Anyone remotely aware of popular film criticism surely recognizes the name of Roger Ebert. His trademarked “thumbs up” seal of approval, which he first popularized alongside fellow critic Gene Siskel and now continues with Richard Roeper, is almost as instantly recognizable as his peerless prose and has become the indication by which masses of movie-goers plan their evening activities.
Ebert’s latest book, “The Great Movies,” is a collection of 100 essays on what he considers to be superlative works fading from the public’s memory. One of those films, “A Hard Day’s Night,” will be shown at this weekend’s Wisconsin Film Festival and accompanied by a post-screening discussion led by Ebert. Mr. Ebert recently chatted with The Badger Herald about Oscar controversies, the origins of MTV and the next great American director (who happens to have a film in this year’s festival).
The Badger Herald: Do you relish this time of year, or is it more like tax season for an attorney?
Roger Ebert: It’s not that important, but it’s fun. The five pictures nominated for Best Picture [Oscars] were not on my list of the 20 best films of the year, but that’s to be expected. They choose the films from a narrow range of projects. I can give you the names of three movies about the Holocaust released last year that were better than ‘The Pianist.’
BH: Were you surprised by ["Pianist" star] Adrien Brody and ["Pianist" director] Roman Polanski’s wins?
RE: No, I think those were good choices, but it should’ve been ["Gangs of New York" director Martin] Scorsese for director. I can’t understand that — I don’t know what they have against him. He’s made the best movies of the last 30 years, but these people can’t understand anything that doesn’t involve a bank balance.
BH: Any thoughts on the Michael Moore fiasco?
RE: He played the room wrong. He had a standing ovation and turned it into boos. His body language and approach were designed to create negative feedback.
BH: Do you think the Oscars were an appropriate forum to voice an anti-war sentiment?
RE: If you win, you have 45 seconds to say anything you want to. I would rather [the winners] would give a speech about something they care about rather than list the names of their agents and lawyers. Every person has to decide what they want to say, and in this country we have a tradition of accepting that. If you say something that offends people in the room, they’re going to boo you. That’s an American tradition, too.
BH: To someone who has seen thousands of movies, how did you narrow down your choices for “The Great Movies?”
RE: They’re not in any particular order — that book is not a book of the 100 greatest films, just of 100 great films. I’m very much aware that we’re losing track of film history and that people are living in the present. Before the advent of home video, there were film societies on every campus. Now people just go down to Blockbuster and rent a movie that was in theaters six months ago. So I wanted to provide an entry point for people who wanted to sample films from the first 100 years.
BH: In what ways was “A Hard Day’s Night” a benchmark in the evolution of the musical?
RE: The movie more or less invented MTV. If you look at musicals before “A Hard Day’s Night,” you find that they are more classically staged. But its style integrated directly into television, and it’s kind of like the parent of the music video.
BH: You attribute much of the film’s style to director Richard Lester. Is a strong authorial voice something you use as a criterion in judging these films?
RE: I think so. Auteur theory can certainly be abused, but it’s probably true that the director is the ultimate author of most films. Good directors tend to create a body of work that has a real tone and flavor to it that’s consistent.
BH: What one thing would you like people to take away from “A Hard Day’s Night?”
RE: They (the Beatles) seem to be grinning sometimes while they’re singing — they are actually grinning at each other. They are happy to be doing what they’re doing at the moment they’re doing it. They’re not just performing; they’re alive at that moment.
BH: You weave a lot of personal anecdote into these essays. How much does one’s mood at the time of seeing a film affect his opinion of it?
RE: You have to write in the first person if you’re a movie critic, and you have to be very revealing about how you feel. An author named Robert Warshow said, “A man goes to the movies, and the critic must be honest enough to admit he’s that man.” The moment that you begin to draw an ideological or theoretical line and are using that to supercede your own immediate response to the film, you’re missing the point, because movies are a visceral experience. A movie is a machine to make us feel a certain way.
BH: What other films are you excited to see this weekend at the Wisconsin Film Festival?
RE: I would like to encourage people to see “Better Luck Tomorrow.” Justin Lin is a masterful director. Not only is it a very strong story and very well acted, but in terms of what he does with the camera — it’s just astonishing. Justin Lin is going to be one of the new stars of American direction.