If you’re throwing a dinner party and you’re looking for that special someone who can engage everyone in the room with an immediate showbiz anecdote full of recognizable names and a guaranteed punch-line, here’s a suggestion: Send the invite to television film critic Jeffrey Lyons. Believe me, you can’t go wrong. In the Media Room at the 21st Sedona International Film Festival yesterday afternoon, Jeffrey Lyons delighted a room full of reporters and cameramen with stories that could fill volumes.
“Ruth Gordon told me to be careful before I poop on someone else’s work,” he said, referring to the early days of his career as a film critic. He then added, “She didn’t say ‘poop’ either.”
The New York based film critic is in Sedona at the film festival to co-host and to answer questions on the 1966 Orson Welles classic Chimes At Midnight with Beatrice Welles. “I’ve known Beatrice all her life,” he said and followed through with a story of how, at the age of seven, Beatrice learned to dance the Flamenco in Spain. “She said that the thing about Flamenco is you have to hate the floor.”
After the press completed its questions, I had the opportunity of talking to Jeffrey Lyons away from the crowd. The subject? Film criticism.
The late film critic Gene Siskel once said that the only people who should vote on the Best Picture award at the Oscars are critics because they’re the ones who have actually seen all the films. Was he right? That’s an interesting point and a valid point. That’s why there’s the Critic’s Awards, so I vote for that.
With so many movie-goers writing their man-in-the-street opinions on-line, is the role of the professional movie critic becoming diminished? There aren’t many of us left on TV. I think people, though, still want to get their information and opinions and spend their hard earned money on someone they trust. To rely on a blogger and not know what they’ve liked in the past, their history, what their background is and how knowledgeable they are, I think it’s risky. It’s a lazy way to get an opinion before you see a movie. And I think that’s why people who have been around for awhile – I’ve certainly reviewed more movies than anybody, I’ll wager – but other people who’ve been around eight, ten, twelve years, those are people you can get a handle on and you can trust their opinion.
Movie studios are even quoting some of those comments on their ads. I know, I know. It’s not right. And when they do put your name in the ads you need a microscope to see it, but, you know, let people know where it’s coming from.
In his book ‘Hatchet Job’ British film critic Mark Kermode talks of how it’s his negative reviews that create more attention than his positive. Do you find that to be true with you? There’s an old news director’s mantra, ‘If it bleeds, it leads’. TV news is negative news. It all depends. I think it depends on the film. Sometimes, some films beg to be slaughtered and, you know, I sometimes feel sorry for the actors who have to appear in films like those.
Can you recall when your review was more of a rant than anything else? No. I’ve thought about what Ruth Gordon told me, think twice before you knock someone else’s work. Never done that. I did see a movie called Sweet Savior about Charles Manson and I met Sharon Tate, I felt offended by that. I saw a movie about Patty Hearst in which she’s raped by six men and a snake, or something, and that you can rant about. I saw a movie called… oh, what’s it called, a Pasolini film that one pompous critic who wrote for a national magazine loved and called it ‘X for Excellent.’ We called it ‘X for Excrement.’ So, sometimes you see things that offend you. There was a movie earlier this year called Jupiter Ascending. I love Mila Kunis, but she’s hit by a lead pipe. I don’t like movies like that. I don’t like movies where women are hit. I don’t like movies set in men’s rooms where the guys are urinating, I don’t like that, either. It’s just gross. I mean, must we? Fifty Shades of Grey I just loathed. First of all, he has all the depth of the underwear model he used to be, and she deserves better than that. There’s nothing glamourous and there’s nothing sexy, nothing erotic about people who whip people. I mean, those people need a team of psychiatrists. There’s nothing at all fancy about that. It’s … it’s sad.
And there are two more to come. I know. That’s the biggest pain I felt, knowing there’s more to come.
Have you found yourself on the receiving end of those who vehemently disagree with something you’ve said or written? Oh, a lot of people. Oh, yeah, I mean there was one… this creepy guy who wrote about my son Ben who did this TV show for a year and the guy would tape the show and he would write out the dialog of the show and under every line he’d write something else, something negative, and my son finally confronted him and said, “You’re a good writer. Why do you waste your time doing this?” The guy was taken aback. He was shocked at that. I mean, get a life. Anything you do, there are going to be naysayers. You just have to take those.
How about the benefit of hindsight? Have you ever wanted to go back and change a review? The only one that comes to mind is The Front, the Woody Allen movie. I was wrong about that. I was ill-informed. There was some humor during the blacklist, but at the time I didn’t see it.
How do you feel about the profane-laced modern American comedy where the f-bomb in a script is used in lieu of a punch-line? If you take out the f-bomb from those films then the film would last twenty minutes. I’m not offended by that, not at all – that’s the way many speak – but after a while it’s a lazy way to fill up a page.
When did that particular trend start? The first time that language was used , to my memory, was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, but that was a work of art. And that was shocking and provocative, and it’s still something amazing.
There was also Barbara Streisand in The Owl and the Pussycat, but it was a real punch-line with a great set up. Yeah. That’s exactly right. Funny. But the studios right now are more concerned with money than they are with art. We live in a country where – and I know I’m baying at the moon – but we live in a country where more people know who Snookie is rather than Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. That’s the sad part about it.
Speaking of trends, are there any current movie trends – maybe the found footage genre or 3D – that you feel need to move on? Dan Rather said, “I know what’s on my desk today.” I don’t really look at trends, but there are the usual sequels. At the end of the movie sometimes they don’t kill the bad guy off when you expect them to and you go, “Oh-oh, there’s going to be a sequel.” That kind of thing annoys me. I don’t necessarily need to see more of something. You know, I’m so glad I never have to see another Lord of the Rings again, thank you very much. Enough already. No matter how good they were, enough already. The Twilight movies; enough already. Hours closer to the grave and what have I got for it?
How about genres of the past? Do you miss the musical or maybe the western? Very much. I’m a big western fan. I mean, I grew up loving westerns. The Big Country I can see fifty times. Shane and Gunfight at the OK Coral, and Winchester 73 and Pony Express. I love those movies. Not the Lone Ranger movie; factually incorrect. The most recent one was outrageous. First of all, only Apaches get up on the right side of the horse. The Lone Ranger mounts his horse on the right side. And it was set in the 1860’s and he’s using a Colt Peacemaker that didn’t hit the frontier until the 1870’s. That kind of stuff annoys me, like seeing Apache’s with vaccination marks. I saw that in a Gregory Peck movie once.
How The West Was Won? Wasn’t Eli Wallach great in that movie? Oh, that’s one of the great films about the west.
Do you miss the TV style of film debate that you did on Sneak Previews, then later with Lyons and Bailes Reel Talk? Very much so. Very much so, and I’m looking for a sponsor. If a sponsor wants to come on board we can do the show cheaply; it costs twenty thousand dollars an episode. We beat every show in our time slot for four years at NBC on a hundred and fifty-four stations. So, what happened? A) It was the depth of the recession; B) they were going to be taken over by Comcast, and C) they had a general manager who told me he hadn’t seen a film in ten years and didn’t care about Broadway, and he’s back now in Texas where he belongs.
And finally, influences. I’ve always enjoyed Pauline Kael’s work even though her opinions would sometimes drive me crazy, but her writing was always compelling. Who do you revisit from time to time? Mine was Judith Crist. Yeah, Judith Crist was … I knew her when I first started. I started in 1970 and I was not allowed to join the New York Film Critics. I said to her, why? I’m on a major station, and she said it’s because you people don’t keep your jobs very long. I worked for the channel for twenty-one years; I worked at PBS for twelve seasons; I worked at NBC for thirteen seasons. I would say that’s a long time. The print critics thought of the TV critics as, you know, late-comers, so did Judith Crist, but I loved Judith Crist. When I dated I would always go by a Judith Crist review. I always told her that, and she was someone I really respected. I miss her.
Jeffrey Lyons will co-host Chimes at Midnight this afternoon with Beatrice Welles at 3:10 pm.
For a complete look at the schedule grid for the 21st Sedona International Film Festival CLICK HERE