Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

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It occurs to me that I should say something about that show that is going off, or has gone off, the air. You know the one. The one with the two guys arguing about movies and they do thumbs up and thumbs down on each movie under discussion.

It’s been on for ages and it started, I think, on PBS. But then it was so successful that it moved to regular old commercial TV and was syndicated, which meant that it aired early on Saturday evening or sometime like that. For most of its run it starred Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, the two main newspaper film critics in Chicago. But then Siskel died and Ebert had health problems and so the stars changed and changed back. I don’t really know. I hardly ever saw it. But when it was announced that the program was going off the air (I can’t quite remember the name, but I think it started out as Sneak Previews and then was something like At the Movies), I read a few articles that paid tribute to it for popularizing movie-going, as if somehow only a few effete snobs had been going to movies before.

Frankly, the thumbs-up/thumbs-down format drove me crazy. When the show first came on, people kept telling me I should watch because I would love it because I liked movies so much. That made sense to me, so I watched. But strangely, the more I watched it, the less I wanted to go to the movies. The critics’ brief summaries of what the movie were about made them seem a less interesting than they actually were. And there was something pro forma about the way the two critics would argue with each other. Sometimes they would seem to get quite passionate and nearly carried away in the heat of discussion, but then they always calmed down just in time for the commercial. And then there was the whole thumbs-up/thumbs-down thing. In what other area of our life do we plug our subjective feeling about something into a binary choice? That’s why newspaper critics usually use a star system and rate films on a scale. But, for some reason, the critics on that show locked themselves into the format of saying, go see this movie or don’t go see this movie—with no natural room in between. That drove me crazy.

And during the brief period that I watched the show, I found that movies that sounded interesting when I read about them in the newspaper sounded boring or tedious when they were discussed on television. What’s worse, not only was the show discouraging me from going to the cinema but it was using up valuable time that could have been used for going to the cinema. I soon stopped watching and felt better altogether. The show went on for years, in fact decades, without me watching, and we were all happy. Frankly, I had no idea that it was still on the air until I read that it was going off the air.

I’m not writing any of this as a slam for people who watched the show and enjoyed it and found it useful. I’m just sharing my own personal experience. But for some reason, I just have trouble watching film criticism on TV. I’ve never come across a television show about movies that didn’t feel like a waste of time. Maybe it’s just the medium, even though, on the face of it, television seems like an ideal medium for film criticism. After all, instead of describing a scene from a film, the critic can actually show you a snippet of it. But maybe that’s the problem. Clips have to be provided by the studios, and studios are only going to release clips that work potentially as commercials. And, given that, say, a half-hour show will want to get in at least three or four movies, that doesn’t leave much time to go beyond the superficial.

And, no, it’s not just an American thing. British or Irish TV programs about film generally don’t work any better for me. In Ireland, the state broadcaster RTÉ has a show called The View, which is kind of confusing for me because I always expect to see Barbara Walters and a bunch of crazy women. (Just last week I heard Ricky Gervais on BBC radio describing his latest U.S. press tour and he accurately described going on the American View like “crashing a hen party.”) The Irish View has a presenter named John Kelly, who is great to listen to on the radio and always has an interesting mix of music. But on television, his show which deals with all kinds of culture, not just film, is tedious in the extreme. Each panelist is trying to outdo the next one as to how refined his or her taste is and how above they are anything that would reek of commonness. The last episode I caught featured a discussion of The Blind Side and one poor woman was pilloried because she dared to think that maybe it (and its failure to show just how really racist those Americans are) wasn’t quite as bad as everyone else thought. The other problem with The View is that, if you’re mainly interested in movies, you have to wade through discussions about everything from books to architecture. The same is true of the UK’s Culture Show, although it doesn’t seem to be a pretentious as its Irish counterpart.

I don’t want to paint these culture shows with too broad a brush because, frankly, I haven’t watched them all that much. As I’ve indicated, whenever I tune in I tend to become bored and then don’t tune in again. I am perfectly willing to consider that this says more about me than it does about these shows. And it seems that the BBC has a TV show called Film 2010. (Last year it was called Film 2009. See if you can figure out the pattern.) I haven’t seen it, but it sounds as though it would be right up my alley. Since 1999 the show has been hosted by Jonathan Ross, who is a very funny and entertaining personality who also happens to be pretty well informed. Is he the foremost film critic in the world? No, but I bet he would put on a pretty good movie show. He certainly was fine on the occasions that I saw him host the UK live broadcast of the Academy Awards. Much better than that woman Claudia Winkleman, who has served the same function when Sky Movies has had the livebroadcast. Of course, I haven’t seen him host this film show and, it turns out, I probably never will since he is leaving the BBC. And who is replacing him on Film 2010? Why, that same Claudia Winkleman that I was just talking about. A good choice? Well, when Ross was filling the breaks during the Oscar telecasts, I couldn’t fast forward because he and his guests were actually interesting to listen to. When Winkleman was doing it, I had to fast forward to keep from falling asleep. ‘Nuff said.

Before Winkleman was named the new Film 2010 host, there was keen speculation that Mark Kermode would fill the chair, but afterward he was quite insistent that he never expected to be considered for it. He certainly would be more knowledgeable than Winkleman, although that doesn’t necessarily mean he would be a good host for a show like that. Frankly, he has his perfect broadcasting niche on his Friday afternoon radio show with Simon Mayo (available worldwide on the internet and via podcast). The two of them would be hugely entertaining no matter what subjects they might be discussing. The fact that they happen to be talking about movies is merely the icing on the cake.

And that leads me to conclude that, after print (and, of course, web pages like this one), the medium best suited for transmitting film criticism is radio/webcast/podcast.

-S.L., 15 April 2010

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