To begin with, thank you. I am so grateful for this enormous honor. And I am no less grateful that it has been presented by the great director Michael Apted, whose “Up!” documentaries strike me as one of the most noble achievements in film.
The person responsible above all others for the gift of a motion picture is the director. That is why it means so much to be honored by you. In countless ways you have directed my education as a film critic. You have allowed me to hang around on your sets. You have invited me to your locations. I was on the beach with Fellini, in Mexico with Peckinpah, in a Western saloon with Henry Hathaway, in a psychiatrist’s office with Bergman, in Venice with Visconti, beneath Juliet’s balcony with Zeffirelli, at a poker game with Billy Wilder, in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory with Mel Brooks, and in a Chicago whorehouse with Norman Jewison.
Thinking of tonight’s nominees, I discussed his first film, “Grand Theft Auto” with Ron Howard. I met Chris Nolan and Jonathan Nolan after the premiere of “Memento” at Sundance. Gun Van Sant was willing to discuss the thinking behind his challenging film “Elephant.” I went through David Fincher’s “Fight Club” a shot at a time for a week with students in Boulder, who patiently explained to me why I had completely misunderstood the film. I was able to show Danny Boyle’s “Millions” at my film festival at the University of Illinois.
Of course sometimes my reviews have not been favorable. Robert Altman once told me, “If you never wrote a negative review, what would your positive reviews mean?”
“That’s true,” I said.
“Unfortunately,” Altman said, “in my case, all of your negative reviews have been mistaken.”
In this age when worthless celebrity gossip is replacing serious film criticism, I may be peculiar when I find myself on a set, because I’m usually more interested in the directors than the stars. So many of you have explained things to me, and taught me. I remember Brian de Palma diagramming a shot strategy. Marty Scorsese telling me how when he was a kid, he was fascinated by one single shot in a Michael Powell film that may have led him to become a director.
Werner Herzog and I have been in conversation since the 1970s. He is joining us at our table tonight, along with our Chicago friends Virginia Madsen, Andy Davis and Harold Ramis. Also my stepchildren Sonia and Josibiah.
To all of these people and countless others in the film industry, I owe a debt. You have given me a worthy vocation. When I look at Michael’s great series between “7-Up” and “49-Up,” and follow those lives as they unfold through the years, they lead me to think of the movies as an Empathy Machine.
We are born into a box of space and time, and the movies come closer than any other art form in giving us the experience of walking in someone else’s shoes. They allow us an opportunity to experience what it would be like to live within another gender, race, religion, nationality, or period of time. They expand us, they improve us, and sometimes they ennoble us. They also thrill us and make us laugh and cry, and for that gift, and for this honor tonight, I am very grateful.