When movie critic Gene Siskel died in 1999 my father called me the next morning and told me I should apply for his job at the Chicago Tribune. He was completely serious, convinced that I could call the paper and they would jump at the chance of hiring me to fill the shoes of the internationally known critic. No matter that I had never written a single film review in my life, had absolutely no interest in writing film reviews, and couldn’t stand most movie critics and their pretentious ramblings. I had been burned by several agonizing film criticism courses in college where I had read countless high-fallutin’ critiques of the nouvelle vague in publications such as Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif. My own critical nadir took the form a 30-page paper I wrote during senior year that examined the theories of a French philosopher as they related to the use of time and narrative in the sitcom “Laverne and Shirley.” Kill me. In truth, I did occasionally read folks like Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and Roger Ebert, but I certainly never aspired to join their ranks. One of the main reasons why I have always gone to so many movies by myself is because I’m uncomfortable with the idea of giving my assessment of a film as I’m walking out of a theatre. When I’m with other people I always feel the pressure to comment, and all I can usually eke out is a wan “I liked it” or “good movie!” or “boy, that sure sucked!” Not exactly André Bazin. My father, God love him, never gave up on this idea of me writing movie reviews for well known publications. And I still yell at him whenever he brings it up, telling him I’d rather work in a toothpaste factory. Which is why I’m more than amused that my blog has unwittingly produced a steady stream of…well…film reviews? Of a certain fashion, of course, not quite New York Times material! I just paged through and realized that since I started writing this last December, I’ve offered up my take on The Aviator, The Philadelphia Story, Imaginary Heroes, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer, The Woodsman, Birth, The Saddest Music in the World, The Bad Seed, Annie Hall, Born into Brothels, Fiddler on the Roof, The Snake Pit, Kinsey, Bride and Prejudice, Hotel Rwanda, Downfall, Watermarks, Song of Bernadette, Ladies in Lavender, The Graduate, Revenge of the Sith, Mad Hot Ballroom, Shake Hands with the Devil, Carousel, Bewitched, War of the Worlds, and The Sound of Music. I’ve also done profiles of Doris Day, Greta Garbo, Harold Arlen, Jane Fonda, Julie Newmar, and Anne Bancroft, a look at famous child stars, and a bunch of features about the Oscars and other awards shows. Good God, maybe I AM Gene Siskel!
No...I’m really not, although I used to “work” with him. Just out of college in 1980, I had a brief stint as a copy clerk at the Chicago Tribune. It was a thankless job, pulling copy off the wire machines, but it was fun being privy to breaking news stories and loading them into the pneumatic tubes that carried them away with such a forcible whoosh I always thought my arm might accidentally be sucked away with the article. Siskel would often come into my area and start pulling copy off the machines himself if there was a story he was tracking. Being at the bottom of the journalistic food chain, he never gave me the time of day and sometimes he’d sit down in my chair and put his feet up on the machines that I was supposed to be monitoring which really pissed me off. And why oh why did he spend all that money on John Travolta’s white suit from “Saturday Night Fever?” Did he like to put it on? I did think Gene Siskel was a fine journalist, though, and I was sad when he died so young from complications after brain surgery.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised at how often I write about movies on this blog. After all, I do see an awful lot of films and my passions and opinions on the subject tend to run high—both my unbridled contempt for the mainstream and utterly useless Hollywood glop that we are so frequently forcefed, as well as my undying gratitude for the few films that dare to contain an original thought or idea. One film that I just saw that definitely fits the latter category is The Talent Given Us by Andrew Wagner. This odd but remarkable film features Andy, his parents, his two sisters, and his friends all playing themselves. Having seen an ad for the film I assumed it was a documentary about a dysfunctional Jewish family. It was only halfway through the film when I finally understood that this was fiction, despite the fact that all the characters were using their real names and playing versions of themselves. The parents, Allen and Judy, were both 70 and clearly had big problems in their marriage. I was surprised when Judy suddenly announced she wanted to leave Allen. How lucky that they happened to be filming at that moment, I thought, and it reminded me of Pat Loud’s on-camera break-up with her husband on TV’s very first reality show, the amazing “An American Family,” shown on PBS in 1973. I was also impressed that sisters Maggie and Emily were willing to be so honest about themselves in front of the cameras, even when it put them in an unflattering light. Emily, who was occasionally recognized during the film’s cross-country driving trip because of her recurring role as paramedic Doris Pickman on "ER," talked incessantly about the plastic surgery she was planning on having as soon as she got back to L.A. Old, ugly rivalries between Emily and Maggie came to a head during the endless car ride forcing first one, then the other sister to jump ship. While the family’s dynamic was outrageously funny and horrific, it all rang completely true. Andy and his sisters appeared at the late-night screening I attended (gotta love those independent filmmakers!) and I learned that while the sisters both act professionally, the parents do not and it’s astounding the way Wagner was able to wring such real performances out of them. Turns out the film was entirely scripted from beginning to end, weaving in a few actual facts about the characters, such as Emily’s role on "ER." My mind immediately raced to the idea of using my own family to create a cathartic piece of fiction.
It isn’t hard to see parallels between my family and the Louds of Santa Barbara or the Wagners of New York and Los Angeles. We even had practice living out painful family dramas in front of the camera! My father works in the security business and was also a gadget junkie in the early 70s, so we were the only family I knew who had a Nixon-era videotaping system in our house. It was a black and white camera that recorded grainy video images onto a large reel-to-reel tape that cost a fortune and lasted for 30 minutes. My brother Bruce became the unofficial videographer of the family’s collapse. In one tape, you see all of us sitting around the living room as my mother arrives home quite late and seeming very nervous and on edge. With the cameras still rolling, she joins the scene and starts sparring with my father, using a series of double entendres that went completely over my 11-year-old head. It was only years later that I was able to put the pieces together and realize that in the video my mom had just come home from a tryst with her still secret lover. A team of analysts should be hired to watch our sad, desperate machinations that reveal so much through coded words and uncomfortable body language. I do remember my father’s prescient “joke” as he and my mother were ratcheting up their sarcastic repartee: “Tell it to the lawyers, Judy!” The photo above shows my family several years earlier at my brother’s Bar Mitzvah in the Catskills. I’ve already posted the one group shot of my family taken at my ill-fated Bar Mitzvah which occurred during the middle of my parents’ ugly divorce. It would be a full 26 years before the five of us were in the same room again.
This 1998 reunion was not planned. I was coming to Chicago from Los Angeles for my cousin Sarah’s wedding and both my parents wanted to see me as soon as I arrived at my sister’s house. When my brother stopped by, there we suddenly were, “Reunited (And It Feels So Good)”! Or did it? Something inside of me sensed that this was a moment that would never happen again and needed to be recorded. I placed my camera on my sister’s TV, set the timer, and ran into place on the floor between my sister and brother. It’s not a good photo but to me it’s a critical piece of my family history. Little did any of us know that less than a month after this photo was taken my mother would be diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer and be dead in less than five months. My mother’s death foiled my plans to create a Wagnerian piece of fiction with my family members playing themselves. Not that they would have agreed to do it, but I still fantasize about this idea. The power of being able to put the words I want to hear in their mouths is so exciting to me that I almost wonder if I should find an actress who could play the part of my mother. Shirley MacLaine maybe? Well, it probably wouldn’t work, just like you couldn’t have a Beatles reunion without the real John Lennon and George Harrison. But imagine all the cathartic possibilities of directing your family members in a film that YOU get to write. The opportunities for “closure” are intoxicating! Maybe I should approach Shirley Maclaine—it will help with my distribution deal! Then my mom could grab Gene Siskel and some popcorn and watch my recreation of that living room scene from the early seventies. Shirley MacLaine will be brilliant saying the lines that I so wanted my mother to say all those years ago. I’ve no doubt Siskel will give an enthusiastic Two Thumbs Up!