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Topics/Questions/Exercises Of The Week—26 March 2010

But The Original's Still The Greatest: I'm not gonna tell any tales out of school, but I doubt that either A.O. Scott or Michael Phillips will balk if I say I have every confidence that they weren't particularly surprised at the cancellation of the syndicated television program "At The Movies," for which they took over the hosting duties in September of 2009. In the statement I made fun of on my blog, the faceless Disney corporation said that the show had a "rich history and iconic status," and, whether or not the faceless Disney corporation actually sincerely meant that sentiment or not, I have to say I'm on board with it. I'm so old that I can still remember when the show's progenitor, PBS's "Sneak Previews," debuted in 1976. I was a high-school student living in Lake Hopatcong at the time. And I've gotta say, for all the things that Lake Hopatcong has to recommend it, interesting film talk isn't one of them. Not many book or magazine stores, either. Now that I'm thinking about it, I can't much remember what Lake Hopatcong did have to recommend it. Not that it was my goddamn idea to move there. Don't parents suck?

Okay, anyway, there I was in Lake Hopatcong bereft of scintillating movie talk, and then these guys show up. Back in the day, before Ebert really bulked up, we (or was it just I?) would call them The Bald Guy and The Sweater Guy. They knew their stuff and argued passionately. I don't rightly remember if the thumbs business, for which they were and still are oft chided/reviled, was a part of their schtick then or not. But I watched, every week, and after each episode I'd get on the phone with my friend Joseph, who was still in the relatively culture-rich town of Dumont, and discussed what we saw. And then came the move to network syndication, and PBS keeping the "Sneak Previews" name. Here's where the imitations started. "Previews" soldiered on with the Jeffrey Lyons in one of the critics' chairs. If you know Lyons at all, you understand that this is a guy who's a little bit pissed-off about everything, and who holds everybody who isn't him or isn't related to him in at the very least some slight contempt. This makes him kind of hilarious to attend a screening in the presence of, because often he'll talk in a too-loud voice about whatever's pissing him off that day. And a lot of the time it's the fact that these goddamn kids know the names of all the rappers out there but they have no idea who Humphrey Bogart was, and I'm gonna force some kid to watch Spartacus next time he wants a sick day and blah blah blah blah. Unfortunately he never brought that quality full-bore to his work on "Sneak Previews," instead trucking in the usual fake amiability that never entirely masks his hatred for the world and nearly everyone in it. Bore-ing! At first Lyons was paired with Neil Gabler, a gentleman and a scholar who found himself occasionally flummoxed by Lyons' oft-belligerent non-arguments, and then Michael Medved, who was in his amiable doofus mode back then—he had yet to go full wingnut.

Ah. I could go on about this for days, but I've got other stuff to do, and so do you. What's interesting, sort of, is that as quaint as the model for "At the Movies" came to seem, it was still the one most frequently adopted by brave new media types when attempting to craft televisual film review programming for the internet. That is, a one-on-one dialogue between two "critics." Only the particular perspective differ. Over at IndieWire, you've got the Reel Geezers, screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and producer Marcia Nasatir, whose hook is that they're pretty much unbelievably old: as their description notes, they bring "nearly a century of combined experience in the film game" to their critiques. Many find their schtick charming, and their insights no-nonsense. Me, not so much, and I better move on before I use the word "putrefaction," which wouldn't be at all nice. Another web-based riff on the "At the Movies" concept was essayed a couple years back by former nightlife scribe and current aspiring screenwriter A. J. Benza and man-with-a-thick-neck Neal Gumpel, whose "Real Guys Movie Reviews" purported to be "two guys giving the honest and brutal truth about the movies we all see." What I remember mostly about these nuggets was one conversation Benza and Gumpel had about the hotness of Asian chicks, and me getting into a furious flame war with Gumpel in which he insisted that his moral, intellectual, and spiritual superiority to me was rooted in the very expensive car he drove. Or something. It's hard to remember; so much from that period is a blur. I do recall that "Real Guys" gave me an idea to do a rival webcast called "Reel Drunkz," in which I and a standup comedian friend would sit in a bar downing Knob Creek shots with Stella pints as chasers, and me getting more and more belligerent as he would make fun of Tarkovsky or something. It seemed like a funny notion at the time.

Recently we've seen web-based video criticism explore other areas, as with David Poland's Super Movie Friends, in which a group of critics or filmmakers eats, drinks and talks movies; on the other end of the number-of-voices scale, Matt Soller Seitz's always thoughtful video essays, which evoke a much, much, much, much, much less idiosyncratic iteration of what Godard does in his Histoire(s) du cinema. But nothing seems to be catching on the way that those two fellas did back in the day. Why might that be?

Well, sometimes chemistry counts, and Siskel and Ebert seemed to have a sort of chemistry that even a well-matched pair of engaging, smart guys such as Phillips and Scott can't necessarily match. Also: production value. By that I don't just mean the "balcony" set and all that. I mean, also, conceptual clarity, that is, a clear idea of what was going to be done and how it was going to be done. This depends on quite a bit more than just setting up a camera, getting in front of it, and riffing. The sort of professionalism that is improperly dismissed as elitist formality or some such undesireable quality actually makes a huge difference in the scheme of things.

I'm not sure that this is a lesson that web-based video film journalism is going to assimilate any time soon, however. So I advise you not hold your breath waiting for the next definitive paradigm shift.

The two-critics formula was never adopted in the UK, ever, which is extraordinary. We get stuck with one guy’s opinion, and usually not a very smart guy, either. If we’re lucky, said guy has a spark of integrity, like Barry Norman, but whatever the inherent limitations of a Siskel & Ebert type show, it’s certainly preferable to be stuck with the limitations of a single mind.
In France, you have an entirely different approach on dealing with movies on TV. There’s of course the famous TV program ‘’Cineastes de Notre Temps’’ series which as far as I know has no equal in terms of insight and inventiveness in dealing with films seriously. With American media and in most places, criticism is seen as a form of and extension to publicity rather than a forum to talk about movies with passion and insight.
Well, it’s not on TV, but the two guys at the Filmspotting podcast have a lot of chemistry, and their discussions (both of new and classic films) are a lot of fun.
Chatting about movies on TV hasn’t always just been two dudes. There was, of course, the exceptional couple of seasons of “At the Movies” co-hosted by Rex Reed and Dixie Whatley.
“I do recall that “Real Guys” gave me an idea to do a rival webcast called “Reel Drunkz,” in which I and a standup comedian friend would sit in a bar downing Knob Creek shots with Stella pints as chasers, and me getting more and more belligerent as he would make fun of Tarkovsky or something. It seemed like a funny notion at the time." WANT.

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