1976 was an awful year of violent sequels and remakes?! But… but… but that’s a year before Star Wars ruined cinema! That’s a year when important films like All the President's Men reigned! Well, it was also a year where the box office was topped by remakes of A Star Is Born and King Kong, as well as The Enforcer (the third Dirty Harry movie) and a string of flicks like Carrie, Family Plot and the Omen which (I guess?) were too violent for Gene's tastes.
Maybe the 70s weren't quite as halcyon as cinephiles so often love to imagine.
Call this an uber Anti-Productivity. I’ve been idling some time away on YouTube recently by watching old Siskel & Ebert At the Movies reviews of some "new classics" like T2, Ghostbusters, Aliens, RoboCop, Predator and Beetlejuice. Beyond satisfying a simple curiosity to hear how my old favorites were received in their time, watching these has healthily reminded me of how enjoyment of your “good old days” is rarely shared by people who were actually of age at the time. It also shows that--wouldn’t you know--critics were griping about the same things 35 years ago.
Watching Siskel at work is interesting, in and of itself, because I'm far more familiar with Ebert's voice and tastes. In the long view, Roger was better at branding himself (or, perhaps, just at syndicating,) because I read his reviews every week growing up but never saw a single one of Siskel’s in print. Viewing these, now, I can see how Gene definitely comes across as the more haute couture of the two (the “snob” if you prefer) and it's clear why he and Roger had an interplay that made for good TV.
Many of the aforementioned reviews has Gene saying something to the effect of how he’d have preferred to see just the love story sub-plot by itself without the fantasy trappings, or that he enjoyed the film in spite of the special effects. FX traditionalists might be surprised to know that matte painting, optical printing and rotoscoping could've been just as distracting to some as mo-cap, keyframing and green screen in their day. I might also equate Siskel's general distaste for "movie magic" in these clips with contemporary fans’ often frothy irritation with CGI or Ebert’s current invective against 3D, but I think it goes beyond that.
Siskel describes effects (and, really, fantastical elements in general ) as almost akin to noisy patrons at a theater; something that’s an intrusion by its very nature. Something that can only be tolerated, at best. And I suppose that gets at what I see as the real sea change in the face of the movies. Gene describes some of these as being like B pictures getting undue "A" treatment, and I can only imagine the horror he’d be experiencing if he were reviewing movies today, when B and A's have effectively switched places for good.
You know what? I say that's great.
Look, these are the opinions of only one critic in his time, after all, and it's not like rejection was Siskel's only response to genre pictures. However, his sentiments in these clips remind me enough of those held by old professors and classmates of mine that I want to dredge up some frustration I had in film school. If "genre" isn't somebody's cup of tea, that's perfectly fine, but I ran into more people than I care to who had drab senses of humor and small imaginations with seemingly no room to appreciate anything fantastical. None-too-coincidentally, they were the same people who'd so often opine about how film "died" after the 70s.
If it really has to come down to an either/or, this-camp-or-that-camp disagreement, then I’m surprising nobody by saying I’m on the side of the genre picture. As annoying as the Joe Six-Pack movie buff who feeds awful blockbusters' grosses is, I’ve got a worse distaste for the film aficionado who finds anything too "imaginary" to be merit-less by nature. Excessive remakes, interminable sequels and dodgy effects are as annoying today as they've always been but, before you gripe too fiercely, we all ought to step back and appreciate the positive shift that allows pictures like Dark Knight and Return of the King to get "A" treatment they never could've dreamed of getting in 1976.
Here's one of Siskel & Ebert's vintage reviews to get you sucked into watching ten more on your favorites...