Monday, July 07, 2008

TV premiering tonight: Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence

I've never been particularly fond of Elvis Mitchell; although he's not really a film critic anymore, he's always seemed to me to be on the wrong side of the line between analyst and insider. I don't have any strong memories of reading any of his reviews in the New York Times (admittedly, I probably read very few), but I do remember this sort of nauseatingly self-serving and sycophantic Q&A with Javier Bardem from Interview Magazine, which immediately put me off reading anything else by him. Rumors were that he left the NYT in a huff over being passed over for the chief film critic's job in favor of A.O. Scott (here's an interesting New York Magazine piece about that, which also details his many, many conflicts of interest). I also seem to remember Gawker passing along gossip that he spent as much time at Harvard hitting on female students as he did teaching class, although I can't find any evidence of that anymore.

The point is, going into Mitchell's new TCM interview series, Under the Influence, I already had an innate dislike of the guy to overcome. And he certainly lived up to my impression, fawning all over his guests, laughing uproariously at anything mildly funny and basically positioning himself as the next James Lipton. But Influence is no Inside the Actors Studio; it has an unclear focus that finds Mitchell half the time grilling the guests on their cinematic influences, as the title implies, and half the time talking instead about their own careers. The half-hour format, even without commercials, is not nearly enough time to sufficiently cover the oeuvres of figures like Sydney Pollack (in what may be his last taped interview) and Bill Murray, the subjects of the two episodes I saw. The anecdotes are broken up with movie clips, some illuminating, some useless.

Pollack's episode works almost in spite of Mitchell, since the late actor/director has some fascinating stories about working with Burt Lancaster and studying acting in New York. But Murray seems almost annoyed to be there at all, and Mitchell is not a great interviewer; he's so into appearing chummy with his subjects that he never pushes them to reveal anything insightful. I'm all in favor of exploring modern cinema figures' connections to classic film, or of TCM having its own on-air personality to compete with Lipton, but this show doesn't succeed at doing anything other than proving that Elvis Mitchell has lots of famous friends. Turner Classic Movies, Mondays, 8 p.m.

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