Roger Ebert and “Democracy in the Dark”

by Jon Lebkowsky

My first impression of Roger Ebert, many years ago when he was doing the Siskel/Ebert weekly dustup, was that he was a smart guy whose intelligence was undermined by platform – the half hour run-through of the week’s films was always rushed, his written work was better. Little did I know how amazing and strong he would prove to be as an e-patient, after losing his mouth, jaw, and ability to speak and eat to surgical complications connected with thyroid cancer. You have to respect a guy who’ll keep trucking after that kind of trauma, and with those constraints. He didn’t surrender, and continued to be one of the most knowledgeable and forceful film critics.

For some years Ebert was part of the University of Colorado’s Conference on World Affairs in Boulder. I saw him do his Cinema Interruptus thing there in 2001, when he made an in depth review of “Fight Club.” It blew me away, seeing how much I’d missed about that film, and how deep he’d gone into it, finding quirky subliminal cues planted by Fincher.

Cinema Interruptus involved going through a film one shot at a time, described by Ebert in this blog entry:

This all began for me in about 1969, when I started teaching a film class in the University of Chicago’s Fine Arts program. I knew a Chicago film critic, teacher and booker named John West, who lived in a wondrous apartment filled with film prints, projectors, books, posters and stills. “You know how football coaches use a stop-action 16mm projector to study game films?” he asked me. “You can use that approach to study films. Just pause the film and think about what you see. You ought to try it with your film class.”
I did. The results were beyond my imagination. I wasn’t the teacher and my students weren’t the audience, we were all in this together. The ground rules: Anybody could call out “stop!” and discuss what we were looking at, or whatever had just occurred to them. A couple of years later, when I started doing shot-by-shots at the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the conference founder, Howard Higman, described this process as “democracy in the dark.” Later he gave it a name: Cinema Interruptus. Perhaps it sounds grueling, but in fact it can be exciting and almost hypnotic. At Boulder for more than 30 years, I made my way through a film for two hours every afternoon for a week, and the sessions had to be moved to an auditorium to accommodate attendance that approached a thousand.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

gmoke April 7, 2013 at 5:00 pm

I was invited by David Quaide, a cinematographer who trained people like Gordon Willis, to sit in on one of his lectures. He advised film students to watch their favorite films with the sound off so that they could concentrate on the visuals. It’s a great technique.

Another technique is to count the cuts. I did that once with one of the first hi-def video productions Richard Leacock did as he showed it to a group of video groupies in Cambridge, MA.

Another film class I took went over and over the cornfield sequence in “North by Northwest.” Really learned a lot about how the suspense was created.

Now when I watch a DVD, there are often times when I stop and rewind to make sure I saw what I think I saw or heard what I thought I heard. The tools we have available if we want to learn!

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jonl April 18, 2013 at 8:08 am

That’s fascinating – I’d like to be more disciplined as a viewer.

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