SUNDAY NOVEMBER 19, 2017
 
Blog TALKING TO
ROGER EBERT
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If someone claims to love music but has no use for The Beatles or Johnny Cash, they don’t really love music. If someone says they have a deep understanding of cutting-edge comedy but don’t know who Bill Hicks is, they don’t really have a deep understanding of cutting-edge comedy.  And if someone passes off Roger Ebert as a celebrity movie reviewer whose greatest contribution to film criticism was to popularize thumbs-up/thumb-down, then they don’t really know Roger Ebert. 

Ebert’s passion is film. He talks film, he writes film, he tweets, he blogs, he lives film — and he does all of that better than just about anybody else. 
 
I communicate with Ebert through email just as his new book, Life Itself: A Memoir is released. 

Growing up, what kind of access did you have to film and film criticism?

Ordinary first-run houses. In high school a local art theatre opened. In college there were film societies. The first person I became aware of, as a film critic was Dwight Macdonald, who wrote monthly for Esquire.

What significant movie-going experience made you realize film could be more than just routine entertainment?

I saw Citizen Kane in about 1958 and bought into the whole Welles mythos. I'd read Swanberg's Citizen Hearst and with those facts in my mind I realized how film could begin in the same place and transform an experience. Also, I was forced to notice it was "directed." The visuals were electrifying.

You once wrote a very honest and uninhibited article on Lee Marvin. Are the days gone when a publicist will allow full-day access to a star, revealing their habits and indiscretions?

Gone forever. The publicist drove me to Marvin's Malibu beach house, dropped me off, and we were off to the races. I'm happy you mentioned that Esquire article, which I think was my best. I'd done the interview with Marvin in the bar outside the Paramount gates — which was the piece that sort of taught me my style. He knew what he was in for and didn't care. And here we are, talking about him today.

You also speak of an unpleasant run-in with Mel Brooks at a restaurant who expressed taking exception to your review of Dead and Loving It. Have there been other unfortunate responses to your reviews?

A few. Mel and I had a great long-term relationship starting with The Producers, so his unhappiness was fair enough. 

How did writing your own screenplay (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – 1970) modify your approach to film criticism?

Maybe it made me more aware of structure? Also, the backstage view at a big studio was educational.

Stanley Clavell suggests that which is not criticizable, is not art. Do you agree? Perhaps this is why I pass on reviewing most horror films?

Much that is criticizable is not art. Witness my difficulties with video games being considered art. I know what you mean about the endless sequels to horror films. Writing about them is pointless.

Is there a difference between reviewing and critiquing?

Yes. It has to do with the depth of analysis. I swing both ways. I am basically a reviewer who sometimes gets inspired.

How did the PBS program At The Movies change your life and career?

It was a professional milestone, and got me access and acceptance, but I consider my career to be basically in writing, not television.

How was it sharing the studio with Gene Siskel?

Stimulating. Supenseful. Sometimes agonizing. Sometimes hilarious.

Pauline Kael once suggested that critics couldn’t be celebrities. Was becoming a celebrity thrust upon you or was it something you embraced?

Pauline was a celebrity herself. The show came to me — I didn't seek it. What happened, happened. Journalists of all sorts become celebrities.

How might you handle some people's perception that celebrity and popularity negates the seriousness of the work?

I would say, judge by the work.

You have risen above your recent health issues with a great deal of strength and grace — who was there to support you and help you along the way?

My wife, to make a long story short.

How has blogging changed film criticism?

Blogs allow remarkably gifted people to self-publish with great freedom.

Is there a new film blogger we should be reading?

David Bordwell. He and Kristin Thompson have been around for a long time, but they blog with great enthusiasm.

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