Democracy in the Dark: My Thoughts on Ebert Interruptus 2019


There was a time when I could discuss the intricacies of theme, harmony, texture, timbre, and structure of string quartets by Haydn and Mozart, as well as symphonies by Brahms, Beethoven, and others. That knowledge was imparted courtesy of a music professor in graduate school who played recordings of those works, asked questions, played the recordings again, asked more questions, and kept repeating the process until he saw a glimmer of light begin to shine in our collective understanding. In many ways, Ebert Interruptus provides a similar experience, but one that’s a lot more fun.




Originally called Cinema Interruptus, the more common moniker Ebert Interruptus is an event that takes place within the larger confines of the Conference on World Affairs, held annually at the University of Colorado Boulder. Film critic Roger Ebert (1942-2013) began the program at CU Boulder in 1975 (and at Chicago locales before that) by selecting one film, screening it on the first day of the conference, and revisiting it on subsequent days, allowing anyone in the audience (including Ebert) to say “Stop!”, allowing that person to ask a question or make a comment.



Although Ebert stopped leading the event in 2006 due to his declining health, Interruptus has continued under the leadership of others. Since 2017, Interruptus has been led by Josh Larsen, a Chicago area film critic who edits the digital magazine Think Christian (which is also a new podcast), writes at Larsen on Film, co-hosts the podcast Filmspotting, and has authored the book Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings (2017).


After wanting to attend Interruptus for years, I finally decided several months ago that 2019 would be the year. After noting Larsen’s previous picks Rushmore (1998) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), both films I enjoy and admire, I committed myself to attending the CWA before Larsen announced his 2019 Interruptus film choice. I wondered if Larsen would choose another contemporary film. (Readers of this blog will already know that most of the films I watch are at least 30 years old, so even a film like Rushmore - made over 20 years ago - is still “contemporary” to me.)



In the days before the title announcement, I envisioned a Coen brothers movie or a Paul Thomas Anderson film. Maybe Larson would even pick an international title such as Ida (2013) or Phoenix (2014). When the Pixar film WALL-E (2008) was announced as the Interruptus choice for 2019, “disappointment” is far too gentle a word for what I felt. Seriously? This is a film I watched with my two young nieces years ago. Even though I enjoyed WALL-E at the time, I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the idea of flying more than halfway across the country for an animated film. I took this as a sign that maybe I should cancel my plane ticket and hotel room. (An even bigger sign that I shouldn’t go appeared in the form of a summons for jury duty, which I was thankfully able to postpone since I’d already paid for the trip.) Yet after reading Movies Are Prayers and listening to Filmspotting for a couple of years, something told me I could trust Larsen to make Interruptus a worthwhile adventure.


Once I arrived in Boulder, I really wasn’t sure what to expect, but after years of leading movie discussions at the Severna Park Library, I knew enough to know that audiences can say anything from painfully obvious observations to deeply profound insights about any given film. With WALL-E, I was astonished at the level of detail and thoughtfulness of the questions and comments posed by the audience. These questions and comments were coming so fast that I could hardly process them all, much less write them down in my notebook. During the initial session, audience members commented not only on the film’s extensive worldbuilding, but also touched on themes of consumerism, ecology, artificial intelligence, free will, the culture of convenience, and much more. I was in the middle of a cinematic deep dive and I was absolutely loving it.



Movie fanatics are fortunate to find one or two friends who long to discuss cinema on a deep level. Imagine an auditorium full of such people. Not only is Interruptus a validation of your own love of film, it’s also the recognition of a community of people who love what you love and are willing to share and listen in equal measure. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that this was an incredibly moving experience that was over all too quickly. Yet even when each Interruptus session ended, the conversations often continued in small groups or in one-on-one discussions. (I was fortunate enough to engage in a few of these.)


Is Interruptus perfect? No. People who’ve missed a session or two will invariably make comments that have already been made. Others will ramble and drift off topic. But such are the conversations of life. Patience and courtesy (to say nothing of the democratic process) abide, mostly because of the respectful and gracious manner of Larsen. There are no “wrong” answers or opinions, so there can be no backlash, which encourages the reluctant to participate. You soon realize that this communal experience is very much worth the effort it takes to put yourself out there to ask a question or state an opinion. You also realize, as Larsen posits in his book, that movies really can be prayers, and even though Interruptus isn’t really a religious gathering (or is it?), it is an event of incredible power. If you ever attend Interruptus, I promise you won’t forget it.



I realize I’ve given you few details of our discussion of WALL-E. This is not to deprive you of the depth of the experience, but rather to encourage you to attend a future Interruptus event. Even if I were to recount every observation and question verbatim, such reporting couldn’t compare to the experience of being there.


I congratulate Larsen and moderator Michael Casey, not only for their pre-production efforts in making Interruptus happen, but also for arranging other clips relevant to WALL-E (such as Hello, Dolly [1969] and 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]) and inviting guests such as Mike Reiss (writer/producer of The Simpsons) and Michelle Thaller (astrophysicist at NASA) to discuss their thoughts on the film.


By the end of the week, I understood what other Interruptus veterans had been telling me all along: there’s nothing else like this anywhere. You could - and should - consider Interruptus as one of the Wonders of the Cinematic World. How could you say no to that?


Photos not my own: Boulder Daily Camera, Larsen on Film, Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures

© 2019 by Andy Wolverton

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