A quiet little half-hour show named "Sneak Previews" has sneaked its way to PBS success. Based upon the most recent station-preference reports, it is tied with "Nova" for second place after "Wall Street Week in Review.
Thus, in its own way, Public Broadcasting Service has revived the double feature -- or, at least, a new TV version of that now-ancient practice.
In this case, the double bill is composed of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, two Chicago-based newspaper movie critics who have proved to be the surprise success story of PBS national programming. Their weekly show, "Sneak Previews" (PBS, Thursday, 8-8:30 or 9-9:30 p.m., check local listings, since times vary greatly) , is entering its third season but will be shown regularly on the public stations in New York and Los Angeles for the first time -- now that it has been proved that serious (if not overintellectualized) movie criticism can emanate from other than those two film centers.
"Sneak Previews" has a simple format: First, one of the critics gives his opinion of a movie, then the other agrees or disagrees, followed by a friendly but lively extemporaneous discussion of the show. Film clips are shown to illustrate their points.
The show involves itself only with films everybody can see. It refuses to cater to the intellectualized attitudes of self-designated film buffs. However, neither does it pander to those who refuse to take film seriously.Thus superficial star interviews are taboo. The only guest star is their rented pet, "Spot, the wonder dog," who helps them choose the "dog" of the week. According to Gene, Spot prefers Roger. "He's a very ecletic dog," Roger says.
That is about the only gimmicky element of the show. Roger and Gene, who stopped by to chat on a recent visit to New York, stress that they want to avoid the feeling they ever "go where the gag is," a la Gene Shalit on the NBC "Today" show, one of the few places on network TV where movies are reviewed at all. ABC's "Good Morning, America" has replaced its "serious" reviewer, Rona Barrett, with the rather lightweight Pat Collins, in the tradition of choosing "entertaining" reviewers rather than those who take their medium seriously. CBS's Jeff Greenfield, an earnest critic of whatever he happens to be criticizing, usually TV -- appears occasionally on "CBS Evening News" weekdays and "Sunday Morning." And for a while NBC used Katie Kelly, who proved to be a breezy, chatty TV addict, representing your average viewer rather than your solemn critic.
Rober Ebert and Gene Siskel are none of the above -- they are, first and foremost, watchable and understandable but still basically serious students of the art form (or entertainment medium, if you will) they have chosen to cover. They are reviewers as much as critics and try to provide consumer guidance for filmgoers, but they do not hesitate to criticize or praise with fervor. Often they disagree about a film -- on camera where it counts most.
Their favorite kind of show is the "theme" show they do now and then. These overview programs take a subjective look at trends in film.
Says Roger, the stockier one with the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for film criticism under his belt: "As daily newspaper critics, Gene and i have got to see almost everything. We go to the movies five or six times a week. And we are both appalled at the growth in popularity of the new wave of drive-in-type horror films such as 'I Spit on Your Grave,' 'Don't Answer the Phone,' 'The Babysitter, ' 'I Know You Are Alone,' and 'Friday, the Thirteenth.'
"And it will get worse this summer as the drive-in season approaches. These are sick films -- and millions of people are seeing them, maybe unaware just how sick they are. In Chicago, 'I Spit on Your Grave' will be seen by around 75,000 people."
Gene interrupts, just as he does on camera: "We tell our audience, 'You've seen the ads and maybe you've wondered about them but didn't bother to go out and see them. Yet we want you to know that this is a whole subgenre of films which luxuriate in chopping off heads and other awful forms of killing. The focus is on the gore rather than the story line. . . .'"
Roger picks up: "We are not opposed to horror films. We don't even say you should never kill a woman within the framework of such a film. I loved 'Psycho.' But what we are saying is that it is very sick when the torture and death of the woman victim is the whole point of the film. And especially, as in most of these cases, where the point of view of the camera encourages the audience to identify with the killer. Traditionally in horror films, you are manipulated to identify with the victim -- that's what made them scary. But now the camera tracks the women and the point of view of the camera is the point of view of the audience.
"The audience is now being trained to think of itself as the killer. That's very sad and dangerous."
Gene adds: "We want to warn people about this kinky trend . . . where the killer gets some sort of gratification from killing women and that satisfaction is transfered to the audience. We want to warn people to be more careful about the films they pay to see and the films their children may be seeing. Your children may be going to see an 'innocent' film like 'Prom Night' and be subjected to sick ideas and dangerous imagery. The killers are often portrayed as frustrated men who kill to gain satisfaction.
"Recently I went to a suburban theater to see 'I Spit on Your Grave' and I was shocked to see a couple in the audience with their two little girls. I wanted to stand up and yell, 'Why are you here allowing them to see such an awful film? I'm here because I have to review it. But you can and should go home.'"
What do the two sneak previewers like most about working on TV rather than their own newspapers (the Chicago Sun-Times and the Tribune)?
"We get real pleasure out of working with each other. After all, writing a review for a newspaper is solitary business. On TV, we work as a team. We both like that," one of them said. As the interview continued, it became impossible to separate the opinions of the two, despite the fact that they claim to differ often on individual films.
Said Roger: "I liked 'Apocalypse Now' more than he did originally and he liked 'The Stunt Man' more than I did. But we both come to like each other's choices more and more as we discussed them further."
However, both liked "Popeye," "Ordinary People," and "Raging Bull."
How have other critics -- national and local -- reacted to their success? "Well," says Gene, "you know how competitive critics are. . . ."
Roger has a quizzical look on his face as he says, "The review that puzzled us most was a review in the Village Voice which said that we looked like two eels fighting underwater. Now that's an interesting image . . . if you can figure it out."
What films would Roger and Gene rate as the best 10 of the year?
"We can tell you the ones we agree upon," one of them said.
"There's 'Private Benjamin,' 'Black Stallion,' 'The Marriage of Maria Braun,' 'Ordinary People,' and 'Raging Bull.' On the others, we don't agree as heartily."
How about the next Academy Award winner?
They agree on that -- "either 'Raging Bull' or 'Ordinary People.'"
So next Thursday evening, try PBS's unique double feature -- Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. They're good with popcorn, too.