Tuesday, May 5, 2020

An Interview With Film Critic Roger Ebert, Author of Your Movie Sucks

originally published in 2007

his is the first part of a two-part interview with film critic and author Roger Ebert.
As far as I am concerned, Roger Ebert is a national treasure. The long-time syndicated critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of several books writes film reviews and criticism, but in layman’s language. His work has earned him a Pulitzer Prize. Getting the chance to interview him made my summer. 
I could go on and on about what he means to me, but maybe I'll save those thoughts for a later piece. For now let's just say that I'm a huge fan and this is a great thrill.
Ebert has been recovering from cancer, and while he hasn’t returned to the airwaves yet on a regular basis, he is once again writing reviews and agreed to answer some questions via email.
Ebert has used his popularity and influence for good causes, 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.  

How did you go from writing science fiction and poetry to writing the infamous Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to reviewing films? 

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.   

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.  

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.  

Do you feel any responsibility to be impartial in your reviews?  Is objectivity possible or even desirable?  

I am always subjective. Objectivity has nothing to do with critical opinion. Critics are paid to be subjective.  

Do moviemakers have a moral obligation or should entertainment be their only concern?  

Any obligation is to themselves. Would they rather participate in growing more or less complex?  

When a book is adapted for the screen do you try to read the book prior to seeing the movie? What about reading screenplays? 

I don’t make a point of reading books before their movies 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.  

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.)

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.  

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 okay to do that?

It’s okay for a reviewer to get into anything.  

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?  

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.  

What are the funniest, most glaring continuity lapses you can recall?  

In Jaws III (or IV?), Michael Caine swam to a yacht and climbed on board completely dry.  

What about the movie industry do you think lowers the bar?  What trend do you find encouraging?  
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. 

Part two
This is the second part of a two-part interview with Roger Ebert, one of my heroes.
The first part of this interview includes a small tribute that I wrote to Mr. Ebert. Here you'll find another tribute, this one written by Mr. Ebert himself, to the late great Studs Terkel, plus a piece Ebert wrote during his health recovery about Rob Schneider – of all people – acting like a gentleman.
As part of an effort to make this project an example of citizen journalism I solicited questions and received several that asked him to rank movies or list his favorites. I subsequently read, in the introduction to one of his excellent Great Movies books, this comment:
I do not believe in rankings and lists and refuse all invitations to reveal my ‘ten all-time favorite musicals,’ etc., on the grounds that such lists are meaningless and might well change between Tuesday and Thursday. I make only two exceptions to this policy: I compile an annual list of the year’s best films, because it is written in stone that movie critics must do so, and I participate every ten years in the Sight & Sound poll of the world’s directors and critics.
With that in mind, I cut all questions asking him to list or rank anything. Instead, since this interview is ostensibly to promote his latest book, This Movie Sucks, I decided to list my favorite comments from this book. The only movies I thought he was a little too hard on were Team America and Serendipity.
I completely agreed with his criticisms of The Village, which I also trashed.
In no particular order, my favorite passages from Your Movie Sucks:
On The Village: The Village is a colossal miscalculation, a movie based on a premise that cannot support it, a premise so transparent it would be laughable were the movie not so deadly solemn. It's a flimsy excuse for a plot, with characters who move below the one-dimensional and enter Flatland. M. Night Shyamalan, the writer-director, has been successful in evoking horror from minimalist stories, as in Signs, which if you think about it rationally is absurd — but you get too involved to think rationally. He is a director of considerable skill who evokes stories out of moods, but this time, alas, he took the day off…
Critics were enjoined after the screening to avoid revealing the plot secrets. That is not because we would spoil the movie for you. It's because if you knew them, you wouldn't want to go.
Eventually the secret of Those, etc., is revealed. To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes. It's a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream. It's so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don't know the secret anymore.
On Pearl Harbor: … a two-hour movie squeezed into three hours, about how on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on an American love triangle. Its centerpiece is 40 minutes of redundant special effects, surrounded by a love story of stunning banality. The film has been directed without grace, vision, or originality, and although you may walk out quoting lines of dialog, it will not be because you admire them.
On Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic: a movie that filled me with an urgent desire to see Sarah Silverman in a different movie. I liked everything about it except the writing, the direction, the editing and the lack of a parent or adult guardian. There should have been somebody to stand up sadly after the first screening and say, "Sarah, honey, this isn't the movie you want people to see. Your material needs a lot of work, the musical scenes are deadly, except for the first one. And it looks like it was edited by someone fooling around with iMovie on a borrowed Macintosh.
On Jason X: "This sucks on so many levels” – dialogue from Jason X.
Rare for a movie to so frankly describe itself. Jason X sucks on the levels of storytelling, character development, suspense, special effects, originality, punctuation, neatness, and aptness of thought. Only its title works.
On John Q: Anne Heche is deep-sixed by her role, which makes her a penny-pinching shrew and then gives her a cigarette to smoke just in case we missed that she’s the villain. The Grim Reaper would flee from this woman.
On Undead: Undead is the kind of movie that would be so bad it’s good, except it’s not bad enough to be good enough.

On Freddie Got Fingered: This movie doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.
On Charlie's Angels: … eye candy for the blind. It’s a movie without a brain in its three pretty little heads, which belong to Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu. The movie is a dead zone in their lives, and mine. What is it? A satire? Of what? Of satires, I guess. It makes fun of movies that want to make fun of movies like this. It’s an all-girls series of mindless action scenes.
In the months to come there will be several movies based on popular video games, including one about Tomb Raiders and its digital babe, Lara Croft. Charlie’s Angels is like a trailer for a video game movie, lacking only the video game and the movie.
One last quote before I share the second half of this interview:
I have cited before the British critic Derek Malcolm’s definition of a great movie: any movie he could not bear the thought of never seeing again. During the course of a year I review about 250 films and see perhaps 200 more and could very easily bear the thought of not seeing many of them again, or even for the first time.
Thanks again to Mr. Ebert for doing this interview. Also, thanks to Ana Moreno Amon for editing and writing contributions. Finally, I would like to thank those who suggested questions for this interview.

Did your first collection of negative reviews, I Hated, Hated, Hated this Movie, sell well? Is that one reason why you decided to put out a second collection or were there other factors? Do you think readers take pleasure in reading a blistering yet spot-on negative movie review?

It did sell well, but frankly I thought I had enough good negative reviews that it was time for another book. Because too many people reduce me to a thumb in their minds, I am happy that my written work is available in book and on the web. I especially enjoy writing the negative reviews; my muse is the British satirical columnist Auberon Waugh, whose work for Private Eye and The Daily Telegraph was sublime.

Your book documents instances where two people – one involved with The Brown Bunny and the other with Chaos – publicly criticized your reviews. How often do you get a reaction from someone involved with a movie you have reviewed? Does it tend to happen more when you‘ve written something negative?

Very, very rarely. I was also called a racist after the Diary of a Mad Housewife, but that was a different kind of complaint.

I am intrigued by your variations in form. What made you decide, for example, to write your review of The Cinderella Story as a letter and Wet Hot American Summer as a variation on Allen Sherman’s classic song “Hello Muddah! Hello Fadduh!?

I take dictation from that place inside my mind that tells me what to write. Conscious thought is not helpful in the creative process. The Muse visits during the work, not before. Allen Sherman also worked on The Daily Illini, many years before I did; I heard him perform “Hello Muddah” and I guess the summer camp movie brought it out.

How is your health? When do you expect to return to your television show on a regular basis?
My health is good, considering that I had to go through rehab twice after two surgeries to learn to walk again, after months in bed weakened my muscles. But I still face more surgery, which will hopefully restore my ability to speak. No timeline. I’m happy to be writing again.

Can you explain how your film festival got started and what impact it has had?
The U. of Illinois asked me to do a festival, and the “overlooked” idea came up because I wanted to avoid conflicts of interest on new films. The impact has been considerable in the area, and has resulted in some films being picked up, or reborn. Tron, for example, attracted new interest.

I read your profile on Wikipedia and wondered if you would be kind enough to settle a slight disagreement: which interpretation is correct regarding your “opening words,” read by your wife, Chaz, at Ebertfest 2007, from the film you co-wrote with Russ Meyer, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls: "It's my happening and it freaks me out." Most people thought you were talking about the dramatic rise in popularity of Ebertfest over the past few years. Others thought you were referring to how you had actually become the protagonist, and pass it off as a sardonic remark typical of your writing style and spoken commentary.
That year, we closed with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and I was simply making a joke. That phrase seems to have entered the language.

Do you still argue with Siskel? By this I mean is there a voice in your head that belongs to Siskel and does it ever influence what you write?
Not so much about the movies, but more about life itself. He was a philosophy major at Yale, and at times we had long, deep conversations that stimulated me very much.

What is the biggest misconception about you?
In a superficial way, that I am still fat. In a critical way, that I am all t

I know several people who detest trailers because they give so much away. How do you feel about them?
I try to watch them as little as possible. They never show them before the Chicago advance screenings.

What, if anything, could the Academy Awards do to better include comedies in the award system?
Have a category for the year’s best comedy?

How has acting and directing changed during the years you have been writing reviews?
Improved in general, with many exceptions both then and now.

What was the most revolutionary movie you’ve reviewed, by which I mean a movie that had the biggest influence on the industry and craft?
Star Wars.
Any thoughts on the distribution of film and the way people choose to watch movies? With home delivery by Netflix and Blockbuster, for example, and other modern options, is the movie theater dying out? Are we losing something important by not going to the movies together anymore?
Yes, we are. The movies live in theaters. Their ghosts live on DVD.

Is the non-linear storytelling trend being overdone or do you like it as a creative device? What film pulled it off well and which film blew it?
It’s an old tradition. I think Altman brought it back. Interesting, how it didn’t work in the original cut of Donnie Darko and did work in the director’s cut.

I've noticed you sometimes inject yourself into your reviews, which I find refreshing. Would you care to elaborate on your decision to break this longstanding rule by including your own opinions, politics and educational perspective. As an example, I’ll cite the second half of your review of The Boys of Baraka, which begins: "If I were in charge of everything, and I certainly should be, I would divert billions of dollars into an emergency fund for our schools. I would reduce classroom size to 15 or 20. I would double teachers' salaries…"
All reviews are written in the first person, whether the author realizes it or not. I sometimes consider a review like a conversation with the reader. There can be the sense of intimacy

Do you ever second-guess your earlier reviews in light of the weight of popular or critical opinion? Who came up with the whole thumbs-up/thumbs down thing? In hindsight, would you reverse any?
I second-guess myself in my own lights. Other opinion doesn’t enter into it. I am no longer quite certain I should have given Thoroughly Modern Millie four stars, or said the Simon and Garfunkel songs in The Graduate were forgettable.

Just for fun, yuks, and nostalgia here is Ebert’s original review of The Graduate in 1967 and here he is revisiting the movie and review in 1997.