In Chicago and beyond, Roger Ebert is an iconic figure, having successfully taken film criticism from print to TV and also online in his frequently updated Sun-Times blog, which has amassed a readership of cinephiles and occasional fans alike. In addition to dabbling in screenwriting and interviewing filmmakers, he also finds time to publish books, which includes his ongoing series of movie yearbooks. Last November saw the release of Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook 2009, a 944-page compendium of every new review he's written since January 2006, plus essays and interviews with big names like Anthony Hopkins, Tarsem, and Jerry Seinfeld. In advance of a pair of upcoming signings (at Borders on Michigan Ave. Feb. 18; then Barnes & Noble in Oak Brook March 7), The A.V. Club interviewed Ebert via e-mail about his non-existent retirement plans, winning the Pulitzer, and whether he tires of people calling him an inspiration.
The A.V. Club: Do you plan to ever retire?
Roger Ebert: No. Why should I? The website is going very well, and I seem to be the most-read movie critic on the web, if you can trust the hit-based rankings of IMDb and MRQE. My new blog has got me really fired up.
AVC: What do you think of the current hosts of At The Movies, Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz?
RE: No comment, except that I don't have a problem with Mankiewicz. If you want to try reading my mind, read my blog entry "Roger's Little Rule Book," in which I mention, of course, no critics by name.
AVC: Speaking of your blog, there's been a lot of debate about how film criticism fits into the Internet age. Do you think it'll still exist as a profession in 20 years?
RE: Of course! There will always be a lot of people interested in movies and opinions about them, and the Internet provides a universal port of entry.
AVC: That said, what's your take on all the "regular people" doing movie reviews on the Internet and YouTube?
RE: Bless them. They're not all "regular." Some are really gifted, some should hang it up. [But] the flaw in the theory that the Net will replace newspapers is that the Net borrows, directly or indirectly, most of its content from newspapers. Today you can cite the New York Times. Would you rather cite a blogger in East Jesus, Iowa?
AVC: How are the standards for professional reviewers changing?
RE: Editors are dumbing down papers and focusing on worthless gossip and celeb-nuggets.
AVC: Did you continue to write screenplays after working with Russ Meyer?
RE: No. It would have been a conflict of interest.
AVC: Have you written any screenplays not intended for Meyer?
RE: One with Bob Dahlin about Chicago's Demo Derby, which never sold.
AVC: What is your favorite Siskel & Ebert parody?
RE: The one in Mad with Jeffrey Lyons hiding under a chair in the balcony.
AVC: Where do you keep your Pulitzer?
RE: Framed on the wall in my office. I cashed the $1,000 check. I needed the money.
AVC: How did it feel to be the first film critic to win one?
RE: Well, it felt terrific. I was walking on air. I was still young (33) and it helped give me a national reputation. Books and syndication followed.
AVC: It seems that you review for the Everyman, but are also tuned into the aesthetics of film. In your experience, do you find that ordinary, non-professional critics take a similar approach?
RE: Jim Hoge, my first editor, said everyone who could buy a paper should have a fair chance of understanding everything in it. I think you can say anything and still be readable. I do not review for Everyman, although I hope Everyman enjoys my stuff. Haven't you heard? I'm a pointy-headed liberal Elite. People inform me, "You should like what the mass audience likes." I make it a point to reach out for foreign, indie, and documentary films.
AVC: You've become a symbol of the Sun-Times, and often speak out when the paper is under attack. Why are you so loyal to them? If you leave, will they fold?
RE: The Sun-Times trusted me enough to make me a film critic when I was 24. It has given me a home all these years. Who knows? We may outlast the Tribune. We have a much smaller overhead and, oddly enough, much less debt.
AVC: Do you ever get tired of people calling you an inspiration? Why?
RE: The simple answer is: No. And I dedicated Roger Ebert's Book Of Film to a list of my own inspirations. That person without inspirations is an uninspired person.