Friday, April 5, 2013

In memoriam: Roger Ebert

The death of Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert yesterday has prompted a flood of condolences and tributes, myself included. I interviewed him in 2003, but did not post it until yesterday, on my Obit Patrol website. I repost it here as well.

Obviously, Roger was not an undiscovered gem. Most everyone liked his work. He spoke and wrote in a clear and straightforward manner, and in doing so brought film and film criticism to a broad swath of people who otherwise might have missed out on all the fun. He taught us all about film and writing, and his generous, self-aware, and essentially humorous self did great things -- including taking time to talk to and later write to me, to review and endorse my work, and just generally to be a good guy.

Here's the interview, originally published on April 3, 2003. Thanks for everything, Roger.

Roger Ebert’s life at the movies is full of sound and fury

Colorado Daily Entertainment Editor

Roger Ebert is arguably the most influential film critic in America. The Pulitzer-Prize winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times is a nationally syndicated film commentator, and the author of a continuing series of film reference works and collections of cinematic criticism and evaluation, including last year’s “The Great Movies.” In addition, his quarter-century-long presence as co-host of the popular “Sneak Previews/At the Movies” movie review television program imbedded his image indelibly in the popular consciousness.
      This week, Ebert returns to the CU-Boulder campus for his 34th consecutive year as a participant in the annual Conference on World Affairs. He took the time to talk to the Daily about film, his writing, the Conference itself - and the cheeseburgers at Tom’s.
      Colorado Daily: What is it about the Conference that has brought you back year after year?
      Roger Ebert: Well, it’s kind of like an annual milestone in my annual journey through life. I came as a very very young man, I was in my twenties, and I just find it to be unique among anything I’ve ever encountered in that you gather these assorted people from all over the world and put them on panels with each other, oftentimes moving them loose from their specialties so that they have to think on their feet about things. This is not where you listen to a bunch of experts giving the same speeches they give every time they go to a conference. Because it’s not academically or professionally oriented, the people have to use actual spoken English in order to communicate, so you can tell pretty quickly whether they know what they’re talking about. Particularly in this time, when most academic writing is written in a code determined primarily to deflect comprehension, it’s really refreshing that this conference is held in spoken, vernacular English. And apart form that, I always find out something I didn’t know. It was at Boulder that I was first confronted with feminism, gay liberation, the Internet - I actually surfed the Web for the first time in Boulder. It wasn’t even the Web then ... every year, there’s something new in our society and the Conference invariably will be right on top of it.
      CD: Why are you attracted to doing an Ozu (film) this year?
      RE: Well, I think he’s one of the three greatest directors who ever lived.
      CD: Who would you accord the other two positions to?
      RE: I’m not going to reveal that - I may reveal that at Macky. I love Ozu. Sooner or later, everyone who loves films gets to Ozu. He is a person who deals with deceptively small topics, usually having to do with domestic situations - parents and children, husbands and wives, three generations, sometimes. Frequently his films and even the titles of the films seem similar. You have “early Autumn” and “Late Autumn,” “Late Spring” and “Early Spring.” Yet the control that he has over his camera, over the placement of his camera, his attention to the people that his films are about, is so perfect that it’s like a cleansing of cobwebs compared to the busy styles of modern films.
      CD: Does his seemingly static style, that’s so antithetical to what people have been trained to see, serve that purpose?
      RE: What he does is he demonstrates something that I’ve long believed, which is that action films are more boring. Because, you see, if you’re cutting all the time, it doesn’t make the film go more quickly, it just exhausts your mind more quickly. A film is usually more absorbing if you really are drawn into the characters and into their situation - and if the scene is working, there’s also no need for a cut. Frequently, movies with a great many cuts in them have got to build up some kind of tension in the editing room to conceal the fact that nothing is really happening on the screen... Donald Ritchie, who is the leading Western scholar on Japanese film ... was told by the Japanese that Ozu would not travel because he was “too Japanese,” and no one who wasn’t Japanese could understand it - and of course Ozu is the most universal of directors. His (Ozu’s) “Tokyo Story” is one of the few films that I’ve shown to my film classes that invariably makes people cry. So we went through (“Floating Weeds”) a shot at a time, and I was simply amazed by how well it works with this approach. You know, there are some films that are resistant to shot-at-a-time - the approach just doesn’t work for them. But because Ozu has so much intelligence and thought that goes into his camera strategy, there’s a lot to be found and a lot to be talked about. This spring is kind of an Ozu spring for me, because later in the month ... I’ve got my own Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival at the University of Illinois, and we’re going to show one of Ozu’s silent films there, called “I Was Born, But...”. It’s going to be a performance with a benshi...
      CD: The on-stage narrator? (Used in the days of Japanese silent film, these professional “explainers” outlined the plot and provided insight for viewers - ed.)
      RE: You know what a benshi is, you’re well-informed. We’re bringing a benshi in from Tokyo ... so I’m going to get a lot of Ozu in during April.
      CD: Considering the sheer volume of work that you’ve seen in your career, how do you come to any given film with a freshened set of sensibilities?
      RE: Well, my sensibilities aren’t necessarily fresh, they may be seasoned. I just go in, sit down ,and the movie starts. I hope I know more about movies now than when I started...
      CD: Would you still advocate filmgoing as a communal experience, as opposed to an increasing move to ... viewing in isolation?
      RE: Yeah, I would. Light your celluloid in a big room with a lot of strangers is the best way to see a movie. The better the picture and the better the sound at home, the better off you are ... that’s better than looking at the movie on some little TV set with a crummy VHS tape. But going to a theater is the best way to see a movie.
      CD: Do you feel like you were spoiled in the period of the late ‘60s and the ‘70s, the independent age (of American cinema)?
      RE: Yeah, I feel kind of that way. The studios are now are interested primarily in “product.” That ‘s what they call it. There was a very revealing comment by a studio executive during the last month in connection with the Oscar race for Best Director. He was explaining why he wasn’t going to vote for Scorsese, and he said, “Scorsese really hasn’t contributed. He ‘s not interested in making money for anyone.” That’s almost like an emblematic statement. It shows that this man at least, to him the financial success of a movie is totally indicative of its artistic success.
      CD: After having done it, and presumably, at least early on in your career, kind of having to see everything that comes down the pike, do you try to exercise a bit more control over what you watch?
      RE: I go to just about everything. Last year I reviewed 272 movies... I like to do the big, commercial pictures, and I also like to do the independent films and the foreign films. That’s kind of my mission, because I bring out a book every year called the Movie Yearbook, which wouldn’t really function if it didn’t more or less have every movie of interest in it.
      CD: The schedule is just crazy all that (Conference) week-
      RE: Yeah, but I always find time to get a cheeseburger at Tom’s Tavern ... a bunch of us always go up to the Red Lion, I always makes my rounds of the used book stores in town. I’ve spent about nine months in Boulder, one week at a time.
      CD: I very much appreciate your most recent book, “The Great Movies”...
      RE: I intended it as kind of an entry point. I became aware that a lot of younger filmgoers just had no idea at all of film history. They’d all seen “Casablanca,” and the next-oldest was probably “Star Wars,” and I started the “Great Movies” series ... really to kind of open up other titles and other directors and other countries to people. Hopefully, they see one of those movies, they can investigate it further and find out more about that director, and so forth.
      CD: Do you have any instructions for those who are starting their careers as film critics?
      RE: Write in the first person - not only stylistically, but emotionally. You really have to be writing not just from the first person, but also - it’s gotta be you. There is no such thing as objective truth in criticism. There’s no right or wrong, there’s only how you feel and why and how you can justify it or explain it.

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