I'm happy to hear Roger Ebert is on the mend. I've been perusing Awake In The Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert and wondering if this was to be his last will and testament, critically speaking. It's an entertaining collection of pieces worth the price of admission. But it does as much to highlight the inadequacies of film criticism under a newspaper deadline as it does Ebert's method of fusing a beer-drinker's sense of mischief with a particular aesthetic insight.
Consider The Best -- a section in the book devoted to that annual moment when his editors insist he name The Best Film Of The Year. Right at the outset Ebert acknowledges that this sort of all-or-nothing deadline has the effect of nudging him to put his critical weight behind a perceived underdog. One such "Year Of The Underdog" was 1980, when Ebert allocated Raging Bull to status of second banana. Ebert's "best" film of that year? The Black Stallion -- and we duly get the full review.
So, no, this does not quite qualify as "The Best of Roger Ebert" (it could qualify, though, as Roger Ebert's "best of"). Readers on the hunt of such are better off dipping into The Great Movies and The Great Movies II, and seeking used copies of A Kiss Is Still A Kiss. Or, better yet (because Ebert is an unfailingly generous interlocutor with others in his trade), throw a few bucks down for Roger Ebert's Book of Film -- essentially The Norton Anthology of Film Writing.
Ebert is also, of course, a public personality. We've seen him in tightly formatted exchanges with the late Gene Siskel or the recent Richard Roeper. The formula has been reduced to fast-food basics, so we don't catch too many glimpses behind the curtain anymore. But I do recall the show when Ebert reversed his thumb, admitting his originally dismissive review of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven was the result of too many extraneous pressures being brought to bear (getting married the day of his viewing and review submission figured prominently as one such pressure).
Now, I happen to think Eastwood's Unforgiven is slightly-better-than-mediocre (as are most of Eastwood's films). But viewing and reviewing a film the day you're getting married?! How charming is that? Any film that gets a thumbs-up on the day of your wedding is going to be one hell of a film -- and let's face facts: this oater simply did not qualify!
I would like to see a lot more of that. I don't want film reviews to turn into, well, blogs exactly. But some injection of the personal -- as opposed to this superior "objective" or "scholarly" tone we're accustomed to -- would, I think, go a long way to reviving film criticism as something the reading public actually cares about.
On that note, my all-time favourite piece by Roger Ebert is noticeably absent from this book. Nor can I find it on his website. But some years back (early summer '01?) he attended the New Delhi Film Festival for the first time. He saw, first hand, droves of India's "untouchables". He experienced that continent's frightening and hilarious road etiquette. He commented with conviction on the fragility of human happiness. And he spoke of the ineffable deliciousness of a slice of pizza he'd been given in a New Delhi Dream Palace.
That is the best of Roger Ebert, and I truly hope to someday see it preserved between hardcovers.