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Writing in the dark: Reflections on the literary art of Roger Ebert

By Julia Keller

10:00 AM EDT, April 14, 2013

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Film critics are to filmmakers what Chicago is to New York: a little envious, a lot insecure, secretly fearful of second-class status. Hypersensitive to slights, real or imagined. Important — but not essential. The world would perish without movies; it would, however, manage to rattle along just fine without the people who write about movies. Right?Roger Ebert changed the answer to that question forever. The world's most famous film critic, whose recent death triggered a torrent of sorrow and celebration — sorrow for what we've lost, celebration of what he accomplished — demonstrated the real meaning of the word "critic": It's not just a person who experiences something and then decides, after a period of supercilious chin-stroking, if a movie (or book or TV show or sculpture or concert) warrants the tilting of a thumb up or down, like an emperor whimsically signaling life or death for some luckless supplicant down yonder in the Coliseum.


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No. Critics — critics who do the job the way Ebert did — plunge. They dive headlong, immersing themselves in the euphoria of the fall and in the exhilaration of breaking the surface of something new. They risk sounding foolish when they write about what they love. They dare sounding cruel when they write about what they decry. Most important, though, they engage: They put themselves on the line with every line they write.

A lot of people in Chicago knew Ebert well, and many of them contributed beautiful portraits of the man in the wake of death. I didn't know him — not personally, that is. And so my purpose here is different. I want to talk about his writing. About how he went to the movies and then matched up what he saw with his own imagination, and with the imaginations of a great many other people, too. "Movies are hardly ever about what they seem to be about," he wrote in "Life Itself," his 2011 memoir. "Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may seem."

Critics have a choice. They can be clever and condescending, using their work as a means of showing the world how smart and sensitive they are, how superior to the medium they cover and to their readers as well. Or they can be honest, forthright, unadorned: Here's what I like, here's what I don't like, and here's why. Ebert most assuredly was in the latter camp. I loved reading his reviews not because I always agreed with his assessments, but because he didn't write to impress or to belittle. He wrote to tell you about his reaction to what he'd seen. "I am beneath everything else a fan," he confessed in "Life Itself." That's an astonishing admission for a contemporary critic in this age of runaway sarcasm, an age in which the low persistent hum of irony nearly drowns out all the dialogue. "I was fixed in this mode as a young boy," he added, "and am awed by people who take the risks of performance."

I didn't know, until I read "Life Itself," that Ebert came to Chicago as a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of Chicago. I didn't know that his original goal was to be a novelist, an aspiration that included "a deep old wingback chair pulled up close to the fire in a cottage deep in the woods," as he recalled in his memoir, "where a big dog snored while I sank into a volume of Dickens." The cottage and the dog may never have materialized, but Ebert's literary achievement definitely had a Dickensian element in terms of both quantity and quality, and in terms of how beloved he was to his readers, how indispensable. Among his 17 published books was the 1993 novel "Behind the Phantom's Mask"; along with collections of film reviews, he turned out travel books and a cookbook. Ebert was as eclectic as he was prolific.

He won a Pulitzer Prize, of course, and he won it for film criticism, which helped to distinguish the genre. But for anybody who loves vivid writing, the "p" word that matters here is not "Pulitzer" but "pickles" — as in the ones that garnish a hamburger served at Steak 'n Shake, a place he described rhapsodically: "If you order onion, it will be a perfect slice of sweet Bermuda. If you order pickles, you will get two thin slices, side by side ... toasted bun, crisp patty, onion, pickle, crunch, crunch, crunch." He wrote with equal passion and exactitude about great filmic art — and a simple, succulent hamburger.

Everything that mattered about Roger Ebert happened in the dark. That's not a dirty joke — it's the simple truth. And it has nothing to do with the fact that he spent the majority of his too-few years sitting in movie theaters. The dark I mean is the dark of the imagination, the place where the memories live and the ideas bloom and the sentences are born.

"Sometimes," Ebert wrote about his childhood in his autobiography, "a central Illinois thunderstorm would come ripping out of the sky, loud and violent. All hell broke loose. Afterward the rainwater would be backed up at the corner drains, and we would ride our bikes through it, holding our Keds high to keep them dry." That's the kind of dark I mean: the dark of a sky during a thunderstorm. Then the sky clears and here comes a kid on a bike, pedaling furiously, bound for the most ginormous puddle he can find, determined to make a big splash.

He made a big splash, all right. He made one that faraway day in Urbana and he made one many years later in Chicago, too, when he became the city's most acclaimed critic and one of its best and most famous writers, period. Think of it this way: In a sense, he never stopped pedaling.

Julia Keller was the Tribune's cultural critic from 2000 to 2012. The paperback edition of her novel "A Killing in the Hills" will be published June 11.

Selected works by Roger Ebert

On film:

→"Life Itself: A Memoir" (2011)

→"Scorsese by Ebert" (2008)

→"Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert" (2006)

"The Great Movies" (2002): the first of three volumes

→"I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie" (2000): the first of three collections of negative reviews

→"Questions for the Movie Answer Man" (1997)

→"Two Weeks in the Midday Sun: A Cannes Notebook" (1987)

A novel:

"Behind the Phantom's Mask" (1993)

A cookbook:

→"The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker" (2010)