Married To The Movies
Catching Up With The Clifford's,
Malden's Movie Connection Couple
By Jeff Ventura
Special to the ObserverBy just glancing around the home of Laura and Robin Clifford, it's easy to guess the Malden couple enjoy the movies – a lot. Above their sofa, for example, is a large cinema poster of the late Krzystof Kieslowski's film 'Red.' The image of the film's brooding star, Irene Jacob, would seem out of place in most living rooms, but is oddly appropriate here.
Laura says that particular film is an 'A+." As she begins to explain why, she slips easily into her element, becoming more animated as she heaps on the accolades for the French drama, calling it 'a masterpiece that will stand the test of time.' She explains she had an almost physiological reaction when she first saw it, something she calls 'film rush.' Her visceral relationship with a particular work is intriguing and it's clear this ability to connect to a film makes her, and Robin, well suited to be movie critics.
For eight years, this husband-wife team has been hosting a Siskel and Ebertesque show called 'Reeling' on local cable access television. The program, which recently hits it's 200th episode, is now seen in eight area communities – Belmont, Boston, Cambridge, Malden, Medford, Salem, Somerville and Wakefield.
Both of them got their start years ago, dabbling in filmmaking while students as Emerson College. Watching Siskel and Ebert was a painful addiction for Laura back then, hooked on the ranting duo, but convinced she could do better.
"Finally Robin just challenged me," she recalls. "He said, 'why don't you put your money where your mouth is?" The idea for Reeling was born.
They both laugh thinking back to some of their very first reviews. Robin remembers all to well the generosity of their experience, cringing at an early A+ rating bestowed upon 'Robin Hood, Prince Of Thieves.' They agree over the years they've matured as critics, their tastes now a bit more discerning.
"We were just getting started and having so much fun at the time," cringes Robin. "We tended to overrate things." No objections, certainly, from Kevin Costner.
Laura gets up twice from the interview to check various VCR's that are taping movies. Coming back into the room she explains they own more than 1,000 films on tape.
What do they think of the hype behind the upcoming Star Wars prequel, 'Episode One: The Phantom Menace?' Laura becomes serious and explains they don't even own one installment of the trilogy. She believes George Lucas' films are "just souped up space Westerns" and she says is more excited about the release of the late Stanley Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut.'
Robin is evidently more pumped for 'Menace's' release, calling Lucas a "genius." He believes the movie may actually lives up to all of the hype, and says what will make the film truly wonderful is watching Lucas play with cinematic technology not available when the trilogy was born.
"All I can say is get ready to have your butt kicked on this one!" he exclaims.
Laura listens patiently, unconvinced but understanding.
They do agree, however, that the new 'Star Wars' movie will overtake 'Titanic' at the box office.
On top of their full time jobs in the high tech industry, the couple manages to find the time to watch and review four to five movies a week, produce and host their cable show, and write reviews for the Malden Observer and their web page www.reelingreviews.com.
In fact, they've become so busy, they now dupe much of 'Reeling' right in their home, rather than make repeated trips to the Malden Access Television studio on Pleasant Street.
"We go to work, we come home, I get out of my car and into his, and we're off to a screening," says Laura. "Sometimes we don't even eat dinner until 10:30 at night."
If she saves even one person the time and money it takes to go se a 'despicable' movie, though, she feels their labor is not lost.
Robin says they work so hard out of "sheer love for the art form if film."
"Sometimes I'm tired, and I really don't want to see a movie, but I'm never tired of seeing movies," explains Robin.
He adds he sometimes wishes they had more time to perfect their reviews and improve the show even more, but admits there are only so many hours in the day.
People who work with the couple are in awe of their dedication to the quality of the show. Chris Zell directs the half hour segment and designs their web site, but jokes he is much lazier than Robin and Laura. He says he's inspired by the amount of work the Clifford's put into every taping.
"I see them put at least 40 hours a week into this," he says. "It's just mind boggling."
Zell says their reviews were recently picked up by a national movie review web site called www.filmfrenzy.com. He believes there is no question the show is syndication caliber. Their chemistry is undeniable, he says, and it's not just because they’re married.
"Even when they give a movie the same grade, it's almost never for the same reasons." Says Zell. "They just naturally approach it from different directions."
So if one of the big networks came calling would the Clifford's quit their day jobs? Robin answers the questions before it is done being asked, responding with a sure sounding, "easily."
One thing is certain, though, if the couple were swept away tomorrow by a tidal wave of syndicated glitz and glamour, they wouldn't forget to take their friends with them. Robin and Laura hold a yearly thank you dinner at their home in honor of all of the people who help them produce 'Reeling.'
Last year, Laura made an observation in the form of a toast. She noted that almost everyone at the gathering had become good friends because of the show.
"They're all really amazing," she says. "You will never see people more loyal or dedicated than these guys." Clearly, that's another A+ rating.
Cable Couple is
'Reeling' in the Years
Local movie show has been
a cable mainstay since 1991
by Joanna Detz
From the set, Robin peers searchingly into full-glare of the studio lights. "Hey, Al, you want me to do sound on Laura?" yells Robin. He shields his eyes with one hand and squints into the studio control room, which is separated from the set by a wall of sound-proof glass. "Hey," he yells.
No response. At least the soundproof glass is working.
"I hate sound checks," says Laura, flicking a strand of blonde hair out of the way as she clips her microphone onto her lapel.
At a little past 7:30 pm, film critics Robin and Laura Clifford ease into canvas fold-out chairs on the set of their show "Reeling," which airs every other week on Malden's cable access channel, MATV. The husband-wife team sits facing each other, legs crossed, ankles twitching as they wait for their on-air cue.
The show, a home-spun variation on the nationally-known "Siskel and Ebert," got started in 1991 when Robin, who was doing some volunteer work at the Malden cable station, learned how to put together a studio shoot. Robin recalls that, at the time, "Laura had been complaining about Siskel and Ebert and all the other movie critics on TV. She kept saying: "I think we can do better than that."
Robin and Laura always had a passion for film and doing a show on the subject seemed only logical. Now, nearly six years later, the couple boasts jokingly that they have one of the longest-running TV series ever.
Well, diehard "M*A*S*H" fans might disagree, but this much is undisputed fact: during those six years, the show's distribution range has grown to include Medford, Cambridge, Somerville, Wakefield and Belmont, as well as Malden.
The two see an average of four new films a week, in addition to pulling together film clips to use on their show, on top of working full-time jobs. Both admit things can get a little "crazy."
"I'm a communications engineer on the side," deadpans Robin, referring to his 9-to-5 job. Laura works at a customer assistance center at BBN, a technology company. "We really wish we could do the show full-time," she says, and Robin agrees. "Obviously, the ideal thing would be to do the things that we love and get paid for it.
The Clifford's finance "Reeling" themselves. "What we don't pay for are the screenings we go to and clips. Everything else -- theater parking, mailings -- we pay for," says Robin.
Because they are eligible for press benefits, Universal Studios sends the couple clips from Universal releases to use on their show. Allied Adverting Agency mails them flips from other studios.
The first show we did, we didn't have clips," says Laura. But now the Cliffords receive so many clips they barely have time to spool through all of them before show time. "We've got stacks and stacks of clips at home," Robin says, raising his hand way over his head to indicate a pile that reaches halfway to the ceiling.
On the air
When they tape the show on Wednesday, the couple usually comes into the studio at 6:30 p.m. By 7, the production crew starts trickling in. "They're all volunteers," says Robin. "We really couldn't do this without them."
The crew tonight consists of five longtime volunteers. "I had a full head of hair when I started doing this," laughs Chris Zell, pointing to the evidence. "I've been an indentured servant here for 15 years."
"Don't listen to him," Laura shoos Chris aside. "The show's only been running for six."
At 7:15, the production staff snaps into action. Camera one fixes Robin in the view-finder, and the sound editor gets that check on Laura that Robin was yelling for earlier.
In order to speed the production process, Robin usually likes to tape the show as if it were live. "My goal is that we start shooting by about 7:30, and by the same time the next evening, the show is everywhere it's suppose to be," he says.
They are a little behind schedule tonight.
At 7:35, there are a few last words of playful advice from the control room. "Robin, look up please. OK, you're all set. Don't be slouching or nothing. Now don't breathe." At this, Robin takes a final gulp from his water bottle and stows it at his feet, just as the cameras start rolling.
The Cliffords provide commentary on four recent movies, peppering their reviews with clips. During the clips, the camera cuts away and gives Robin a chance to take a few more off-camera glugs from his water bottle. The bottle, like an hourglass specially calibrated to the show's running time, is almost half-empty by the time the show is halfway done.
Laura and Robin give each film a report card of A through F. They recoil in mock horror at the mere mentions of "thumbs," Siskel and Ebert's trademark gesture is OK for hitch-hiking, but films, according to the Cliffords, require a more subtle rating system. "You can give a more honest appraisal of a film this way, rather than either: 'I liked it' or 'I didn't like it,'" says Robin.
"I wish we disagreed more," says Laura after the show, looking at their near-identical ratings for this week's films. "I don't know if it's just because we have the same tastes ... but that can't be it," she says. "I know we don't have the same tastes. He tends to go for the more mainstream films, and I go for the more arty-subversive stuff."
The crew scurries behind her, pulling apart the set. Robin is already in the studio doing post-production work, duping the show for distribution to other cable channels. He says he hopes someday he and Laura will be able to devote more of their time to the show.
"It's always in the back of our minds to go professional,' he says.