TSR Exclusive: “Ebert Presents At the Movies” co-host Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (Part I)

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky talks about his new show, his movie appetite and his pop quiz with “The Daily Beast”

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky is a movie man of unlimited dialogue. When the new co-host of “Ebert Presents At the Movies” called me the day of his TV debut to discuss the new show and his background, an interview that I thought would be twenty minutes (usually the norm with everyone else) expanded into over an hour-long discussion of film with Vishnevetsky seemingly running racetracks around whatever grasp and knowledge of film I have. A cinephile from Mubi.com handpicked by Roger Ebert from Chicago’s underground film society, (which includes a job at Bucktown’s Odd Obsession) Vishnevetsky had so much to say about every aspect of film, with his words chosen carefully and without even a single dash of the pretension that even cinema’s most celebrated essayists may exhibit. It’s instantly apparent that Vishnevetsky loves movies, equally as much as he loves talking about them. Although he thinks “the beauty of discussing films with people is that it is a leisurely activity,” it’s about to become serious business for the young co-host.

“Ebert Presents At the Movies” premieres January 21st on PBS stations nationwide. The thumbs will be back with hosts Christy Lemire of the Associated Press and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, with Roger Ebert making an appearance himself.

Are you going to watch the show when it premieres tonight?

Yes, because I actually haven’t seen it. I have seen all of the test footage, and all of the rehearsal footage. A part of our process of preparing for the show is walking through everything, talking about what worked, what doesn’t. What kind of gesture would probably come across as well on camera as well as it does on person. That was a big part of it. In filmmaking, they’re called the rushes. I saw the very rough version of the first episode.

Are you comfortable watching yourself on TV?

I have to be. I have no choice.

But even after it airs, do you think you’ll be watching yourself as the series goes on?

I would love to say that no, I’m not going to, I know that I am going to watch every single episode. It’s sort of by watching yourself, you can get better. There’s always room for improvement, in absolutely everything. It’s always possible to be better.

Can we expect particularly heated debates between you and co-host Christy Lemire, or will the tone be different than previous “At the Movies” incarnations?

I think we’ve got a very different dynamic than the previous hosts of “At the Movies.” We are significantly more different than any other hosts, except for maybe Lyons and Mankiewicz, who were fairly different than one another. I still think that there’s even more of a gap between us in terms of our style and approach as critics. But on the other hand, I’m nto going to lie, Christy and I get along really well. The dynamic of the show is that few people get along very well who are happy, often extremely contrasting on things and kind of discussing them.

Have you seen any of the episodes from the Lyons and Mankiewicz era?

I have seen one or two of those. When I was preparing for the show, I mostly did it by watching the Siskel & Ebert ones, and figuring out how they had approached the format.

And have you seen the blooper reel that involves Siskel and Ebert making fun of each other about ordering at McDonald’s?

Yeah, I had seen that when I was eighteen or nineteen, on one of those compilation DVDs. Maybe the one that was apart of “Lost and Found Video Night” … I think it was put out by “5 Minutes to Live,” which is kind of this bootlegging company with instantly recognizable green-dotted covers. I think that one was maybe on the “The Dinah Shore Portal to Hell.”

How do you feel working at Odd Obsession may have prepared you for this job?

It is completely different when you’re on the set, when we have what we call the “cross talks,” the actual discussion of a film. It’s completely different from how you would ever have a discussion about a film. It has to be so concentrated. The beauty of discussing films with people is that it is a kind of leisurely activity. What the show does is take the leisurely activity and turn it into a grueling mental exercise. It’s like on the one hand you’re performing essentially improv theater. On the other hand, it’s like you’re playing speed chess against the other person, and you always feel like you’re losing. It’s very intense.

One of the more famous remarks about your cinephile-ness is that you used to watch three movies a day. Is there any method to that or was that just tackling anything that was on Netflix?

For a while, I thought I’d be a person who would sit through a director’s filmography straight through. I knew a guy who did that. He would always start at the first film, and watch his way chronologically through everything that was available. I did not have that much rhyme or reason. It seemed to me madness. If anything, I found that watching things that were completely different would be significantly more fruitful. Maybe you come to understand the films even more … because you’re not watching them with like films; there is the constant need to traffic something else. So the quality that made those films becomes much more obvious. For example, you watch a movie that does not have that much camera movement. And then the you’re watching one of those Paul Greengrass movies. How radical [still camera film] is becomes significantly more obvious.

Could you give us an example of what your viewing list in a day would be?

You know what, I have diaries. I could never keep them up for very long. Let me sit down at my computer, because they should still be on here. Let me see … this is Wednesday, July 4th, 2007. The Earrings of Madame de… on a 16 mm, and on DVD the same day, Giants and Toys, The Story of A Love Affair, Scenario du film ‘Passion’ by Godard, which would have been on a bootleg, and Underworld U.S.A by Samuel Fuller. I am seeing some films by the same director. So … July 5th. The Millionaire Chase by a Umetsugu Inoue, who was a Japanese director who actually worked at the Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong. He was kind of a specialist and did materialist musicals and comedies. He probably did more movies with the name “millionaire” in the title than anyone has since pre-code Hollywood. Letters Not About Love by Jacki Ochs, and another Yasuzo Masamura film, Afraid to Die, which stars Yukio Mishima as a gangster, his one acting role outside of being a director. I can go to the next day … the next day is Hollow Man, by Paul Verhoeven. Shop Around the Corner, which I guess is the first time I had seen the film, I didn’t realize that, Red Zhorgum by Zhang Yimou, and [a Japanese movie title that I can’t decpiher from my tape recorder, nor find on IMDb]. It’s weird, I’ve never taken a look at this.

Do you know what you’ve seen before, or do you just have the director’s name, and the date?

It indicates everything – whether I had seen it before, the format I watched it, which is kind of silly. I kept such precise records of all of these things and never ended up looking back at it.

Is this an Excel spreadsheet or an MS Word document?

It’s a word document that goes on for many, many pages.

How did you feel about your pop quiz with “The Daily Beast”? Do you think you were caught off-guard?

I will now always remember that Michelle Williams was on “Dawson’s Creek.” If you learn something, you never forget it. I think the quiz was intended for a different person. I don’t think it was really intended for me. I wish I had done better. But I don’t really like John Hughes, nor do I believe I’ve ever seen an episode of “Dawson’s Creek,” or the “Mickey Mouse Club” for that matter.

I agree with how you defended yourself in that article, by saying you are a film critic, and not an entertainment reporter. [The writer] wasn’t catching that.

You know, it was much more friendly conversation than I think it comes across. Someone told me that the interview seems really passive aggressive. In reality it was more kind of relaxed, and in a joking atmosphere than I think it comes across. Though I don’t know if Marlow Stern, who wrote that interview, maybe realized that I was relaxed. Because the problem with the phone interview is that people can never see you smile.

Speaking of press, and smiling, Entertainment Weekly called you “the luckiest 24-year-old in the world.” Do you read your press?

[Sarcastically] I read absolutely everything, every article, and every comment. [Laughs] “Luckiest 24-year-old in the world?” You know, it depends on how you define luckiest. I’m a terminally unlucky person. I’m the guy who always gets to the L platform the second the train closes. It’s also a bit weird especially, because the process of getting on the show was gradual, and very work intensive. It seems a little to be treated as that you got there due to blind luck. When you essentially throw away all possibility of every having a normal life to devote yourself that will probably be a failure, it seems a little odd for people to say that it’s a lucky break. But I guess it is. Obviously, I’m very happy to be on the show.

Do you see past incarnations of the show reminding you that the series is not immortal? Even when A.O Scott and Michael Phillips were brought in .. it’s still a TV show. It still needs ratings.

That’s very true. Someone had asked me, “How do you feel about the show when so many other hosts have failed?” Which is a very statement to make, because A.O Scott and Michael Philips did not fail. Ultimately, it comes down to the company that makes the show. But in this case, the company that makes the show is run by Roger Ebert. When Scott and Philips were on, it was Disney?

Yes.

Here, the show is made by Ebert Productions. And we’re on PBS. So the expectations for a show are slightly different.

I assume that these will go online soon.

The website is “Ebertpresents.com,” which just went live yesterday. Right now it’s a very older version of the site. I have seen what the site will look like. We will be posting episodes after they air, through the site. Not only will it be possible to rewatch them, but it will be possible to watch them overseas.

How do you feel about Ebert’s choice to use Carol Reed’s The Third Man as a framing device for the show?

It’s interesting. It has lead to all of this speculation as to its thematic significance. There is this idea of Roger as The Third Man … I don’t think it was really intended that way. But I think he put it in because he loves the music from The Third Man. It just so happens that Kim Morgan’s piece on The Third Man is also in this episode, which was actually featured in the original pilot [that involved Christy Lemire and Elvis Mitchell]. I think Roger really liked it and wanted to re-broadcast it. And then he also happens to love the trailer for Citizen Kane. We reference the trailer in the show, and it all comes together in this odd way. It’s just like with movies. You have all of these things that are chosen, maybe because they like them. Ultimately, their intentions don’t matter. Intention is a big part of it, it’s why things are up on the screen, but it’s not why it was put there – it’s what is there. Regardless of whether Roger intended all of these thematic overlaps that we get on-screen, they’re there. We have to accept that, because that’s what we look at in movies. If this director said, “Well, all this is for this reason, you don’t really understand it, it doesn’t’ really matter that all these things seem to have this thematic link,” than any critic would say that’s bullsh*t and that it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is what is up there. It would be ridiculous for me to be completely dismissive of this first aspect of the show. Because it’s there.

I’ve always what the opening credit sequence would look like if it used the theme from 8 ½ instead of the one from The Third Man.

It was actually going to be a very different theme, not a well-known movie there. I heard it was just a piece of music that they were considering. And then Roger had this brilliant idea, and he played the Third Man theme for me from his laptop, and said, “This is what I want as the music.”

Click HERE to read Part Two of my interview with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky …

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