Roger Ebert and “Democracy in the Dark”

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.


Roger Ebert: “a first-rate second-rate memoirist”

Maureen Dowd writes about Roger Ebert’s memoir, and about the disfiguring surgical failures that have rendered him unable to speak, eat, or drink – the lower half of his face is pretty much gone. Despite this, Ebert is “effervescent” but overly detailed in accounts of his early life. However he has great stories to tell, and he nails the movie industry:

“Hollywood dialogue was once witty, intelligent, ironic, poetic, musical,” he says. “Today it is flat.” He mourns that “it sometimes seems as if the movies are more mediocre than ever, more craven and cowardly, more skillfully manufactured to pander to the lowest tastes instead of educating them.”