Saturday, April 30, 2011

(Mostly) All The Notes On The Greats Of Cinema: Roger Ebert's Book Of Film.

The Good: Well-written, Well-researched
The Bad: Misleading title, Neglects some important cinematic moments
The Basics: A wide-ranging collections of essays, interviews and commentaries on cinema and Hollywood, Roger Ebert's Book Of Film is a decent read for cinephiles.

There is some irony, I feel, to my comments in the opening to my review of the film Dark City (available here!) where I comment on how Roger Ebert and I seldom see eye to eye. Since I originally wrote that review back in 2001, I have come to appreciate Roger Ebert's commentaries and while he and I don't always see eye to eye on film reviews, he has easily become the film reviewer I respect most (outside myself, of course). No matter how he evaluates a movie, he tends to come to a film from a educated point of view with an objective standard that appeals to my sensibilities as a reviewer. Often, he is less harsh on movies than I am, but lately I have found myself wondering what his DVD collection looks like. After all, once you become a reviewer of films, there are only so many movies you'd want to see over and over and over again and make part of a permanent collection. Yeah, I'd love to see Roger Ebert's library and DVD collection (strangely, I cannot think of an equivalent music reviewer I would be so entranced by the collection of).

Perhaps that feeling is currently redoubled because I have just completed reading Roger Ebert's Book Of Film, a 793 page collection of essays, excerpts and interviews about movies and Hollywood culture. Unlike what the title suggests, Roger Ebert's Book Of Film is not a vast collection of Roger Ebert's thoughts on movies (I'm still a little sore about that). Instead, this is one hundred fourteen essays, diary notes from directors and producers, short stories and interviews from, by and of some of the great minds of American Cinema.

Unfortunately, as a fan of Roger Ebert's reviews and insights, I had been hoping for more Ebert, less variables. Instead, this anthology - edited by Roger Ebert - includes introductions to each article and a lone "interview" with Lee Marvin by Ebert. I put interview in quotes because while Roger Ebert presents an intriguing expose on the private, candid life of Lee Marvin (it's probably great, if I cared at all about Lee Marvin), but there's no evidence that Roger Ebert actually asked Marvin any questions or interacted with him. That's fine, but it's not much of an interview when you just let your subject spout off whatever he or she wants without actually trying to glean some information out of him. That article is otherwise fine, but it does lead the reader to the point of the vast disparities throughout Roger Ebert's Book Of Film; Ebert edits and presents works by vastly different styles and qualities of writers. As a result, the book oscillates between the fascinating and the fictional, the brilliant and the boring.

Divided out into topical sections, Roger Ebert's Book Of Film explores pretty much every aspect of making movies, at least up until 1997, which is a pretty sizable chunk of time. Sections include: "Going to the movies" (thoughts on the cultural institution of attending screenings), "Movie stars," "The Business" (aspects of how Hollywood creates movies from a business perspective), "Sex and scandal" (yes, it's sex in the movies and this includes one of the best essays in the book!), "Early Days" (the establishment of cinema and movies as a cultural institution), "Genres," "Directors," "Writers," "Critics" (notably absent anything by Roger Ebert other than the standard introductions to others' essays), "Technique" (essentially directing school for those who want to learn from Kurosawa and others), "Hollywood" (fiction about Hollywood culture) and "The Greatest Films Of All Time" (with which I strenuously disagree). This is a fairly powerful collection of essays and thoughts on the culture of movies, written by the likes of Terry McMillan, Lauren Bacall, Elmore Leonard, Norman Mailer, Leo Tolstoy, E.M. Forster, Akira Kurosawa, Gore Vidal, Quentin Crisp, David Mamet, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the editors of "Sight And Sound" magazine. Vidal might be the only one to have more than one article in the book.

The essays range in quality dramatically and some of my favorites happen to be the least scholarly. So, for example, John Waters (essentially) closes the book with his "Tour Of L.A." as the title suggests, this is Waters' walk through of Los Angeles and it includes such helpful ideas as, "Once you've checked into Skyways, change into something a little flashier than usual, then step outside your room and glance up at a plane that looks like it could decapitate you. If you're like me and think airplanes are sexy, you might want to plan a romantic picnic on nearby Pershing Drive . . . the closest you can humanly get to the end of the runway . . ." (771). Rich with Waters' voice and sense of irony, the essay closes out well the fiction section of Roger Ebert's Book Of Film and makes for a nice closing after all of the scholarly stuff.

But, again, part of the problem with Roger Ebert's Book Of Film is that not all of the scholarly sections are scholarly. For sure, there is much to be learned in this book and it is truly an incredible resource for researchers on any number of subjects related to cinema. So, for example, I was impressed that Ebert included essays that total over sixty pages on sex in film. In that section, of particular enlightenment is Brendan Gill's essay "Blue Notes."

"Blue Notes," as the title suggests, is an series of commentaries on the culture that sprung up in the early 1970s surrounding porn flicks. Explored in movies in such films as Boogie Nights, there was a time when porn actually crossed ridiculously close into mainstream and as a result, film critics like Brendan Gill wrote about them. For those of us who did not live through this sexually and artistically liberated time, we are left with Gill's observations, like, "The President's Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, appointed by Johnson, submitted a report to Nixon so little disapproving of pornography and therefore so little to his liking that Nixon immediately rejected it. . . A permissive society makes people like Nixon nervous, because they feel sure of themselves only under conditions of repression" (298-9). Gill evaluates the mainstream culture that refuses to go see blue movies, the difference in audience climates in heterosexual vs. homosexual blue movie houses and even the difference between mainstream lack of acceptance for sex versus its embrace of violence in cinema. His essay is one of the most interesting and insightful for the subject matter in the book.

Sadly, though, this is not consistent throughout the entire book. Honestly, when I first picked up this book, I skipped to some of the essays I thought would interest me more than some of the others. As a result, one of the first I went to was a Truman Capote interview with Marilyn Monroe. As Ebert notes in his introduction to "A Beautiful Child," "Capote's perfect little piece records not only Monroe's personality but also, with a certain objectivity, his own lifetime role of confidant and confessor to beautiful, insecure women" (161). What follows is a meeting at a funeral where Capote and Monroe hang out and he exposes her as anything but a beautiful woman. Monroe's dialogue is peppered with insecurity over the paparazzi, diction that is particularly atrocious (referring to the Queen of England with the infamous "c" word on page 165 is especially eye opening), and the various affairs Monroe was having. It does capture Capote and Monroe's natures, but it's not at all a contribution to any great discussion on cinema or even Hollywood culture.

For that, I found myself strangely disappointed by Roger Ebert's Book Of Film. This is an adequate exploration of many aspects of the industry and the culture, but it does not utilize the time or space to explore some of the greatest moments. There is not even a reference to Terry Gilliam and his battle to get Brazil (reviewed here!) made against the wishes of the studio. This was a public battle that might well be the most telling and open conflict in the war between art and commerce and it is not even a footnote in this collection. Moreover, there is very little on current cinematic endeavors in the smaller cinema. I loved Sam Arkoff's exploration of making camp films in the excerpts from "Flying through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants" (pages 232 - 236), but for a book published in 1997, it is almost unforgivable that there is not even a line about the contributions of people like Kevin Smith to modern independent cinema with his works like Clerks.

That said, there is enough here to keep most cinephiles happy and reading for days. Probably more useful to researchers looking up specific issues or ideas, Roger Ebert's Book Of Film is worth the read, just not quite what one might expect from the title.

For other books of essays I have reviewed, please check out:
Andrei Codrescu - The Muse Is Always Half-Dressed In New Orleans
Ann Coulter - Godless: The Church Of Liberalism
W.E.B. DuBois - The Souls Of Black Folk


For other book reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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