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Who is Ignatiy Vishnevetsky?

January 4, 2011 |  8:27 pm

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.

Vish 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.

It can lead also to a reputation in record time. Twenty years ago, someone like Vishnevetsky would have needed to spend years slaving away at non-criticism jobs before a newspaper might even give him the chance. These days, it happens almost overnight. (Ebert, for instance, was able to quickly go online and spot a full body of work after overhearing him talk at a Chicago screening.)

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.”

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. Credit: Chicago Sun-Times


With his new PBS Show, Roger Ebert goes alternative

Comments () | Archives (8)

The comments to this entry are closed.

This is just the most hilarious turn of events. Three winters ago I was interviewing Vishnevetsky, in his too-small vest, on the steps of the Wicker Park movie rental joint Odd Obsession Movies (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6w8v2wGGoI). And now I see his name all over the niche-film media, announcing his arrival as Roger Ebert's new golden boy—a remarkable achievement for someone who is only 24. Good for him!

Sounds like he hasn't changed a bit–I remember he was every bit as careful and thoughtful in his comments as you describe.

"Talking to Vishnevetsky, once get the sense of an egghead type."

Thankfully, our faithful correspondent at the L.A. Times isn't the kind of dweeby elitist who'd edit his own writing. But Mr. "Zeitchek," you should watch out, for your name is equally hilarious and ripe for tagline zinging!

Gentle humor aside, this is great news.

Roger Ebert is "the most influential broadcast critic in American history"?!?!?

Sorry -- I was laughing too hard to read any further. But I'm glad to see that the L.A. Times doesn't trouble itself about maintaining credibility. . . .

Charles Ives the "second greatest composer in American history"? I think a few guys named Copland, Barber, Bernstein, Gershwin, and Ellington might have something to say about that, if they were still with us. Oh well, he's twenty-four and trying to sound academic and hip.

And with recomendations like Crank 2 and Gamer, suddenly Ben Lyons doesn't look all that bad.

Yes ...typical! What in the universe a 24 years old Russian emigre would know about Bunuel, Ozzu, Olmi, Zanussi, Tatti, Tarkovsky, Passer, Saura, Lean, Penn, Paskaljevich along with pleiades of other Cinema Giants. Born post "Star Wars" with "Avatar" being supreme model please, PLEASE do not push me the idea of movie critique ... Sensationism a la Milos Forman made it n Hollywood.

@Daniel Bojckov
I can see your logic (though not necessarily agree with it) in saying that a 24-year old may not know everything there is to know about cinematography. But what does being a Russian emigre have to do with this? Especially when somebody was brought here as a child and grew up within the U.S. cultural environment (for better or worse). Get jealous much, Daniel?

Another Russian emigre

Whom does Vishnevskaya anoint as the #1 greatest composer in American history?


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