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    « Due Date Poster | Main | John Carter of Mars Coming June 8, 2012! »
    Tuesday
    Aug102010

    Dream Specs - The Siskel & Ebert Collection

    The title of this article has never had as much meaning as today's subject. Following on from a conversation we had on our 'movie moan' podcast this week, the subject arose of what we are still waiting for a DVD release of. The only thing I can thing of, dare I say obsess over, is the idea that someday it may be possible to release 'Siskel & Ebert At The Movies' on DVD in some shape or form. But since this article is called 'Dream Specs', we shoot for no less than the moon when we speculate.

    You have to understand that this obsession comes from the perspective of a Brit. I never grew up with Siskel & Ebert and yet my love and passion for their work is, I would like to argue, as strong as either my own personal film discuss partner Jamie Williams' or the wonderful people who started my obsession in the first place by posting clips of the dynamic duo on Youtube.

    I fell under Roger & Gene's spell for the same reasons as anyone; two addictive personalities with chemistry that could not be replicated and a passion for film that was truly infectious. They sold the idea that having a proper discourse about a film, no matter how highbrow or trashy, was something to be embraced by everyone. As opposed to letting movies just wash over us, forgotten after a week. The shows they did and the features they included were really a precursor of the internet film podcasts we hear today. I would go so far as to say that every web based movie pundit out there, whether consciously or unconsciously, has been influenced by Siskel & Ebert (it is certainly true in my case). We are all in their debt. As such, the Siskel & Ebert programmes should be treated with the same commitment to preservation and release as any American film classic.

    Now before we discuss the actual dream specs themselves we do need, sadly, to acknowledge some unshakable truths. Firstly, it is believed that a great many of those early shows from their days on PBS Chicago have been lost forever, not even saved by the television station. The only shows which have been retained are the very programmes that loyal fans (or geniuses with precognitive powers) recorded and later posted online. The idea of a complete compendium of every show seems impossible. Secondly, we would want the shows to be presented uncut which would involve including the clips of the very films they reviewed. This is not something which can just be cut from the shows. Most often, the pair would specifically use those clips as a point of reference as to the subject film's strengths or weaknesses. This unfortunately means that the amount of legal issues that would be involved in obtaining the rights to all those films from all those studios would be insurmountable. In some cases we may well be talking about really obscure titles whose copyright holder proves impossible to track down.

    But assuming miracles can happen, here is how I would like to see a DVD release of Siskel & Ebert be broken down.

    The Siskel & Ebert Collection vol. 1 - 'Opening Soon At A Theatre Near You'

    Although we know the show as 'At The Movies', Siskel & Ebert began their partnership with a series entitled 'Opening Soon At A Theatre Near You' which ran on PBS Chicago from 1975 to 1977. This was the FIRST film review/discussion television programme. That makes it an important milestone in TV (and film) history. The format of the show for these two years had it being shown once a month, which means we are talking about roughly twenty programmes to be released. If the studio that produces these DVD sets wanted to just dip their toes in the water to see if there was a market out there for them, this would be the way to do it. They can release the first volume as an affordable teaser rather than a complete boxset which nobody could afford to buy. Truth be told, I imagine Siskel & Ebert were a little rough around the edges in those early shows, still full of competitive and vitriolic hatred for each other and not yet settled into the chemistry that would make them national institutions. But at least they have the hypnotic power of Siskel's moustache to keep us watching. Most of us have never seen those early shows and can only imagine their reviews for films like, oh I don't know, friggin' Star Wars.

    The Siskel & Ebert Collection vol.2 - 'Sneak Previews'

    So if the first release were successful (and it would be because Jamie and myself would just buy every copy), the second volume would comprise Roger and Gene's tenure as hosts of 'Sneak Previews', the show which was arguably the real beginning of the Siskel & Ebert we know and love.

    From 1977 to 1982, the duo continued the show on a bi-weekly basis making for a much larger quantity of material to compile. This is also where Siskel & Ebert branched out into special themed shows which often comprised their best work. Take for example the well known 'women in danger' episode that is thankfully preserved on Youtube:

     

    This is a prime example of how the duo can be as engaging to an audience when they are in total agreement as when they venemently disagree over something. It also presents a fascinating look at a particular cinema trend and an intelligent dissection of it, rivalling any retrospective documentary that could be produced as a piece of DVD/Blu-Ray supplemental material today.

    The Siskel & Ebert Collection vol.3 - 'At The Movies'

    Siskel & Ebert left 'Sneak Previews' in 1982 over a contract dispute but were immediately back on the air with the show that made them America's resident critics for the next 17 years; 'At The Movies'. There isn't much more to say except that this set would comprise all of the shows which ran on PBS from 1982 to 1986.

    The Siskel & Ebert Collection vol.4 - 'The Balcony Archive'

    And in 1986, Siskel & Ebert found their permanent home with Buena Vista Entertainment. The final volume would contain every single episode the duo did together up until Siskel's death in 1999 and not just reviews but all of the specials that they delivered every year; memo to the academy/if we picked the winners, reaction to the Oscar wins, the anniversary episodes, the best and worst films of the year etc.

    Believe it or not though, Siskel & Ebert does exist on DVD in one small form. The Criterion DVD release of the highly acclaimed feature film documentary 'Hoop Dreams' contains a special feature collecting every single segment of Roger & Gene's own discussions about the film. This is a fascinating compendium which includes their initial review, both choosing it as their favourite film of 1995 at the end of the year, their memo to the academy demanding that it win the Oscar for 'best documentary', their later shock at it not even being nominated, the resultant controversy which led to Academy voting reforms and Ebert reflecting on the film as his personal favourite of the entire decade. I was interested in watching 'Hoop Dreams' purely on their recommendation but the fact that Criterion included the Siskel & Ebert material ensured that I immediately bought and imported the DVD. If my article is making you long for a little Roger and Gene then do seek 'Hoop Dreams' Criterion DVD out.

    The good thing about their shows from 1986 onwards is that we can be rest assured that they have all been preserved and archived. I would just hope my some miracle that we could have even a fraction of it given an official release. And if it were possible to release every episode of Siskel & Ebert in one gigantic boxset. I can guarantee that there is at least one person in the world who will buy it..............and after I've bankrupted myself the box will make a nice place to live.

    Once again, thanks to Mac for the image and thanks to you for reading.

    Reader Comments (3)

    Like you, Phil, I was a latecomer to S&E. The only review of theirs I had seen before the website went up, was a short clip of the Blue Velvet review, that was on the special edition DVD. I must confess to taking an instant dislike to Ebert from watching that clip ; I didn't care for his moralizing and on a petty note, I didn't think he was very good at reading the teleprompter, either...

    and yet for some reason, when the balcony archive opened, I was on that site non-stop for almost three days!

    I guess I just have time for anyone who is pasionate about film?

    When First Magnitude came to YouTube I got hooked all over again ; I don't think a day went by when I didn't watch one of his videos. I felt empty for a long time, after he decided to shut down his account ; what makes it more maddening, is I found out that the straw that broke the camel's (or First Magnitude's) back, was for the almost forgotten Michael Keaton comedy Johnny Dangerously... a film that Fox own the rights to! FUCKERS!!! God knows what Larry (First Mag's actual name) still had ready to upload at that point.

    As for a commerical DVD release? I would be interested in buying the more, obscure shows, but not the ones that Disney own the rights to on their site.

    On a sidenote, I'd also love to see some of Barry Norman's (Britain's leading film critic, throughout the 70's, 80's and 90's for those who don't know) reviews being released on DVD, aswell. There's very little of Norman on YouTube and I refuse to believe the BBC have wiped all the tapes...

    08-10-2010 | Unregistered CommenterWelshfilmbufff

    I think your experience is the same as a lot of people. You may get a little peeved at this critic whose opinion you don't agree with but their viewpoint is delivered with such conviction, intelligence and passion that you cannot help but click on another clip and see what they thought about other movies.

    I personally am not particularly bothered about digging into the Barry Norman vault. I grew up watching him but I always found him a little dry. I may sound crazy but what I'm hearing about the revamped 'Film 2010' is pretty encouraging. They seem to understand that passionate people really talking about film is what will make the show appealing.

    08-11-2010 | Registered CommenterPhil Gee

    Norman may seem a little dry in retrospect, but to a teenager in the 90's who didn't have the internet (me), there was no better alternative. Like Ebert, I often disagreed with him greatly, but I never got the sense he was bullshitting me or trying to impress me (unlike Jonathan Ross in recent years).

    As for the Beeb's new film show, I'm still on the fence. It could be a bit like Moviewatch (remember that?) only with film insiders, rather than members of the public... I'm actually not opposed to that, to be honest ; the thing that concerns me is Claudia Winkleman! I have a feeling it will end up like her recent Oscar-cast... "celebs" in the studio, who have no (or very little) film backround at all.

    08-11-2010 | Unregistered CommenterWelshfilmbufff

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