'TV Critics Aren't Lowering the Standards'

Calendar went to the TV film critics to ask about reviewing on the tube. Of course, they defended their profession:

Sheehan on Sheehan

David Sheehan, KNBC-TV Channel 4, said that the nature of TV news--and its framework--dictates format: "All stories are two to three minutes long. Even on the biggest national news story, you're limited in terms of your segment time."

Likening reviews to consumer guides, Sheehan said: "In the two or three minutes that I have, I try to give the viewer as comprehensive an idea as possible . . . of the overall feeling of any particular film . . . so that a viewer can almost make up his or her own mind." But he added, "If I do my job right, you might like a movie for the very reasons that I don't."

Does he use flashy language in his reviews? "I've been told that I don't. Sometimes the studios call me up and say, 'Got anything we can quote?' " He said they do so because what he said on the air "wasn't very quotable."

And as for the three to eight clips that studios regularly provide on each film, Sheehan noted that "most of the time they give you exactly what is needed to describe the story and to give the character definitions. Most of the studios are pretty good."

But Sheehan, a former actor, said that once in a while studios will supply "a batch of clips that sell you the movie rather than inform. Not more than once a month, I'll get a batch of clips that are not what I want."

"It used to be a lot worse," said Sheehan, who pointed out that he was the first TV film critic in L.A.: "I had to sort of train them" in the early 1970s.

On the subject of the profession's standards, Sheehan commented, "There are probably some individuals on television who have lowered standards.

"There are reviewers on television that seem to have kind of commercial tastes, which can be called low standards. But there are also critics in print with the same problem. I don't think it's the critics on television that are lowering the standards.

"I would say the standards have been pretty strong in print and in television for the last 10 years."

Franklin on Franklin

About half an hour before going on the afternoon news at KABC-TV Channel 7, Gary Franklin agreed to briefly discuss his impact as a critic: "If you don't mind my changing my shirt while I'm talking to you," he said with a laugh.

He contended that he and his colleagues in the profession are journalists, not entertainers. "On the contrary, I feel uncomfortable when they put makeup on me," he noted.

"We're no more flashier than Sheila Benson or David Ansen or Janet Maslin. "I like to think of myself as a consumer reporter for entertainment consumers, because for some people, 50 bucks is a lot to spend," said the self-described "former hard-news reporter" who covered such events as the 1968 Chicago riots and the Patty Hearst kidnapping.

TV reviewers also go one step further than print critics, Franklin maintained. "The one advantage we have over other media is that we can show scenes from the movie. You (The Times) can't do that. Only we can do that, which in the final analysis is probably the most important part of our review. I let the scenes often speak for themselves."

As for whether or not film clips can be construed as free advertising, Franklin replied, "No more so than when they give you guys--in the newspaper--stills." But showing clips can even have a destructive effect on the movie too, he said.

But are his segments (generally about two minutes long) too short to really tell viewers about a film? "I don't think it's so little time. I was weaned in this industry. I'm used to writing tight. My greatest strength is being able to communicate in the shortest possible time with the least amount of words. That's what broadcast news is all about."

As for whether or not he has helped to lower film criticism's standards, Franklin responded, "That may be true for some of my colleagues, but not for me. Au contraire, I'm more outspoken about socially conscious movies and the destructive effect of asocial movies, and I'm probably one of the few critics who continually harps on that subject.

"I like to think I have heightened the standards, and I'm proud of that.

"I don't see anybody (else) in the news speaking out loud against bloody horror films and supporting films like 'Cry Freedom,' 'Weeds' and 'The Last Emperor.' "

And of the caliber of TV film reviewers, Franklin said: "There are people who have drifted into film reviewing who are ex-actors. It's pretty much like an ex-actor becoming President of the U.S."

Shalit on Shalit

Speaking from his home in the Berkshires near Tanglewood, Mass., Gene Shalit insisted that he employs good--not flashy--language in his "Today" film reviews.

"Next to the wheel, language is the greatest invention of the human race," Shalit explained. "And I cherish it. I'm very careful with my language."

The way to write a film review is to write precisely, he said. "You can't use a lot of superfluous vocabulary when you're trying to write a distillation of your review.

"I mean, Pauline Kael's reviews (in New Yorker) are very often longer than the movies," he quipped. "I've never walked out of a movie, but I've walked out of some reviews."

So much the better if one word can do double the work, Shalit noted. "Of course, then you get accused of using puns."

In fact, Shalit has been accused of using alliteration. (On "Fatal Attraction": "Filled with suspense, surprises, secrets . . . it's sexy, it's scary, it's some kind of movie!") He responded, "That was my Swinburne moment for the year." (He dubbed Victorian poet Algernon Swinburne "one of the great alliterators.")

"I'm afraid that's not one of my finest moments. My (admiration) of Swinburne just influenced that sentence." He continued: "I saw him (Swinburne) smiling down from heaven saying, 'They're going to question that in the 20th Century. How very Victorian of you!'

"Swinburne and I met in college," Shalit said mischievously. "I tiptoe around him. I call him Al. I had this 'fatal attraction' for Swinburne."

Alliteration aside, is a three-minute segment long enough for a film review? "It's adequate," Shalit said, noting that his reviews are about 1,000 words, sometimes shorter.

"If your stories get long-winded, you add paper. If Sheila Benson wants to write an article 3,000 words long, the newspaper can accommodate her. You can't do that on television, because you can't add minutes to the clock."

Shalit also condemned the use of film clips for TV reviews. "I think that film clips are a distortion of the truth. If it's a superior movie, a one-minute film clip isn't really going to reveal the artistry of that director."

And he said that a one-minute clip taken out of context from a really terrible movie can mislead viewers into thinking that the film is worth seeing. "That's what TV commercials are," he added.

Are TV reviewers lowering standards? "Absurd. I've seen more crap written about movies in newspapers. They ought to be back in the classified department . . . selling used-car ads."

While he is a self-described "newspaper junkie," Shalit contended that newspapers have more rotten critics than TV does--simply because there are more newspapers. "To think that a television critic is different from a newspaper critic is nonsense," he insisted. "If a guy thinks because he writes in newspapers that his words are holier, I mean, that's ridiculous."

And Shalit also dismissed as ridiculous the idea that a reviewer would want to be quoted in an ad. "Who the hell wants to be in an ad?" Anyone who does care, he said, ought to be "hung from his thumbs. What, is that some sort of fame, to be quoted in a movie company's ad?" he wondered. "It's a new low in celebrity."

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