It’s time to get out the black wreaths and the ceremonial armbands, especially if, like this critic, you grew up on a steady diet of Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, and their exemplary movie review program Sneak Previews/At The Movies. With the duel announcements this week that Richard Roeper (the replacement for the late Chicago Tribune icon) was leaving the show, and that Roger Ebert was done with his participation, Disney finally felled the giant they’d been gunning for since cancer caused the Sun Times scribe to walk away from his on-air participation. It’s no secret that the House of Mouse wanted the series gone - or at the very least, significantly cut back, reconfigured for a new demographic, and bolstered by a bigger piece of the potential pie (Ebert maintains the symbolic “Thumbs”, At the Movies greatest inadvertent asset). Now they’ve got their wish, much to the dismay and detriment of the serious filmgoer fanbase.
While the pro/con summarization of cinema clearly goes against the intellectual approach to film (movies are much more than a recommendation or rejection), the format created by the legendary Midwest columnists would come to symbolize the video age vitality of the medium. With more and more access to movies - thanks in part to technological advances like cable and VCRs - there needed to be a standard bearer for the post-modern motion picture storm. Enter Gene and Roger, two seasoned salts who braved the bad weather of offering opinions on what many saw as a no win, highly personal proposition. After all, just like music and humor, entertainment evaluation can never be communal or completely universal. Still, they tried, and in the interim, they created consensus, addressed issues threatening the artform (colorization, rampant and gratuitous violence) and even stepped in it now and again.
With Siskel’s passing in 1999, many felt the show would simply fade away and die. Ebert tired diligently to maintain the profile, and after a series of guest hosts and high profile ‘auditions’, he settled on Mr. Roeper. To many outside of Chi-town, he was an odd choice. While the native was born in the city of big shoulders, his columns (and eventual reviews) were of regional interest, mostly. When he was tagged to replace Siskel in 2000, he met with some initial resistance. Some saw him as too mainstream, preaching the studio press kit while his partner kept the criticism ‘real’. Over the years, Roeper has gained the respect of both the industry and the audience. When Ebert himself took ill in 2002, the relative newbie grabbed the reigns of the again shaken showcase and continued to foster its importance.
And now, it is no more - at least, not in the way we remember it. In some ways, it’s unbelievably sad the way this all happened. A few months back, there was a dispute over whether the show could actually use the infamous hand gesture. Ebert, who maintained the rights to most of the format with Siskel’s widow Marlene, felt slighted by Disney’s lowball figure to re-up their interest, and so the pair prevented At the Movies from giving the thumb. Then, this year, with the improving critic returning to his 41 year long print gig, it looked like the non-renewal writing was on the wall. Roeper’s “retirement” from the show is further illustration that, aside from certain financial considerations, Uncle Walt’s ‘yes’ men were no longer interested in keeping the series alive. Both men issued press releases, taking the high road in what was, for both, an understandably painful professional chapter.
The mangy Magic Kingdom proposes to have the last laugh, however. Just yesterday 22 July, the studio announced a “new” version of At the Movies featuring E!‘s Ben Lyons and Turner Classic Movies’ Ben Mankiewicz. While they hope the fresh faces will bring in a “younger, hipper” audience, the 26 and 41 years olds, respectively, have little else to offer. Both are considered seasoned professionals, and yet they lack the background, and more importantly, the perceived authority of Roger and Gene. Remember, Sneak Previews was a PBS program specific to the Chicago area before hitting syndication. And both critics were well into their time stint as print critics. Lyons is just a few years into his current career path, while Mankiewicz can rely on his illustrious heritage (related to Frank, Herman, and Joseph L.) to buy him some early respect.
One wonders how the reduced viewership who made the show a must-watch requirement before hitting the Cineplex feel about both moves. Ten or fifteen years ago, yours truly would have been devastated. Even though he frequently had to fish about to discover what elusive cable station was syndicating the show (and when), Siskel and Ebert were an essential aesthetic guide. Sure, they could be incredibly wrong (Gene adored Saturday Night Fever, while ‘Uncle’ Roger continues to hate on the brilliant Blue Velvet), but more times than not, they tempered their judgment with insights that smacked of that critical rarity - perspective and insight. Rare was their’s a declarative or assertive opinion. They always provided analysis with their sometimes snap judgments. Siskel championed polished and professional scripts, while Ebert longed for directors capable of commandeering the various nuances of cinema.
Yet as with all film journalism, the duo appear destined to be boiled down to a rather superfluous set of symbols. As with numerical ratings or alphabetical/iconographic scores, the thumbs were a concession, a way of giving the casual filmgoer a shorthand commercial calibration. If Siskel and Ebert gave a movie “two thumbs up”, it was probably very good. If they declared the opposite, you could easily write it off your list. When they differed, and they did so frequently, an inferred sort of interactivity was necessitated. You had to match up your own idealized view of what movies meant with the men on the screen, and then indirectly gauge accordingly. Many remember the memorable arguments the pair would participate in, each knowing their particular view made the most sense. Over time, bias and age would play a part, but for many, it was all about those up/down digits.
With Internet illiteracy slowly corroding the world of legitimate publishing (and the accompanying professionalism of actual writers), it’s sad to realize that the ‘yes/no’ dynamic has become At the Movies’ lasting legacy. As stated before, no website which offers reviews does so without such shortcuts. Rotten Tomatoes has the whole “fresh/rotten” routine, while others provide stars, popcorn kernels, or film reels as a means of giving you the gist of the scribe’s ideas. Turning 600 to 1000 words into a series of cartoon clapboards may feed the masses, but it’s also a lazy man’s means of understanding cinema - and if there was one thing Siskel and Ebert (and eventually Roeper) were not, it’s indolent. They took their job seriously, even when it looked like VHS (and then DVD) would reduce all cinema to a series of direct to tape travesties.
Business models are entitled to treat inventory in the most effective way possible, capitalizing on its worth while making sure it doesn’t depreciate enough to warrant a sell-off. In the case of Disney and At the Movies, they clearly believed in two indisputable facts - Ebert was the show and Ebert wasn’t coming back. For all his syndicated steadiness, Roeper never felt irreplaceable. He was a place holder - albeit a damn fine one - for some ethereal pairing that could never occur. No one could replace the show’s curmudgeonly conscious (which Siskel clearly was), and Ebert’s importance to the mediums he helped maintain meant that his continued departure invalidated the show’s worth. No offense to anyone involved, but the At the Movies of 2008 - excellent guest hosts and repeat reviewers or not - was not the series of 1978, or 88, or 98.
Naturally, none of that matters now. Both Ebert and Roeper have vowed to soldier on, and with new on air outlets opening up all the time (HD NET, Reelz cable channel) there are soft places for both to land. And Mickey has his revamp, which while already starting to stink, at least seems evocative of the show’s spirit. Whatever happens, film criticism has lost one of its most important links to mainstream meaningfulness. Thanks to the talents and tireless efforts of Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and Richard Roeper, an otherwise out of touch audience had a reliable source of EPK-less, non-Infotainment Tonight-lite movie information to draw on. Call it the continued tabloiding of TV, or the web’s final revenge on the Fourth Estate, but the absence of At the Movies will definitely be felt. Even in the most inclusive environment, there needs to be a leader. Here’s hoping this is one champion that’s down, but not out.