The meteoric rise of Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, the 24-year-old freelance Chicago film critic and college dropout who was selected this month to co-host "Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies" alongside AP critic Christy Lemire, has been covered as if it were the Horatio Alger story of contemporary film criticism. Vishnevetsky says his new role is just a lucky break.
"I never intended to work as a critic," Vishnevetsky told indieWIRE in a phone interview last week. "I guess I sort of fell into it. When I started writing film criticism, I was working in a laundromat."
Vishnevetsky’s new gig marks a definitive moment in the history of broadcast film criticism. Ebert's original ABC show fell to a variety of guest hosts after the critic lost his ability to speak following cancer treatment in 2006. He officially ended his association with the show in 2008, at which point ABC reconfigured it with hosts Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz. After declining ratings and bad press for the hosts, the network hired critics A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips for what became the 24-year-old show's final season.
Ebert took the situation into his own hands and chose to launch a new program this year with two new hosts in addition to a regular segment featuring some of his thoughts on new releases. Vishnevetsky entered the equation after the departure of Lemire’s initial co-host, critic Elvis Mitchell.
A frequent contributor to online cinematheque MUBI (formerly The Auteurs) and the Chicago Reader, the Moscow-born Vishnevetsky began helping a friend run his movie rental store after leaving Columbia College. Vishnevetsky gradually began contributing to various online outlets and, with another critic, launched an ultra-low budget film zine, Zero for Conduct. He then began contributing on a volunteer basis to the Chicago-based website Cine-File and to the Tisch Film Review before he was invited to contribute to MUBI.
Film critic and former "At the Movies" host Scott off-handedly dubbed Vishnevetsky a "Chicago blogger" in The New York Times last weekend, but Vishnevetsky continues to write for at least one print publication with the Chicago Reader. He says the show will not eclipse any of his other writing duties and offers a positive spin on the prospects of his profession surviving in an overcrowded information age marked by soundbites and blurbs. "I'm very optimistic about the future of film criticism," he says. "We definitely live in a sort of transitional period. When everyone can go out there and write, it makes the people who are actually great at it really stand out."
Vishnevetsky's big break has been widely misreported as the result of Ebert watching the younger critic lecture at a local movie screening. The process was instead far more gradual and organic. Vishnevetsky's continual work as a critic means that he routinely attends press screenings at the Lake Street screening room, the same venue as other Chicago critics, which was what brought him to Ebert's attention. "I usually sit in the front row and Ebert usually sits in the back," Vishnevetsky recalls. "We'd seen each other around, but we'd never spoken."
Ebert overheard Vishnevetsky chatting with a colleague and decided to research his work. "He said a couple of things that made me realize he knew his movies," Ebert explained to indieWIRE via e-mail. "I got a good vibe." He looked up Vishnevetsky's phone number and asked his wife, Chaz, to invite Vishnevetsky over that night. The timing worked out perfectly, since auditions for the new show had been scheduled for the next day in Palm Springs.
Originally, Vishnevetsky was considered for a role as an occasional contributor, but once early tests culminated with Mitchell's departure, Vishnevetsky quickly became a candidate for the job. Ebert downplays the reason behind Mitchell leaving the program. "We just couldn't make it work," he says. "We liked Elvis and he was great in the pilot. We hope to use him as a contributor."
The selection of Vishnevetsky to replace Mitchell led to immediate scrutiny of the previously obscure young writer's tastes. Vishnevetsky's ballot in indieWIRE's 2010 critics' poll, which lists his top 10 films of the year, yielded some angry comments following a post at Slashfilm, where a number of readers reacted negatively to his selection of more obscure titles (including Rainer Werner Fassbinder's recently re-released 1972 feature "World on Wire" and George A. Romero's largely derided "Survival of the Dead").
Both Ebert and Vishnevetsky defended the list in the comments. "Who says he has to be populist?" Ebert later wrote to indieWIRE. "Some of the commenters on that thread complained because they hadn't seen all the films. Duh! The list shows he knows what he's talking about. Remember that he didn't attend a lot of mainstream movies last year."
Vishnevetsky readily acknowledges that he won't be able to discuss all of his cinematic interests on the program, which premieres January 21 on PBS. "The thing about this show is that it has to address an extremely general audience," he says. "I'd love to talk about a Jonas Mekas movie, but there are very few people in the audience who will be able to access it." But he still hopes to move beyond the commitment to cover new theatrical releases. "If it's a small film distributed by IFC, then audiences may be able to find it," he says, pointing out the extended availability of certain titles on VOD. "There's ultimately a playing field, and you have to play by its rules."
Meanwhile, Vishnevetsky has to contend with his current status as a kind of anti-Ben Lyons, who was seen as severely lacking knowledge of film history and the capacity for cinematic analysis. Vishnevetsky seems poised to show that not all twentysomethings sound alike. He acknowledges the perception of his role as a representative of many younger film critics. "I'd like to say it's not there, but I know that it is," he says. "There's a huge generation of critics who have come up through the Internet. If that positioning is going to happen, then I'm just going to have to do my best, dammit."