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How Roger Ebert Showed Me the Light

Stateside screens Ebert darling 'Dark City' tonight and tomorrow

By Fernie Martinez, 12:05PM, Thu. Jul. 31

In the days before technology afforded us the luxury to shoot, edit, and distribute video from our pocket-sized iMachines, cutting a piece video together was limited to rigging up a couple of VCRs at home or gaining access to costly editing bays.


Dark City

Enter public-access television, where expensive production equipment was available free at charge to any community member wanting to try his hand at being the next Steven Spielberg or his non-union Mexican equivalent – the condition being that anything produced within the studio must be aired on the public-access cable channel.

It was on one of those channels, late one night, where I caught a fascinating piece of programming that would keep me up until dawn. The footage was of Roger Ebert at a podium leading a discussion on the then two-year-old Pulp Fiction. The lights would dim and the screen behind the late critic would play the iconic film. Moments later, the film would pause and Ebert would engage the audience in a discussion of nearly all of the two-dozen frames of each passing second. I tuned in early enough, just as Jules and Vince were approaching Brett’s apartment door discussing foot rubs and realizing it’s not quite time yet to “get into character.”

“Notice the camera placement,” Ebert urged his audience. “Up to this point the camera has been following the character’s movement. Now it remains stationary in front of the apartment door while the characters walk away from it. It sits there, almost impatiently, reminding us of the task at hand.”

Wow!

For a teenaged film geek, this late night cable presentation on film theory was better than snippets of unscrambled “Skinemax.”

I later found out that the footage was from Ebert’s Cinema Interruptus, a yearly symposium where the critic would choose a worthy film and provide a shot-by-shot breakdown and critique. At any moment, audience members were free to yell, “Stop!” The film would pause and any piece of plot, dialogue, lighting, costuming, or set design was game for discussion. One of the films that Ebert chose for Cinema Interruptus was 1998’s Dark City.

Dark City is an underrated gem of a film, masterfully blending science fiction and film noir. Taking inspirational cues from sci-fi classics Metropolis and Blade Runner, Dark City was Alex Proyas’ follow up to The Crow and the pinnacle of his filmmaking career. The film begins as a murder mystery, but as with any good film noir, there is always something deeper – in this case, quite literally – beneath the surface. The film follows amnesiac John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), who is the primary suspect in a string of murders. As he tries to discover his identity, he is pursued by a group of psychokinetic übermenchen known only as the Strangers.

Roger Ebert loved Dark City. It was his pick for “Best Film of 1998.” It was partially because of his enthusiasm that the box-office dud found a new status as a cult classic. Ebert championed great cinema and would do everything in his power to get underappreciated films noticed. In this particular case, Ebert provided a commentary track for the DVD release of Dark City. In doing so, he captured the highlights of the film’s Cinema Interruptus dissection, condensing the hours-long discussions into one of the finest commentary tracks ever to be recorded.

Tonight and tomorrow, the Paramount Summer Classic Film Series will screen Dark City under the banner, “Two Thumbs Up: Ebert’s Picks.” (The double bill includes the documentary Crumb.) This is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen. Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography, with its rich shadows and sharp colors, is captivating. And, although CGI has advanced exponentially since the film’s release, Dark City's extraordinary special effects never feel dated.

“The more closely you look at film, the more you can enjoy it,” Ebert knowledge-drops toward the end of the commentary track. “It’s like looking at sports or a chess game. If you don’t understand the rules it’s just pieces of wood or players in uniforms moving around on a field. And when you do understand the rules, that’s when strategy and purpose and poetry begin to emerge.”

So thank you, Alex Proyas. And you, Roger Ebert. Y tú, Señor Spielbergo, for understanding the rules.


Dark City screens at the Stateside at the Paramount today (7/31), 9:35pm, and tomorrow (8/1), 7:15pm.

The Dark City DVD with Roger Ebert’s commentary can probably be found in your nearest big-box retailer’s bargain bin.

Steve James' documentary portrait of Ebert, Life Itself, screens today (7/31) at 3:10pm at the Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline. It's also currently available on VOD.

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