TV Eye

'Split' Personality

He's no Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert -- or even that new guy Richard Roeper, recently named Ebert's co-critic on the movie review series Ebert & Roeper & the Movies. Then again, I'm not sure you can really call filmmaker John Pierson, creator and host of the Independent Film Channel (IFC) series Split Screen, a film critic, at least not in the tradition of Siskel, Ebert, and now Roeper. He's much too decent for that, the kind of guy who would spring for and share the pack of Twizzlers at a movie. (I imagine Ebert and Roeper arguing to infinity if the Twizzlers were twizzled too much and scoffing at the other one's opinion.)

When Ebert went through a slew of guest hosts to replace the late Siskel (including Austin's Ain't It Cool News Webster Harry Knowles), there was hope, in my living room, at least, that a new energy would infuse the former Siskel & Ebert & the Movies. But when Chicago Sun-Times film columnist Roeper permanently took over the seat next to Ebert, few changes occurred, except the title of the show. The other change, noticeable to those who watched all incarnations of the syndicated series over its almost-25-year life span -- Sneak Previews, At the Movies, and Siskel & Ebert & the Movies -- is that Ebert is now the mean one. Ebert picks on Roeper the way Siskel used to pick on Ebert. Roeper may have fresh-faced zeal, but he still backs down to Ebert's condescension like a puppy under the shadow of a rolled-up newspaper. Maybe in time, Roeper will learn to snarl back.

But who wants to wait for that, when you can tune in to the perennially amiable John Pierson? If you're looking for reviews of The Nutty Professor or Scary Movie, Pierson's Split Screen isn't your show. If you like insightful, sometimes peculiar excursions into the independent film world, Split Screen will please you more than a stolen afternoon at a weekday matinee.

Past Split Screen features have included the very first look at The Blair Witch Project, a re-enactment of Kids using children's toys, and an interview with the first two men to "play" Godzilla. On October 2, Split Screen shifts from its regular magazine format to a new one-on-one interview format, called Split Screen/Projections. The change is in conjunction with the release of the print publication Projections 11, the newest in a film journal series that focuses on the state and art of film. While Hollywood film and filmmakers are often the focus of the journal, Projections 11 focuses on the film writers, actors, directors, and producers who have decided to live and work in the place many consider to be Hollywood's antithesis -- New York City.

There are 24 interviews in Projections 11 (set for release in November 2000, by Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Split Screen/Projections features 12 of the 24 interviewees. The interviewees for October include: Wes Anderson (director/co-writer, Rushmore), October 2; David Picker (producer, The Jerk), October 9; Christine Vachon (producer, Boys Don't Cry), October 16; Harmony Korine (writer/director, Gummo), October 23; and Juliet Taylor (casting director, The Exorcist), October 30. Future subjects include Walter Bernstein (teleplay, 2000's Fail Safe), David O. Russell (writer/director, Three Kings), Tod Lippy and John Pierson (Lippy is the editor of Projections 11), Buck Henry (screenwriter, The Graduate), and Ted Hope and James Schamus (producer and screenwriter, respectively, The Ice Storm).

The format is simple but engaging, mostly due to Pierson's sincere, collegial interest in his subject's work. But also because there's no hint of pretension in the conversation between Pierson and his subjects, which translates to a casual, yet highly informative study of how a filmmaker works. Following each interview is a segment called the "oral probe," featuring interviews with various filmmakers and others about the subject's most celebrated works. Visually appealing and a departure from the sit-and-chat format of the interview, the oral probe is literally an oral history of how a film came to be, from the perspective of those who worked on it in front of and behind the camera. Split Screen airs Monday evenings on the IFC. Check local listings for air time and encore screenings.

The Olympic Snag

Maybe I've become crotchety or jaded or just plain hard to please, but it seems to me that the Olympics aren't what they used to be. When I was younger, watching the Olympics was full of nail-biting anticipation, heartbreaking defeats, and soaring triumphs. When the national anthem was played, it stirred something. Not so today.

Don't get me wrong. I was thrilled watching Maurice Greene's 100-meter dash victory, as well as seeing Marion Jones win the first of the five gold medals she's set her sights on. I think what's different this year is the packaging. Because of the time difference, there are less opportunities for live coverage and more opportunities for NBC to package the events thick with sentimentality. Sure, there have always been background highlights of events and key athletes, but this year, it seems like the flavor of the highlights is gooey sweet, with the drama garishly trumpeted in background music, "arty" film clips, and -- worst of all -- the voiceovers, intoned with an eerie resemblance to Jeff Probst of Survivor. You remember him, he's the one who said things like, "Fire is life ... The tribe has spoken ... Here I hold the conch shell of truth ..."

Maybe I'd get sucked into the prefabricated drama if I didn't hear the results of headline events on NPR that morning. On the other hand, there's something really irritating about the packaging of these events and highlights as if I, the viewer, were unable to recognize drama and had to be led by the nose to it. Am I imagining this, or have I become so saturated with "reality speak" that it's beginning to gag me?

What I wouldn't do to sit down to a nicely crafted drama. Even a well-tuned sitcom would do me wonders. I'm craving some fiction, I tell you. Enough of this reality tonic, I want something I can sink my teeth into and ruminate for a while. That's my excuse for watching the TNT screener of Baby. Baby stars Farrah Fawcett and Keith Carradine as a couple living an idyllic country life in Nova Scotia (where it was filmed), with their daughter Larkin (Alison Pill) and mother-in-law Byrd (Jean Stapleton). A recent tragedy drenches the family in sorrow, until an abandoned baby is left on their doorstep, prodding each of them to open their hearts to the child.

Baby is based on the novel by Patricia MacLachlan, author of Sarah, Plain and Tall. What stands out for me is the spectacular Nova Scotia setting, the bright performance by 14-year-old Pill, and the always-delightful presence of Stapleton. But overall, the drama is too enamored of itself, with dialogue that is so self-consciously poetic it often sounds preposterous coming out of people's mouths. I imagine Oprah Book Club members will love this movie. As for myself, I dozed off to the gentle sounds of the ocean background and made a note to find a bed and breakfast in Nova Scotia. Baby airs on TNT beginning October 8 at 7pm. Encores follow through October 22.

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richard roeper, ebert & roeper & the movies, john pierson, split screen, projections 11, the olympics

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