"Have You Ever Been Wrong?"

As the only film critic that hosts his own annual film festival, Roger Ebert doesn’t need to prove his dedication to cinema. His many readers and viewers admire his opinions because of his intelligence and practical approach to the films he sees, a humble, not hifalutin’ critic who conveys the sense of being just another movie buff like us.

Last year, Grant Rosenberg attended the Overlooked Festival in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, covering it for Gadfly Online. Recently he presented ten questions to Ebert about this year’s festival, his newly published essay collection of The Great Movies,as well as the concept of evolving tastes in cinema–while catching a little hell in the process.

1. The fourth Annual Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival takes place next month from April 24th to the 28th. How has it grown since the first festival in 1999?

Well, we're limited to about 14 screenings, so all that has grown is the audience. We now sell out a majority of screenings in the 1,500-seat house. Lots of out of town visitors.

2. Can you describe the process of how the fourteen films are chosen?

I keep a kind of running inventory of films I love that I think deserve more attention. I run across them at festivals, at screenings, on video, or in my memory. I try to find some kind of balance of old, new, doc, fiction, US, foreign, indie, Hollywood, whatever.  

3. You've been writing editorials for the Sun-Times for awhile now, matters of politics and national debate. How did this come about and what has been the reaction to these writings?

I've been doing op-eds pieces occasionally for several years. Those who like them, like them. Those who don't tell me to stick to movie reviewing. My critics on the left send long, detailed, argumentative e-mails. Those on the right tend toward obscenity and illiteracy. I am at a loss to explain this disparity.  

4. There are reviews you've written in which you have panned films many viewers and other critics have championed.  Fight Club and The Usual Suspects in particular, come to mind.  How often do people approach you to quibble about a review you wrote? And when this happens, how often has it motivated you to go back and reevaluate a film?

They constantly argue with me, in person and by e-mail. In the case of Fight Club, I took it to the Conference on World Affairs at the U of Colorado in Boulder last April and spent 2 hours a day for 5 days going through it a shot at a time with a DVD and 1,000 students. My conclusion was unchanged: Fincher is a gifted filmmaker, but the last act of the film is wrong and does not work.

Ebert with Billy Crudup at last year's Overlooked Fest

5. Similarly, how often has it been the reverse, where you went back to a film you once praised highly and but later didn't see what all the original fuss was about?

Questions #4 and #5 are obligatory in any interview with a film critic. They come down to, "Have you ever changed your mind?" and the subtext is, "Have you ever been wrong?" Since I have been a film critic for 35 years and my education has continued during all of those years, I would hope that my ideas have developed and deepened, and of course they who do not change are not alive. But the question itself is a game of gotcha! As proven by the fact that NOT ONCE have I ever been asked, "Is there a film you are more than ever convinced you were absolutely right about?"  

6. You often promote the idea of an A rating, a classification that would fit between R and X that would indicate mature films for adult audiences, just as X used to be and NC-17 was supposed to be.  Considering all of the existing factors such as advertising money, theater chain policy, etc., what do you think is the actual likelihood of such a rating being implemented by the MPAA, even after Jack Valenti retires?

Zero. The ratings code exists to (a) block local censorship and (b) in all other respects, maximize movie attendance. A rating that would require the theaters to turn ANYBODY away will not happen with Valenti at the helm.  

7. You recently published a book that featured one hundred of your "Great Movies" essays from the Sun-Times. No doubt many readers, viewers, fellow critics and perhaps filmmakers themselves have had a bone to pick with you about your choices over the last several years–just as I assume many have applauded your selections. Can you share some of the kinds of responses you have received?

Those people, and I include a couple of the book's reviewers, did not read the introduction or even the dust jacket, in which I make it clear that all movie lists are silly. This is a book about 100 great movies, not a selection of THE 100 great movies. Of course it reflects my taste. Therefore it is not debatable. Two reviewers faulted me for not including The Searchers, even though that film is online on my Great Movies page–which they could not be bothered to look at. The essays are not written in the order of each film's "greatness" (an absurd idea) but often depend on my access to a high-quality print or DVD. For example, I was finally able to do Children of Paradise when Criterion released its amazingly good DVD, and am patiently waiting for the Criterion treatment of Rules of the Game.

You have written 143 Great Movies reviews. Obviously there will be a sequel to the book, but for the present, what were your criteria for how to narrow down to these hundred movies for the book?

No formal criteria. Just feelings. If a Great Movie is "a movie I could not bear the thought of never seeing again," then never seeing these 100 would be the least bearable. Also I struck some kind of a balance of genres, decades, countries, directors.  

Last year at the Virginia Theater

9. It has always seemed a conflict of interest to me that a publication–whether it is the Chicago Sun-Times or Gadflyonline–can publish reviews of films, music or literature, and yet also conduct interviews with those who create them. Often this is the very same person doing both. "Don't be friends with the rock stars," we are told in Almost Famous. How accurate is that advice?

It helps to live in Chicago instead of on the coasts. I have written negative reviews after interviewing people, and negative reviews of people I have often met. It goes with the territory. The problem is not with publications that do both, but with the increasing plague of publications that only hype and never criticize.  

10. So much is made of your having written the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.  Because you are a critic, having scribed a script like that gives you "street cred." But, after all these years of film criticism and hearing the cries of "it's easy to criticize. If you don't like it why don't you try making a movie yourself," surely you have a screenplay or two in your drawer that will remain locked away long after you have left this world, right?