This 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.
Thanks to Roger Ebert 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 two later in the week.