Gene Shalit, Where Art Thou?

Gene Shalit, the Mark Twain of film criticism, turned 95 last Thursday. He spent his long career (1970-2010) on NBC’s Today Show. His schtick consisted of wearing garish bow ties and black-framed glasses and punning his way through movie reviews. At the height of his fame, a Gene Shalit Halloween mask came out. You know you’ve made it when there’s a Halloween mask of you. I enjoyed watching him for his wit, bow tie, and mocking movie reviews. My mother enjoyed him, too, mainly for the mocking. I had a friend in high school who used to impersonate him, which was a dangerous thing to do outside of honors classes. You risk getting beaten up, but he did it anyway.

I traveled recently to Las Vegas to visit my mother and had a chance to look over the Internet movies in my hotel room. This was the first time I’ve flown anywhere since moving back to California nearly two years ago. I haven’t been in a hotel since then, either. It didn’t take me long to recall Vladimir Nabokov’s character, Humbert Humbert, complaining about American hotels being the noisiest places in the world, and my room wasn’t even near an elevator. I also remembered one of my own posts about the people in the apartment upstairs holding a bowling tournament (see The People in Apartment 22). Somehow or other, in a hotel with 35 floors and reduced occupancy because of Covid, I still managed to have people in the room above me bowling.

Out of more than two dozen movies available, I watched five trailers and rented none. The one that came closest was set during World War One, but in the end I didn’t find it compelling enough. What I did find compelling were the movie descriptions, which ranged from ungrammatical to boring to ridiculous.

For instance, there was one about a 17-year-old, high school student named Millie who “swaps bodies with an infamous serial killer.” Afterward, the description notes, “things get freaky,” as if they were normal up to that point. This sounded like a cross between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the episode in Star Trek where Captain Kirk’s former girlfriend switches bodies with him to take over the Enterprise (see “Turnabout Intruder” from June 3, 1969).

Another teen movie had me stammering with: “After a group of teens begin to mysteriously disappear, the locals believe it is the work of an urban legend known as The Empty Man.” First, “group of teens” is the subject of the sentence and should take the third-person, singular verb “begins.” Second, they’ve split the infinitive by saying “to mysteriously disappear.” Not all disappearances are mysteries, but wouldn’t it have been better to say “to disappear mysteriously,” or just “to disappear”? Third, they could have placed The Empty Man in quotes, but then they probably would have committed the horror of putting the period outside the quotation marks. That would have sent me to the concierge.

We pole vault from the sublime into the ridiculous with the following descriptions, both of which make me wonder how these movies were ever made, but then there’s a movie about snakes on a plane, so go figure.

First, a “traumatic accident leaves a couple in a surreal state of being that takes them on a disorienting journey through the duality of their shared moments.” I had to read that four times, and I’m still not sure what it means. The phrase “surreal state of being” sounds like something from Heidegger I had to read in graduate school. Now that I think of it, maybe it makes more sense in German. In any case, they lost me at “the duality of their shared moments.” I’m not interested in the duality of shared anything. Apart from the traumatic accident, this is definitely not something you’d find on Spike TV.

Then there was this, which had me shaking my head: “A young woman desperately wants to believe the world that she sees and feels is real…but instead she is forced to question everything, and everyone, around her.” I’m not sure what to say except, are you kidding? Subjecting the audience to an inner journey like this reminds me of young children playing with their feces and marveling at it. Maybe that’s where we’re headed now. Still, I suspect this movie would be better if it told a story. Maybe it does, but, if so, why doesn’t the description tell me? I wasn’t going to spend $19.95 and 90 minutes of my time to find out.

Look, I don’t need things blowing up à la Bruce Willis and Jackie Chan. I just want to hear a story like every other human being. And, while we’re at it, why are there commas around “and everyone”? Gene, dude, where art thou?

Image credits: feature by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash; blurred image by Jr Korpa on Unsplash. Want more (why wouldn’t you)? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which “promotes alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”


  1. I saw mention of Shalit’s birthday recently as well – haven’t thought of him in ages, but always enjoyed his reviews. About the movie selections in your hotel room; they sound rather awful, but I would really hate to read what the person who wrote those ‘enticements’ would come up with for “Gone With the Wind”, “Citizen Kane”, etc..

  2. Robert J Brancatelli, Chief of the Grammar Police. By the way, that is a compliment. The proverbial pitch, which is the summary of the movie, has deteriorated to a compendium of box-checking. Given my conservative POV, I eschew the usual plot developments such as ” When a group of 250 pound former NFL linebackers are taken down by a kick-ass girl, Hannah, a 97 pound former Loreal model, currently working in a soup kitchen, the authorities are called in to investigate. The lead detective, a mulatto former LGBTQ activist, . . . ” Uh, you get my point.

    Some day Hollywood will decide to write a story based on, oh I don’t know, an actual plot. If it has a handful of old, straight, Christian, white men in it, so be it.

    At the juncture in our cinematic history, genuine writing may take place.

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