Image Credit: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP ImagesIgnatiy Vishnevetsky, a.k.a. the luckiest 24-year-old in the world, was plucked out of near-obscurity by the most recognizable figure in American film criticism, Roger Ebert, to co-host the latest incarnation of Ebert’s staple show At the Movies, debuting tomorrow night on PBS. The contributor to Mubi.com and the Chicago Reader will be giving the patented thumbs-up or thumbs-down to this week’s movies alongside Associated Press critic Christy Lemire, but before that, we wanted to get to know him a little better.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is a pretty impressive gig for someone your age. How did it come about?
IGNATIY VISHNEVETSKY: Well, initially, I had been approached as being a possible guest contributor to the show. Roger had overheard me speaking with a colleague in the Lake Street Screening Room [in Chicago]. After that, he went home and Googled me, and he and his wife, Chaz, called me up and asked me if I wanted to meet with them. It was about maybe being a regular guest, someone who does a segment now and then, and that’s what I initially tested for.
But they liked you so much that they asked to you stick around as co-host?
Apparently. They continued asking me to test and audition, until finally they offered me the job.
Had you run into Ebert previously in Chicago?
We’d see movies in the same screening room, so we saw each other around, but we never talked or anything. The only other time I’d interacted with him before was when I worked for the Chicago Film Festival, but I actually don’t think he remembers that. We’d never e-mailed back and forth or anything along those lines before they approached me for the show.
How will this version of At the Movies be different from the last one?|
Well, the basic format has remained the same, in the sense that it’s two critics discussing the movies of the week. That’s always been the core of the program and it remains that. Then again, there are a lot of other new segments covering film culture, film history, film distribution — stuff like that.
When you’re writing online, you can have just about as much space as you want, but on the show you’ll only have a few minutes per movie. Is it going to be hard to condense?
That’s what makes the format so challenging. It’s very intense. You have to be extremely concise and you have to be focused the whole time you’re doing it. And you have to use everything you’ve got to express your ideas. It’s not just the words you use but the way you say them. Things like body language play into the way you can get things across in those three minutes. You have to always be very focused and trying to express an idea on several levels.
Reading your work, it’s clear that you take a comparatively intellectual approach to film.
Compared to what?
I mean, I can’t imagine that Ben Lyons would have picked White Material as one of his Top 10 movies of the year. Do you think that your approach will affect the tone of the show?
That’s hard to say. There’s nothing wrong with just talking about movies as entertainment, and you can get to a lot of things just by talking about them in those terms. The main focus of the show is whatever is going on in mainstream or wide-release films in that week. But at the same time, while talking about those films, you can get to a lot of issues. It’s not like you can only discuss certain things or reach certain issues if you’re talking about Claire Denis.
Do you subscribe to the philosophy that certain movies only function as something to watch with your popcorn?
I certainly disagree with that. I don’t think any part of cinema is disposable. I think you have to take it all seriously. You still have to approach it on its own terms. There’s sometimes more going on in Hollywood movies than the kind of things going on at art houses, usually because there’s just so many people involved in the production of those films. When you have several hundred people involved in making something, there’s going to be all of these different, sometimes contrasting tones, which is part of what makes talking or even just thinking about Hollywood movies so fascinating. Because there’s so much going on in them.
How do you feel about the whole grading aspect of criticism? Thumbs up/down, stars, A’s, B’s, etc….
There are things that I really love about it, and there are things that are unfortunate consequences. The unfortunate consequence is that the reviews are often just reduced to the ratings. That’s what people care about, whether you gave it a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down or however many stars. But when I give something four or five stars, you already know that I like it from the heading of the review, and that almost frees [me] up to use a lot of language and points of comparison that maybe don’t always carry the most positive connotations, but bring across the reasons [I] like it a little more honestly. So that’s what I’ve always liked about writing starred reviews. Still, there is definitely that tendency to reduce anything to, “Oh, he liked it,” or, “Oh, he didn’t like it.” That’s not the heart of this show. Sure, we’ll give it a thumb-up or thumb-down, but the heart of the show is the discussion.
It’s pretty impressive for an online critic to get one of the show’s two seats. Do you think this counts as a coup for the online critical community?
I guess. But so many critics are online right now, I don’t think that there’s as much of a division between online and newspaper critics as there used to be. Most newspaper critics, for example, have a very big online presence.
But those guys have the power of the institution behind them…
Yes, that’s true. As much as I’d like to imagine that I’m not here representing someone else, which can put a lot of pressure on you, I’ve never really thought of myself as being a person alone. I think of myself being a part of a group or generation. So in that way, maybe, I think there’s more and more trust being placed in online news sources and online critics. Part of the fact being that they’re just so quick to respond. On the other hand, a lot of online film criticism is not immediate. Some of the best film criticism online is revisiting some parts of film history that have been forgotten. It’s often a delayed response, but that’s also some of the best stuff.
When you got the job, did you work on crafting your Top 10 just because you knew people would be asking you about it?
I didn’t. But then someone found my Indiewire ballot and started passing it around as my Top 10. I don’t really like putting together a Top 10 anyway; I find it really hard. I end up seeing a lot more than 10 movies that I really, really like in a year, so it’s always very difficult to put that together. And I’m always unhappy with how it comes out.
Have you found any other end-of-year formats that work for you?
I think last year, when I did the Senses of Cinema poll, I did a Top 11, and then there were like also 10 contenders for twelfth place.
So, a Top 21.
That, and then a Top 3 things that were just parts of movies. Because they were good, but the movies themselves aren’t that great. Music publications do best albums of the year, but they also do best tracks. I think it’d be good to split it up in that way for movies: best films and best scenes. There are certainly some great scenes in mediocre films.
What’s your opinion on the word “overrated”?
It’s a good question, because you can’t use that word unless you know exactly how something is rated. I think it’s a lot easier to say something is underrated rather than overrated.
The big topic in the critical community nowadays is probably Armond White’s row with Darren Aronofsky at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. What’s your take on that?
I’ve read about it. Like everyone, I guiltily follow what Armond White is doing. I wish people were so outspoken about how much they like films. I wish people felt the need to be so brash and unencumbered by social niceties in their defense of things as he is in his attacks on things.
Finally, have you been doing any thumb exercises in preparation for the show?
I haven’t. But now I’m thinking maybe I should be.