TCM’s series ELVIS MITCHELL: UNDER THE INFLUENCE has one fault – It’s Too Short!

Celebrities reveal their influences in this original series hosted by film critic Elvis Mitchell. The premiere episode aired July 7 and featured the late Sydney Pollack in his last in-depth interview. However, it seemed abrupt and truncated. When you’re talking about the influences that have shaped an artist’s life, a half hour is too short to cover the subject sufficiently. It definitely left me wanting more.

When I first heard about this series I thought, “What a great idea. I can’t believe no one has ever thought of this before”. And who better to do it than TCMr As the most accessible art form of the 20th and 21st century, film has a profound influence on most people’s lives. Everyone is influenced in some way or another, at some time or another, by the movies they see in their lifetime. Most of us keep that influence within our personal lives, but there are others who use their viewing experiences to impact their art and go on to influence others. With Under the Influence, top Hollywood film critic and interviewer Elvis Mitchell examines this aspect of the world’s most popular past time, bringing his special brand of in-depth and deeply personal interview style to this new original series, offering the viewer a unique opportunity to listen to Mitchell’s one on one conversation with a celebrity guest about how the art of cinema has affected their life.

Understand that there’s nothing groundbreaking here. The presentation is pretty straightforward with guest and host sitting in comfy chairs on a bare stage before a live audience. Mitchell graciously leads the acclaimed guest artist down memory lane, gently poking and prodding for inside information about the films and filmmakers that have influenced them. And since the interview itself is designed to stand on it’s own, unconnected to any promotion of a latest release, the guest is free to speak solely of their career up to that point without plugging a project soon-to-be in a theater near you. This refreshing aspect allows a truthfulness and grounded quality that keeps the free flowing conversation from becoming dated or a commercial tool of opportunity.

Mitchell himself is extremely engaging and particularly good at putting the guest (as well as the viewer) at ease, talking in a very relaxed and off-the- cuff manner. This man truly knows his stuff, but he never flaunts it like a lecturing professor. Rather, he weaves naturally through the interview. His extensive knowledge of film serves him particularly well when relaying anecdotes about this artist or that movie, and keeps the interview entertaining to all viewers, be they minor movie buffs or die hard aficionados. It’s a wonder he’s never been presented in this forum before. There has always been the question of who could possibly take over for TCM evening host Robert Osborne when the time comes and Mitchell reveals himself as a solid contender. Overall, he exudes a sheer love and devotion to the film medium, beautifully complimenting the enthusiasm of the guest with the love of the art that has made them a recognizable voice in the world of cinema.

In the premier episode, Pollack covered a broad range of his experiences, referencing his beginnings as an actor, studying with the Sanford Meisner, (of the Meisner Technique) and performing in New York Theater before getting a break in television and movies. Although Pollack became a masterful and well-established director, he continued to cultivate his acting career, earning rave reviews and Oscar buzz for his performances in Woody Allen’s “Husbands & Wives”, Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” and his own “Tootsie” (his superb comedic timing and deft transition from confused to bemused agent responding to his cross-dressing client’s news that he’s just been proposed to by his girlfriend’s father is nothing short of genius and slays me every single time.)

As stated above, the only shortcoming in this presentation is the brief time allotted to such a fascinating guest. Half an hour leaves hardly enough time to even mention Pollack’s commitment to the art of film and filmmaking itself. A recognized avid historian, Pollack advocated directors rights, lobbied against the use of colorization and other post-production practices that alter the director’s completed vision. He particularly loathed television’s common practice of “pan and scan”, citing the practice as an infringement upon the integrity of an artist’s work, frequently appearing on TCM vehemently explaining to the layman why letterboxing is the preferred and correct method of presentation for films airing on television. Surely there must have been enough footage for at least a full hour to honor the great talent that gave us “Out of Africa”, “The Way We Were”, “Three Days of the Condor”, and “Absence of Malice”, among others. Sydney Pollack’s work spread across many genres and influenced many people. It is difficult to imagine that we will ever again see such a multi-talented, highly successful, renaissance man of film. Due to the versatile and well-respected director’s sudden passing at the age of 73 and the shear scope of his impressive career, it would have been suitable to allow extra time for the premier episode. Perhaps the inevitable success of the series will lead to lengthening the format.

Future interviewees slated for July are Bill Murray (July 14); Laurence Fishburne (July 21); and Quentin Tarantino (July 28). The series will return in November with guests Joan Allen, Edward Norton, John Leguizamo and Richard Gere.

Rating: A-