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Interview: Michael Phillips, Recipient of the 2017 Roger Ebert Award

At a ceremony in Los Angeles on Feb. 4, Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips will receive the African American Film Critics Association’s Roger Ebert Award. He will be joining the ranks of previous honorees Justin Chang (Los Angeles Times, formerly of Variety), Manohla Dargis (the New York Times) and Susan King (formerly of the Los Angeles Times).

“This award recognizes critics who follow in the tradition of Roger,” says Gil Robertson, president of the AAFCA, which inaugurated the honor in Ebert’s name following his death in 2013. “He felt film was a vehicle that brings members of a society together and we look for people whose work reflects those sentiments. Michael has demonstrated his ability to recognize the world in his writing.” 

Chaz Ebert, who will be presenting the award to Phillips, has nothing but admiration for the Tribune critic, even if he works for the rival of Roger’s Chicago Sun-Times. “Roger and I read and admired Michael's film reviews in the competing newspaper because they reflected a wealth of knowledge about literature, culture and cinema. We personally chose Michael to sit in as a substitute on 'At The Movies' during Roger's illness because of his astute analysis of film, and later Roger recommended that Disney hire Michael and A. O. Scott of the New York Times as permanent co-hosts.” 

But her appreciation for Phillips goes beyond his keen critical insights. “Like Roger, Michael likes teaching and passing along his knowledge and passion for learning to up-and-coming writers. He currently mentors students at the University of Illinois in the Ebert Fellowship program, and also lectures at Ebertfest. He receives the highest praise from both students and our Ebertfest audience. He is a stellar choice to receive this honor in Roger’s name.”

Phillips—who, like Roger Ebert, is a product of the Midwest having been born in Kenosha, Wis., in 1961—speaks about his relationship to Roger, how he became interested in film and why he feels that the need for arts critics is greater than ever.

How did you feel when you learned that you were going to be the recipient of the AAFCA’s Roger Ebert Award?

Surprised, delighted, humbled. Seriously humbled. It means a lot to me, because we’re all trying to be the best, most receptive, most responsive critics we can be, and to be singled out for anything these days is a treat.

Have you gotten any other honors as a journalist? Why is this honor meaningful to you?

I’ve won a few awards here and there—nothing with the brand name of “Pulitzer”—but this one’s meaningful because it’s named after one of my literary heroes.

How did Roger influence you as a critic? Did you watch him and Gene Siskel in the early days when they were are TV?

Hell, yeah! Like so many of my critical colleagues, I grew up watching “At the Movies.” Those too young to remember its impact can’t really understand how much the success of that program meant to so many of us. One summer at college, I worked at a factory in northeast Minneapolis, and I know for a fact that Roger and Gene convinced at least one of the full-timers there to take a chance on his first subtitled movie. Something with a lot of sex in it, probably, but still. I saw “My Dinner with Andre” thanks to Roger and Gene. I saw Jerzy Skolimowski’s “Moonlighting” on Roger’s recommendation, and dragged my parents to it. Since I was already debating movies with my friends, and starting to write about them, the show became a regular sparring partner.

When did you first meet Roger? What were the circumstances?

I met Roger and Chaz in the Lake Street Screening Room in 2005 or 2006. Also, I remember a dinner party around the same time, thrown by Roger’s longtime pal and my former Tribune colleague Monica Eng. I got lucky and sat next to him, and learned a lot about a lot. I played the role of the intimidated newbie, he played the role of Roger Ebert. He was gracious and supportive and very kind, straight off, and always. I remember arguing the merits of the film version of “My Fair Lady” with him. I remember talking about how much we both loved Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep,” for different but equally passionate reasons.

You are in the position that Siskel once held at the Tribune. Was there some friendly rivalry between you and Roger, too?

Hardly. Hate to disappoint you. Roger’s great gift, one among hundreds, was how generous he was with his time and his praise and appreciation. I think we both enjoyed the occasions when we agreed on a review, and we enjoyed the occasions we disagreed. Just to see how we made our cases at the keyboard, you know.

I only visited the screening room in Chicago once when I interviewed Roger and Chaz at their home in 2011 for his memoir, “Life Itself.” What was it like when Roger would arrive? I know he had his preferred seat.

Roger sat back row, on the left aisle. I liked back row, on the right aisle. Even after he lost his literal voice—though of course he never lost his real, spiritual voice—he was a great conversationalist and, without high-hatting anybody, he became even more of who he was: the finest mind in the room, and the one who saw the most.

You were one of the critics who was recruited to fill in for Roger opposite Richard Roeper on “At the Movies” when he was battling thyroid cancer in 2006. Later, you and A.O. Scott of the New York Times took over in 2009 for one season. I would think it was rather daunting to even try to come close to the chemistry that Gene and Roger had together.

After Roger became ill, I filled in occasionally and then more steadily opposite Richard Roeper beginning in the 2007-2008 season. Then for a while I alternated with Tony Scott, again opposite Richard. Then it was just me for the rest of the season. And then, as it happens in television, we got fired, or “fired,” and then re-hired as a duo for the final season, 2009-2010.

It was bittersweet and wonderful and difficult and a pleasure, all mixed up together. Tony and I knew we were in for it. We started out wearing the famous guys’ shoes. The charges came in from all over, along with some praise: We didn’t argue enough, we were too highbrow, too nerdy, too whatever. We felt constrained by the format, and nobody liked the set, which looked like an orthodontist’s waiting room.

But after a few months we convinced Disney to let us focus on fewer movies per week, and stretch out with segments devoted to larger topics, even if they were simply our favorite Scorsese movies. And those were the shows everybody liked best. We did well in the ratings in the big markets, where we had favorable time slots, and we did poorly in the smaller markets where we were on at 3:05 a.m., after Ab Roller infomercials.

You joined the Chicago Tribune in 2002 as a drama critic and switched to film reviewing in 2005. Had you previously been a film reviewer anywhere else?

A few years into my Tribune drama critic gig, I mentioned to my editors that I was keen on getting back to movies, and if they were interested, great. And they were. When I was still in college I got hired as film critic for the Twin Cities weekly City Pages, in 1983—my first review was “The Big Chill.” All my career as a critic, beginning when I was 17 writing for the Minnesota Daily, I’ve been fortunate to have two specialties, film and theater. Theater was what took me all over the place after college, working as drama critic for the Dallas Times-Herald, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Los Angeles Times and then the Chicago Tribune. A lot of those moves were relationship-driven, either going to or leaving a relationship, that is. By the time my then-wife and 1-year-old son and I got to Chicago, I was eager to get back to film, which got me interested in writing in the first place.

What was the first movie you ever saw in a theater? What are some of your all-time favorites? IMDb says they include “His Girl Friday,”“Taxi Driver,” “The Godfather: Part II,” “The Band Wagon” and "The Passion of Joan of Arc" from 1928. 

I wish I knew the first film my folks took me to. By the time I saw things like “Grand Prix” and “The Happiest Millionaire” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” in the theaters, when I was 5 or 6 or 7 or 8, I’d seen a lot. I fell hard for the movies. My favorites? The list is never fixed. But I generally include a few key directors for me: Lubitsch, Hawks, Welles, Minnelli, Ophuls, Murnau—and Hitchcock, of course. The first director a kid tends to notice, because his motifs and obsessions work themselves out so vividly, film to film.

One thing Gil pointed out to me is that you, much like Roger, will review a blockbuster like “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” but will also do something small and easy-to-overlook like “Aquarius.” Is calling attention to more obscure yet worthy films important to you?

Let’s be honest: For every satisfying product on the order of “Rogue One,” which I liked but didn’t love, you have to sit through three or four soul-killers. It’s no different with independent, small-budgeted films, wherever they come from. The percentages are baseball percentages: If one out of three or four movies is worth thinking about, it’s a good week. If you’re lucky, though, for every “Moonlight” (my favorite film last year), there are a few similarly or smaller-scaled pictures nearly as strong, from “Krisha” to “The Witch” to “The Fits.” And people need to know about them.

Because you like music—you taught a class on film scoring at the University of Chicago—I thought that maybe “La La Land” would be your favorite movie of last year.  But you chose “Moonlight” instead. Why?

Close call! “Moonlight” has virtually and miraculously nothing wrong with it. It’s a stunningly organic piece of filmmaking. “La La Land” is Damien Chazelle’s third excellent film in a row, which is remarkable, but it’s more uneven—the energy sags a bit in the middle. Also, Ryan Gosling seems consciously studious to me when he’s dancing, as opposed to Emma Stone, who really acts and inhabits every beat. But the stuff I love in “La La Land,” I truly love. And I find the debate about what some see as the “white savior” aspect of the Gosling character fascinating. I just didn’t read it that way, and every week at the movies, unfortunately, there’s a more egregious example of the white savior archetype surrounded by “local color.” See Ben Affleck’s “Live by Night.” Or, rather, don’t.

I don’t think I am the only critic who, since the election, has thought about what role film and the arts in general have in our lives these days—and how movies can help steady our lives and give us a break from everyday realities that have grown more challenging for many. What role do you think we play in the grand scheme of things?

Excellent question. It’s THE question. I’ve inevitably written a lot about the election, and Trump, before and after November. Many readers have written to say how much they appreciate it. Others have no taste for the political content of some of the commentaries and reviews. I try not to cry wolf, or screech to the choir, or generalize about the voting populace. But we’re living in one of the weirdest eras in America’s history, and however we, as writers, and critics, choose to engage with the times and the work that comes out of these times, our job truly has never been more crucial. Good writing on any topic helps keep us sane, even if you violently disagree with the writer.

Also, I think it will be interesting to see how filmmakers will be affected by our political divisiveness and the new powers that be. Until the Vietnam War and JFK’s assassination, grandiose epics and musicals ruled in the ‘60s. During the ‘70s, paranoid thrillers took hold. Since the dawn of this century, superheroes have flooded movies screens. Will we continue to simply seek escapism or will we turn to film to make better sense of our lives and relationships?

Both, I hope. I came of moviegoing age in the ‘70s, the era you speak of, the heyday of the paranoid political thriller. My L.A. friend Eric Lindbom says it best: In the ‘70s, if a movie didn’t end on a despairing or melancholy note, you felt cheated as an adolescent, somehow.

But look at the best work we saw that decade. A lot of the tension in the best films of the ‘70s, from “Cabaret” to “The Conversation” to “Killer of Sheep,” came from the clash of tones and styles, from tricky or elusive themes being treated lyrically or kinetically. I’d say 2016 was a very strong year for movies. And just looking at films as disparate as “Moonlight,” “La La Land,” “Manchester by the Sea,” “The Fits,” “Toni Erdmann,” these are indications that things still get done by some of the right people. If the right people get the access to resources they deserve.

What 2017 movie are you most looking forward to?

Too many to pick one, besides “Smurfs: The Lost Village.” But at Sundance, the new film from Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate, “Landline,” is premiering. It’d be great if it were great. I hope at least that it builds on “Obvious Child,” which I liked a lot. That’s a particular corner of the American independent film landscape we’re talking about, but that’s the medium: one corner, leading to another corner, to another intersection where something amazing might happen when it’s show time. 

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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