This is the first part of a two-part interview with Roger Ebert
As far as I am concerned, Roger Ebert is a national treasure. He writes film reviews and criticism but in everyman's language. Getting the chance to interview him made my summer.
However, I did not immediately come over to the pro-Roger camp. In fact… oh, God, shall I confess? Okay, I shall.
During high school and part of college I went through a stage (typical, I think, at that age) where I decided that anything that was popular could not, in fact, be cool. This is also the stage where anyone who makes money is considered a sell-out. Ah, idealistic youth!
For that reason I was suspicious of popular icons, which meant I had an immediate distrust of certain public figures, including, and here are two names you don't often hear in the same sentence: Roger Ebert and Bruce Springsteen.
At first glance they have nothing in common beyond the fact that they were both popular (this was the Born in the USA era) white males. But now that I think about it, there is more to it than that: Neither of them uses fancy language or puts on airs – they just continually crank out quality products, evolving their craft over time without becoming redundant or predictable. As opposed to, say, Paul McCartney who was born the same day and year as Ebert.
I was, and to some extent - still am, a film snob; I'd rather see an obscure classic than the latest box office smash starring some flavor-of-the-month actor. When I would read reviews of a classic I would find that it was invariably praised by Ebert while the remake, also reviewed by him, (is there nothing he hasn't reviewed?) would get the trashing it usually deserved.
While I have always been a movie buff, in recent years I have become more of a student of film. A few summers ago I decided to educate myself about film so I bought this book called The A List: 100 Essential Films and vowed to rent each movie, read the accompanying essay, and decide whether I agreed with it or not. In other words, I wanted not just to watch movies but also to really think about them.
Over time, I found myself reading not just the essay for each movie but also going to bookstores or looking online at Ebert's Web Site to see what he thought. More often than not, he would note something I had missed or state something more eloquently than I could have. Gradually, I decided that either I was clueless, he was more knowledgeable or, most likely, both.
At first, I would read other critics' work as well but eventually came to the conclusion that Ebert was the one with the most thorough and insightful remarks. When he put out his Great Movies books, in which he gives a more in-depth analysis than a normal review allows, I picked them up with glee. You should too.
Ebert has become a part of my life, like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and sometimes, as amusing as either one. More on that note in the second half of this interview where I'll list some of my favorite comments from his movie reviews.
In the past few days I think I've checked Ebert's Web site more often than I've used Google. In preparation for leading a discussion of the Jonestown documentary, I checked to see what Ebert had to say. When I decided to watch all of the Harry Potter movies before reading the last Potter book, I bookmarked every one of Ebert's reviews on them.
Put frankly, I'm an Ebert convert and a big fan. And I'm not alone. When he was recovering from an ordeal with cancer, a topic on Newsvine about his recovery received lots of comments from other avid Ebert fans.
When I got the good news that Ebert agreed to be interviewed, I asked friends and colleagues (from my prior profession of journalism) as well as other Newsviners to suggest questions they would like asked of him.From a submission pile of about 50 good questions, me and my writer friend Ana Moreno Amon narrowed that list down to 14 questions for the first part of this interview. I mention this not to brag or whine but to show how much interest there is in Ebert as a writer, critic and thinker.
I kept the biographical details about Ebert brief because you can read those elsewhere. In 1975, Roger Joseph Ebert was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. They don't pass those out to just anyone you know.
He became one of the most well-known movie critics because of his weekly television show with his longstanding work partner, Gene Siskel. They did the show together for 23 years, ending abruptly when Siskel passed away in 1999.
After trying out a few replacements, he chose Richard Roeper and their show has been airing since 2000. However, in recent months Ebert has been absent from his program due to health problems.
According to Wikipedia, Ebert was diagnosed in early 2002 with papillary thyroid cancer. While being treated for it in 2006, he did not miss a single movie opening. In June 2006, though, he underwent surgery to remove a malignancy near his right jaw.He was hospitalized, in serious condition, on July 1 after an artery burst near the location of the surgery. He had a tracheostomy at one point.
He has been recovering ever since, and although he hasn't returned the airwaves yet on a regular basis, he is at least well enough to respond to me via email.
When he appeared at his film festival, Eberfest, in April 2007 he "spoke" by having his wife read his notes aloud. His first words were from the parody he wrote, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls: "It's my happening and it freaks me out." I'm asking him to elaborate on those comments for part two of this interview.
Ebert has used his popularity and influence for good (not evil), speaking out against the seriously screwed-up rating system of the Motion Picture Association of America, fighting email spam and championing relatively unknown movie directors. He was also somewhat responsible for encouraging Oprah Winfrey to get her program syndicated (and the rest is history).The second part of this interview will focus on some of Ebert's negative movie reviews and his latest book, Your Movie Sucks.
Here is the first part of the interview:
Scott: How did you go from writing science fiction and poetry to writing the infamous Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to reviewing films?
Roger: In 1966 I was a PHD candidate in English at the University of Chicago, working part-time at the Sun-Times, and when the movie critic retired, they offered me the job. I only wrote two sf short stories, one sold to Amazing, the other to Fantastic, after I was already a film critic. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was also written after I became a critic, so it all began from there.
Scott: How do you decide what to review? Or, put another way, how do you choose what NOT to review. As you've noted, you may not be the person to review, for example, a story aimed at girls
Roger: Before my illness I reviewed more or less as many films as I could, period. There is really no such thing as the "right person," since everybody is the right person to write his or her review.
Scott: Do you feel any responsibility to be impartial in your reviews? Is objectivity possible or even desirable?
Roger: I am always subjective. Objectivity has nothing to do with critical opinion. Critics are paid to be subjective.
Scott: Do moviemakers have a moral obligation or should entertainment be their only concern?
Roger: Any obligation is to themselves. Would they rather participate in growing more or less complex?
Scott: When a book is adapted for the screen do you try to read the book prior to seeing the movie? What about reading screenplays?For example, I recently seeded at Newsvine your review of the latest Harry Potter movie and you made a comment that some readers at the site thought odd – you made a comment about whether future movies would be able to still be PG-13 and some wondered if that was because you have not read the Harry Potter books (have you?) or if it was a statement of yours on the rating system.
Roger: I only read the first book. Quite enjoyed it. I don't make a point of reading books before their movies, however, because my question should be, how good a movie is it, not how good an adaptation? If I have read the book, that inevitably enters somewhere into the review.
Scott: What is your actual reviewing process like? How many times do you watch a movie before writing your first published review of the movie? What is the most number of times and which movie gets that honor? (How do you write notes in a dark theater? Every time I try that I can't read my own handwriting.)
Roger: Usually I only have the opportunity to see a movie once. If I saw it at a festival some time ago, I'll see it again. I take notes, and can sometimes read my handwriting.
Scott: Is it okay for a reviewer to get into what should have been done rather than just sticking with what was done? When is it ok to do that?
Roger: It's okay for a reviewer to get into anything.
Scott: Who are some of your favorite critics and why? And how do you feel about the fact that anyone can write and publish their own reviews on the web these days? Do you view that as a positive trend?
Roger: Pauline Kael, David Bordwell, Stanley Kauffmann, Dwight Macdonald, Manny Farber. I think the web is a great place for film criticism. Writing your own reviews is a good way to deepen your knowledge of the movies.
Scott: What are the funniest, most glaring continuity lapses you can recall?
Roger: In Jaws III (or IV?), Michael Caine swam to a yacht and climbed on board completely dry.
Scott: What about the movie industry do you think lowers the bar? What trend do you find encouraging?
Roger: Mass openings and short runs, to try to use advertising to blunt word- of-mouth. Encouraging? It costs less to make a movie, and indie films are thriving.
Thanks to Roger for the interview and thanks to Chris Copley, Pamela Drew and others for helping come up with solid questions to ask Roger and thanks to Ana for helping me with this whole project. Stay tuned for part 2 later in the week