Last weekend, when Roger Ebert severed ties with the nationally syndicated movie review show that had been his broadcast pulpit for most of its 33 years, when jumpy Richard Roeper (who replaced lanky Gene Siskel in 2000) bid adieu to the sacred cultural trust he inherited, when those infamous thumbs (the most feared stubs of flesh west of Chicago) were wheeled back into their missile silos, when “At the Movies” was formally dissociated from the men who became synonymous with film criticism itself, and that (sorry, Roger) Godforsaken sunshiny-day sitcom-esque theme music was euthanized, the informed movie review could be placed officially on the endangered species list. On TV, let’s just declare it extinct.
At the moment. Not that smart film criticism ever really flourished on television. Even in 1975, the format that Siskel and Ebert and producer Thea Flaum adopted (serious conversation about the arts, with clips, awkward hair) seemed as anachronistic as Dick Cavett’s afternoon talk show, which had gone under six years earlier. The launch pad was staid (Chicago public television WTTW), the original title was ungainly (“Opening Soon at a Theater Near You”), the hosts seemed like a preview of your 20-year high school reunion (thin and bald, fat and short, sweater vests). And yet, it worked.
Across four decades, copycats came and went. But the initial formula, with its giant journalistic glasses, thinly veiled defensiveness and Chicago backdrop, proved easy and engaging. It was cozy, not fussy; you could even argue it was a tad simplistic, reductive (and many in the critical community said it loudly). More important, though, it was a hand cupped in front of the face, shielding hype. Siskel and Ebert said what they felt, and you never doubted their sincerity or honesty. Even today - especially today - this remains a radical idea. What Siskel and Ebert created is still the closest that television criticism has ever come to former New Yorker writer Pauline Kael’s insistence that “the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.”
Call it an early forerunner to millennial snark in place of thoughtful commentary, but I’ll never forget Siskel admonishing Charlie Sheen for wasting his time in some throwaway “Heidi” movie. Couldn’t he afford his own ski trip to the Alps, Siskel wondered aloud? And of course there was Siskel’s often-quoted (quite reliable) method for deciding if a movie was worth your time: Would a film of the same cast and crew talking over lunch be more interesting than the film they made? Glib, perhaps. But a relatable critical gateway for the moviegoer uncertain of how he or she should be talking about movies_first, acknowledge what you’re really thinking about when you’re thinking about movies. Be true to your thoughts_regardless of aesthetics or film history. Then consider intellect, the screenplay, the directing, the Robert Altman.
It’s a fairly obvious idea, that film criticism resides in everyone, that we are all film critics of a sort, and the snarkiest comment about bloated salaries or bad makeup or an actor’s age might have validity. But if you weren’t reading The New York Times or The New Yorker - basically, if you were getting most of your film criticism from television - this idea that arts criticism needn’t be weighted down in theory, that your free-association was worth mentioning, had the weight of revelation.
By all accounts, Disney-ABC Domestic Television, which owns “At the Movies,” is headed in a snazzier, more stylized direction. Expect more celebrity too. Ebert pointed to the format change as his reason for walking away, though his health problems and inability to speak - he hasn’t been on the show in two years - made that departure inevitable. (Also, expect more than a few new shows to revive the tried-and-true format; for starters, WTTW is rumored to be working on a round-table review show.) That said, it’s also impossible to imagine a media megalith such as Disney-ABC retooling anything in 2008 that would embrace the charmingly straightforward, level-headed PBS sensibility of “At the Movies.” I mean, these guys, these ink-stained wretches who knew their stuff and honed their arguments toiling at dead-tree media, they listened to each other (rarely foaming at the mouths), and they sat (rarely stood). And that set, oh my, that faux balcony - it had carpeting! With a pattern!
Like we cared.
The last old-school installment of “At the Movies,” with the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roeper and the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips (Ebert’s replacement), aired last weekend around the country. Then, once the old balcony was shuttered, “At the Movies” (scheduled to relaunch the weekend of Sept. 6) will be inherited by Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz. Lyons, 26, is son of critic Jeffrey Lyons, and Mankiewicz, 41, is grandson of Herman Mankiewicz, who co-wrote “Citizen Kane.” Lyons reviews for E! (and recently announced he will host a game show on Nickelodeon); Mankiewicz is a host on Turner Classic Movies. I suspect someone has mistakenly equated on-camera experience and lineage with credibility and gravitas. Does anyone else hear that sound of dirt hitting a coffin? I’m there with you.
Ben and Ben could well prove their critics wrong. I hope they do. But what chills the blood is that film criticism has been so diminished in recent years that Disney-ABC didn’t even attempt to replace reputation with reputation, or continue what Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert started. It’s like replacing Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw with Star Jones and Ryan Seacrest. And it’s not as if there aren’t a number of more suitable replacements floating out there, untethered. Perhaps you’ve heard that print film criticism is in crisis? With alarming rapidity, newspapers and magazines are shedding their critics and not replacing them - through buyout and layoff, through retirement and downsizing and simple burnout. Just this year, Newsday lost two, Newsweek lost one, The Washington Post lost two and The Village Voice lost one. Last year, the list included Denver and Tampa and Detroit and Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale.
I’m part of the problem. I was a film critic at The Toledo (Ohio) Blade, and I was not pushed out or bought out or fired. I simply left. So there’s some guilt at work, as there should be at a moment when the wary critical eye is as necessary as ever and the sidelining of film criticism feels more like an inevitability than a hypothetical. But mostly there’s a weird sense of disconnection - an awkward feeling that I was engaged in an ongoing argument with readers about the movies they were seeing, and then, without warning, the line just sort of went dead.
The irony is, it wasn’t so long ago that Ebert and Siskel themselves and those opposing critical digits were often raised as the primary catalyst in the dumbing down of film criticism. But I bet for the average everyday moviegoers who rarely think beyond “I liked it” or “I hated it” and who rarely consider aesthetics or polemics or politics when they go to a multiplex, the end of the original incarnation of “At the Movies” will feel like the finale of film criticism itself. The argument has ended.
And the argument, as “At the Movies” taught us, was the thing - that art itself was arguable, and that was OK. Ebert still writes dazzling reviews for the Sun-Times that make complicated points in approachable language, as does Phillips, for the Tribune. Roeper continues as a Sun-Times columnist. Of course there are more than a few thoughtful voices left in criticism - outside Chicago, even. But it’s hard to overstate the importance of a nationally syndicated TV show that speaks up for small fine movies without marketing budgets and reinforces names such as Werner Herzog, Robert Altman and Spike Lee and, oh, say, a David Gordon Green. Indeed, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that for a generation or two of moviegoers, it was Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert who introduced the idea that good criticism is not about finality or consensus or putting your thumb up or down.
It’s about argument itself.