime movie in years-it is an important statement about a time and a condition that should not be forgotten. The Academy loves to honor prestigious movies in which long-ago crimes are rectified in far-away places. Here is a nominee with the ink still wet on its pages.” (165)

  2. acting up:

    “Bresson’s most intriguing limitation is to forbid his actors to act. He was known to shoot the same shot ten, twenty, even fifty times, until all “acting” was drained from it, and the actors were simply performing the physical actions and speaking the words. There was no room in his cinema for De Niro or Penn. It might seem that the result would be a movie filled with zombies, but quite the contrary: by simplifying performance to the action and the word without permitting inflection or style, Bresson achieves a kind of purity that makes his movies remarkably emotional. The actors portray lives without informing us how to feel about them; forced to decide for ourselves how to feel, forced to empathize, we often have stronger feelings than if the actors were feeling them for us.” (231, Au Hasard Balthazar)

    “Observe the way Theron controls her eyes in the film; there is not a flicker of inattention, as she urgently communicates what she is feeling and thinking. There’s an uncanny sensation that Theron has forgotten the camera and the script and is directly channeling her ideas about Aileen Wuornos. She has made herself the instrument of this character.” (211-12, Monster)

    “Aileen’s body language is frightening and fascinating. She doesn’t know how to occupy her body. Watch Theron as she goes through a repertory of little arm straightenings and body adjustments and head tosses and hair touchings, as she nervously tries to shake out her nervousness and look at ease. Observe her smoking technique; she handles her cigarettes with the self-conscious bravado of a thirteen-year-old trying to impress a kid. And note that there is only one moment in the movie where she seems relaxed at peace with herself; you will know the scene, and it will explain itself. This is one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.” (213, Monster)

    “I was asked by /Playboy/ to do a profile about Tom Hanks, and wrote it without interviewing the actor. I had interviewed him before and would again; he is the most affable and decent of men, amused, civilized, funny, but for this piece I didn’t want to ask him questions. I just wanted to write about him.” (82)

    “The central triumph of Tom Hanks as a movie actor is that, most of the time, we believe he thinks a lot like us, and does more or less what we would do, but that he somehow does it on a larger or more ennobling scale. It is the James Stewart quality. But few actors can obtain it; with most, you see their egos peeking through, or you catch them trying too hard. The camera is a lie detector, and Hanks must be a fundamentally good person to play such roles-either that, or he is an even better actor than we think.
    I’ve met Hanks several times, in interview situations an on sets. I don’t have any idea what he’s really like. These are artificial situations, where he gets to choose how he presents himself, and what he chooses is to be very level-headed and smart, with a strong element of the wry. He’s much the same in one of his favorite extracurricular roles, as a talk-show guest. On Letterman and Leno, he’s very quick and articulate, a natural comedian, comfortable inside his body. He never seems to search for a word or strive for a laugh; in that he’s like Cary Grant. Letterman is the best bullshit detector among TV talk hosts, but Hanks,who as a big movie star should be a ripe target, finesses him with understatement, directness, and irony. It is all done so well that we realize only later we learned nothing at all about ‘Tom’.” (86-7)

  3. seen:

    “Movies are children with many parents. It is impossible to untangle the contributions of the collaborators on a film-also including the actors, cinematographer, editor, composer, set designer, and special-effects artists. It is obvious, I think, that Pulitzer judges should consider only the excellence of a film, and not get involved in sorting out its pedigree. The Pulitzer Prize for Film should be awarded to the film itself, period, end of discussion.” (369, A Pulitzer For The Movies)

    “Sometimes when you’ve read the novel, it gets in the way of the images on the screen. You keep remembering how you imagined things. That didn’t happen with me during /Sophie’s Choice/, because the movie is so perfectly cast and well-imagined that it just takes over and happens to you. It’s quite an experience.” (147)

    “Coppola also well knows (and demostrated in the /Godfather/ films) that movies aren’t especially good at dealing with abstract ideas-for those you’d be better off turning to the written word-but they are superb for presenting moods and feelings, the look of a battle, the expression on a face, the mood of a country. /Apocalypse Now/ achieves greatness not by analyzing our ‘experience in Vietnam,’ but by re-creating, in characters and images, something of that experience.” (139, Apocalypse Now)

    “And it is there, on the crux of that paradox, that the movie becomes Scorsese’s metaphor for so many modern lives. He doesn’t parallel the mob with corporations, or turn it into some kind of grotesque underworld version of yuppie culture. Nothing is that simple. He simply uses organized crime as an arena for a story about a man who likes material things so much that he sells his own soul to buy them-compromises his principles, betrays his friends, abandons his family, and finally even loses contact with himself. And the horror of the film is that, at the end, the man’s principal regret is that he doesn’t have any more soul to sell.” (172, GoodFellas)

    “There are few issues in the area of film preservation that arouse more anger than the issue of colorization. That is because it is an issue involving taste, and, to put it bluntly, anyone who can accept the idea of the colorization of back-and-white films has bad taste. The issue involved is so clear, and the artistic sin of colorization is so fundamentally wrong, that colorization provides a pass-fail examination. If you ‘like’ colorized movies, it is doubtful that you know why movies are made, or why you watch them.” (349, Why I Love Black and White)

    “It’s the story of a fifteen-year-old kid, smart and terrifyingly earnest, who through luck and pluck get assigned by /Rolling Stone/ magazine to do a profile of a rising rock band. The magazine has no idea he’s fifteen. Clutching his pencil and his notebook like talismans, phoning a veteran critic for advice, he plunges into the experience that will make and shape him. It’s as if Huckleberry Finn came back to life in the 1970s and instead of taking a raft down the Mississippi got on the bus with the band.” (202, Almost Famous)

    “At first, their sexual attraction for each other remains, even though they bitterly resent each other because of mutual hurts and recriminations. The frustrations they feel about themselves are taken out on each other. At one point, he beats her and weeps for himself, and we’ve never seen such despair on the screen. But the passage of time dulls the immediate hurt and the feeling of betrayal. And at last, they are able to meet as fond friends and even to make love, as if visiting an old home they’d once been cozy in.” (125, Scenes of a Marriage)

    “This is a film about America. It deals with our myths, our hungers, our ambitions, and our sense of self. It knows how we talk and how we behave, and it doesn’t flatter us but it does love us.” (130, 1975: Nashville)

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