Who is Ignatiy Vishnevetsky?
It sounds like a tagline from a Coen brothers movie. And it may one day be. Today, however, it's a legitimate question after the announcement that Vishnevetsky, a 24-year-old whose best-known gig to date is as a contributor for a site called Mubi.com, would be taking the vaunted co-host chair on "Roger Ebert Presents at the Movies."
We caught up with the Russian-born, Midwestern-raised critic about his anointment as the heir apparent to the most influential broadcast critic in American history. Among the nuggets to emerge: Vishnevetsky dropped out of school (Columbia College in Chicago) after "a couple of semesters" -- mainly, he says, to watch three movies a day and teach himself cinema. To make ends meet, he has in the past few years taken on jobs like that of Laundromat attendant.
He’s now able to fully pay the rent with checks from the likes of Mubi, Cinefile and the Chicago Reader, all of which he contributes to, but acknowledges that "this doesn't mean it's always the easiest thing on one's finances."
“I don’t believe I’ve ever applied for a job in film criticism, including this one,” he said of his (short) career path. “At some point I just found myself working as a critic full time. I guess you could I’m pretty much the opposite of a careerist.”
Vishnevetsky speaks in thoughtful, earnest tones, and is prone to offering a complicated answer –- after first trying several times to assess the question -- that suggests he might be engaged in the process of reviewing even as he’s having an everyday conversation.
Asked how he thought his academic approach might translate on television, even PBS, he said that he was under no illusions about the medium, but felt his manner wouldn’t require a wholesale change.
“For every movie, you can write 2,000 or 3,000 pages of text. It’s very different to sit in that seat and have a discussion in three minutes. You have to avoid certain ideas and tangents because they’d take the whole length of the segment,” he said. “At the same time, I feel like it’s possible to get at all the important issues without needing all the reference points.”
Talking to Vishnevetsky, once get the sense of an egghead type who, in a pre-Internet age, would have fueled his habit with a subscription to Cahiers du Cinema or Film Comment while bending the ear of any friend he could get to listen to him. These days, however, he’s able to plug into a much larger community that supports and feeds the obsession. If the Internet has enabled rancor and hotheadedness, it has also fostered even the most niche flavors of film geekdom.
Vishnevetsky had been approached as an occasional contributor for Ebert's show before he began screen-testing for the regular appearance. (Incidentally, he said the first show on the weekend of Jan. 21 would feature movies opening that weekend, a smallish group that includes “The Company Men,” “The Way Back” and “No Strings Attached.”)
When asked about his tastes, the critic was willing to knock out a few movies he liked from this year. They’re not exactly a mainstream bunch: “Vincere,” “Ghost Writer,” “White Material.” Then he added, “But I also liked ‘Survival of the Dead.’ There were things I liked about ‘The Expendables.’ I thought 'A-Team' was really underrated.”
Overall, he said, he didn’t think 2010 was nearly as good as 2009, which brought what he called “two great American films” in “Two Lovers” and “Public Enemies.” (A sense of his tastes -– and eggheadedness -- is on display in this review of “The Social Network.”)
Vishnevetsky was reluctant to single out favorite filmmakers in general, but did say he was a fan of “Neveldine and Taylor movies like ‘Crank 2’ and ‘Gamer’” because they represented the idea of "fitting a lot of ideas into one movie." And he rattled off classic Hollywood directors like John Ford and Allan Dwan.
But he’s likely to find himself out of favor with a certain stream of establishment criticism with his opinion of one influential movie adjudicator. “I’ve never been terribly fond of Pauline Kael,” Vishnevetsky said. “There’s a sense with her reviews that everything about movies has always been settled, that the battle for movies is over and now we just need to say whether they’re good or bad. That’s not criticism. In fact, it’s the opposite of criticism.”
As for his relationship with the AP’s Christy Lemire, the more populist-minded reviewer who will be Vishnevetsky’s co-host, he said that theirs was a chemistry of opposites (that in Ebert’s mind, one imagines, may have been reminiscent of the critic’s own dynamic with Gene Siskel). “We’re both relatively affable people, so there’s not really a sense of rivalry between us,” Vishnevetsky said of himself and Lemire. “On the other hand, we’re coming at each other from odd angles and different backgrounds. We tend to react to very different things. Even when we agree on something it’s usually for completely different reasons.”
While the ranks and influence of print critics has greatly diminished in recent years, the 24-year-old is oddly optimistic about the future of movie reviews.
“There’s so much criticism on the Internet. It’s huge. And the bigger the group, the more greatness could possibly be found in it,” he said, adding that he believes more people in their late teens and 20s read reviews than those in their 30s.
He added that the lack of film criticism as a profitable career wouldn't be a hindrance to the future of film reviews. “Criticism will survive even if no one’s paying for it. Obviously it’s better if people are paying for it. But the fact that artists weren’t able to make a living from their work hasn't detracted from the quality of that work. Charles Ives was the second greatest composer in American history and he worked in insurance his whole life.”
Photo: Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. Credit: Chicago Sun-Times