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Five years of criticism

In this racket, you see maybe 250 movies a year. When I first got into it, the pace seemed incredible, and I didn't see how anyone could possibly last five years as a movie critic. I used to tell people, in fact, that five years of this ought to be enough for anybody. There were times, in fact, when five minutes of it seemed enough for anybody. The first five minutes of "Vengeance of She" were five of those minutes.

Anyway, what with one thing and another, the five years have actually slipped past. I started on the job on April Fool's Day, 1967 - a coincidence I've never been very willing to go into - and so Saturday was the anniversary. I celebrated quietly by drinking a toast to the spirit of the Clark Theater, the Three Penny Cinema, the Town Underground and other lost causes.

I've decided, by the way, that 10 years of this ought to be enough for anybody. When I started out, I was the youngest movie critic in town. Now I am the oldest (or the "dean," as I am sometimes fond of mentioning modestly). After great thought, I have decided not to retire while I can still set an example for my younger colleagues.

In any event, on this occasion I have collected a batch of reader's questions from the mail, and will attempt to answer them as well as I can.

Q. What are your qualifications to be a movie critic?

A. Five years of experience, a year more than I had last year at this time.

Q. What have you learned during that period?

A. That you don't get real butter on buttered popcorn. Also, that ladies should please not leave their possessions on the seat next to them, and that their cooperation will help ensure their not being lost.

Q. How many movies do you see in a week?

A. As many as open. Recently, however, we have taken to not reviewing the hard-core 16-mm pornographic films' on the grounds that I have no training as a gynecologist.

Q. Seen any good movies lately?

A. How would you like a punch in the mouth?

Q. I was only asking.

A. Okay. Yes, I think "The Godfather" is one of the best movies I've seen in a long time. During the average year, you get a lot of good movies but not enough really great movies to even populate a "Ten Best" list. Every once in a while, a movie comes along that you put in a special greatness category. "Bonnie and Clyde" was my first entry. "The Godfather" is the newest.

Q. But doesn't it offend Italian-Americans?

A. When was the last time any ethnic group got a good movie made about them? Why should they complain? Wait until they see "Mafia."

Q. Do critics really have any influence on how much business a movie does?

A. It depends. The big blockbusters draw huge crowds no matter what the critics say. Anyway, "The Godfather" would have made millions on the basis of the novel's popularity - but the good reviews will probably draw some people who figured it was just going to be another crummy movie version of a bestseller. In the case of art films, serious low-budget films and foreign films, on the other hand, the opinion of the critics can make a big difference.

Q. Did you ever change your mind about a movie?

A. I am no longer absolutely certain that "Thoroughly Modern Millie" deserved four stars.

Q. What about that star-rating system?

A. It is a ridiculous anachronism left over from certain ancient circulation wars. It has nothing to do with criticism. On the other hand, it's fun.

Q. Of all the movies you're reviewed, which one is your favorite?

A. "Bonnie and Clyde'' I also have a great affection for "Falstaff - Chimes at Midnight," "Five Easy Pieces" (1970), "The Battle of Algiers," "Weekend" (1968), "2001," "The Last Picture Show," "The Exterminating Angel" and "Woodstock."

Q. That only makes nine.

A. And "The Godfather." I'm especially fond of "Bonnie and Clyde" not only because it is a masterpiece of American film-making, but also because we sort of discovered it here in Chicago. The New York critics, who with a few exceptions should be pensioned off, missed the boat on "Bonnie and Clyde." Warner Bros. was going to dump it into 60 Texas drive-ins. Chicago was the only major city where it opened strong and did big business. Lousy distribution can kill a good movie.

Q. Then why don't we just have more good art-film theaters?

A. Economics. You can make more money showing hard-core pornography than you can showing art. The three theaters I mentioned above, which were once vital parts of the good movie scene here, are all porno houses. On the other hand, people keep trying. The Aardvark folks, who used to show art and now show porno, have opened a little theater next door named the Termite, and will show good films. The question is, will people support good films?

Q. Of course they will.

A. Not at all. In the last five years, a herd mentality has been growing. People want to see the movies that "everybody" is seeing. So a few pictures profit and a lot of pictures suffer. Of all the pictures that have gone down the drain in the last year, Milos Forman's "Taking Off" hurt the most. It should have been nominated for an Academy Award. If people had seen it, they would have genuinely loved it.

Q. Is this a bad period for movies?

A. No, but we're just coming out of one. Last August the situation was unbelievably bleak. There hadn't been much that was really good in months. Then all these superior films started opening. Some were successes, like "The Last Picture Show," and some didn't quite make it, like "McCabe and Mrs. Miller." I'd have to agree with Pauline Kael's recent New Yorker article about the last six months' worth of movies, in which she said it's been a legendary time.

Q. Then she isn't one of the New York critics you'd pension off?

A. She's the best movie critic in America. I also respect Andrew Sarris, Manny Farber, Dwight MacDonald and Stephen Farber. And several others, but those are the five who've helped the most.

Q. What about John Simon's movie reviews in The New Leader?

A. A pretentious comedian. Strip away all that false pretension and you'll find the real pretension inside. He does a great act, but read his actual reviews and you'll find that he uses intellectual scare tactics to conceal his fundamental lack of sympathy for film. It's not that he's too hard on movies, it's that he doesn't understand them, and understands their audiences even less.

Q. But he said on TV he wasn't writing for today, he was writing for 50 years from now.

A. With a deadline that long, why can't he do any better?

Q. Why did you write the screenplay to, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls?"

A. For fun, money and experience. It is a good thing I did not write it for praise and acclaim.

Q. What do you think of it?

A. I saw it again the other night, and I think it's, funny and works as a parody of movies of that sort. It starts slow and finishes well. In England, the censors took out the violence, and the reviews were a lot better. That makes sense. I didn't like the extreme violence either, and I thought it disturbed the tone of the movie.

Q. Did it make any money?

A. It cost $900,000 and grossed between $7 and $8 million. And to answer your next question, no, I didn't have a percentage of the profits.

Q. That was pretty dumb, wasn't it?

A. Yes, it was pretty dumb, come to think of it.

Q. Are you working on anything else?

A. Yes. Mike Royko and I have written a screenplay about The Fox, our local anti pollution suburban guerrilla. But we haven't sold it yet. Maybe U.S. Steel will sponsor it as a TV special.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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