[27 August 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Roger Ebert is a legitimate American icon. He’s the undeniably great gold standard for old school film criticism. He’s a name so well known, so intriguingly intertwined with the medium he covers, that it’s almost impossible to consider cinema without him. His recent trials and health issues have galvanized a readership reliant on his weekly movie views, while simultaneously earning begrudging press from people who find his throwback style of journalism antithetical to the whole blog-nation dynamic. As the last acknowledged carrier of the torch transferred from previous bearers such as Pauline Kael and friend Gene Siskel, he remains a figure of prominence in a realm consistently marginalized by the current ‘anyone can do it’ market mentality. Oddly enough, he’s also the man who more or less destroyed his own revered reportage.
For those of us old enough to remember the original Sneak Previews (initially, a local Chicago PBS production done more out of respect for the two native names than any desire to change the legitimate critical landscape), said broadcast breath of fresh air provided by the onscreen pairing of the Sun-Times and Tribune beat poets was powerful. It was weekly must see TV in an era where access to films outside the local mainstream movie theater was practically non-existent. In these pre-VCR days when films were expertly managed in order to maximize their box office sustainability, the joy in hearing Siskel and Ebert dissect this competing aesthetic (art vs. artifice) was like an entertainment epiphany. Granted, it was just two guys, sitting around, talking, but their back and forth, as well as their notoriously knotty disagreements, made for brilliant small screen theater. All that was needed was a last act bit of commercial cake icing, and the deal was sealed.
Enter “the thumbs”, the benefactor – and bane – of the post modern film world. Originally conceived as a shorthanded guide (not a significant summary) for the general reaction to a work, it was a throwaway gesture, a Roman reminder of the days when the leaders of empires proclaimed their approval, or disgust, with a single, symbolic digit. Neither Siskel nor Ebert saw themselves as Nero, fiddling away on the latest Steven Spielberg opus as the rest of the motion picture domain burned. In fact, it was formulated for completely different reasons. Just as stars, popcorn kernels, film reels, and clapboards were employed (usually in a numerical grouping from zero to five), the thumbs gave those with limited time or attention spans a quick overview, relegating the rest of the review for another time, another preemptive place.
Two things changed all that. First was the arrival of recordable magnetic tape. The Beta/VHS phenomenon did something significant to the movie business – it provided an alternative means to get their product to the masses. At first, they really didn’t see it that way. Loud complaints of piracy and copyright infringement became the industry mantra, with an unreal emphasis on charging customers comparative value. Initially, blank video tapes were excessively pricey, with actual copies of first run films running into the hundreds of dollars. Yet the interest spurred in the medium by this tantalizing technological advance helped validate Siskel and Ebert’s ideals. Film could now be studied, torn apart and put back together via almost unlimited viewings. And as luck would have it, the duo already had a way of indicating to consumers what available titles were worth their time (thumbs up) and more or less invalid (thumbs down).
The second significant change to the cinematic landscape was the mounting implication of a big opening weekend at the box office. Stars saw their salaries attached to same, while mega-agencies like CAA built their entire business rep on producing titanic three day totals. Within the span of less than a decade, the blockbuster, in combination with the changing multinational face of the studios, created a new signature of success. Getting those ticket buyers to pony up during that first Friday-through-Sunday was seen as a validation of both creativity and commerciality. In fairness, it was really the prize pig purchased by enormous marketing dollars – and the recognizable thumbs of Siskel and Ebert were always placed prominently during blurb time. Even when their show moved from public television to first run syndication (and changed its name to At the Movies), the brand name take on current releases remained.
Then the duo did a decidedly smart thing. They trademarked the ‘up/down’ digits. This meant something significant. Not only were other shows prevented from pirating their simplistic signaling, but it guaranteed that, as long as the legal right remained, the increasingly popular critics could control their standing. Should a studio misquote or de-contextualize a comment from their review, the advertising albatross of “pulling the thumbs” became a well-heeded threat. For men as perceivably powerful as they, this meant a lot. No matter if it was true or not, Hollywood considered Siskel and Ebert to be very influential and widely listened to voices. In a tiger rock kind of way, the studios sought a clear commercial connection between the critics’ blessing and rentals/returns. Having convinced themselves such an uneasy alliance was necessary, the pair became opinionated superstars. Not only was their weekly show a date night directive, they traveled the talk show circuit like a classic comedy team, playing Abbot and Costello over Antonioni and Coppola.
The next phase in this discussion is a little more ambiguous. It’s clear that, at some point, the duo began to believe their own hype. They moved from mere reviewing to championing specific causes (anti-colorization, pro-new ‘adults only’ rating), and frequently used their televisual forum for lengthy discussions on such sour subjects as violence against women and the lagging support of world cinema. As they became more and more esoteric, and less and less combative (their well known antagonism was now mellowing into a calm, considered clash), the ratings began to suffer. Eventually, a little invention called the Internet would arrive, giving voice to a rising contingency of wise-ass wet blankets. For these long silenced savants, know-it-alls just waiting for an audience to appreciate their retarded rationalization, the enemy was anything mainstream. And though they long supported the obscure, the unusual, and the highly independent, Siskel and Ebert were now the Establishment.
During this slow, substantive switch, Disney had come along and purchased the show from Tribune Entertainment. It was 1986, and initially, the House of Mouse was happy to maintain the status quo. After all, they had a feather in their fleeting Buena Vista syndication cap, and a perceived inroad into the often contentious Hollywood vs. the Critical Community dynamic. Of course, the pair advocated loudly for their independence and ethics, but it seemed strange that a studio system addicted to the ‘yahs’ of various print/public prognosticators would actually underwrite individuals who were determining their product’s viability. As time became money became careers, Uncle Walt’s legacy began to, subtlety reconfigure the show. Gone was the demonstrative “Dog/Skunk of the Week”, in were VHS recommendations and, later, DVD picks. Clips began to take up more and more airtime, with partnership reduced to a couple of minutes of over generalization before rendering their ‘handy’ determinations.
The final blow came when Gene Siskel succumbed to cancer in 1999. He had been physically absent from the show for nearly a year, though he occasionally commented on films from the treatment center in the hospital. When he did die, many believed that the program was finally finished. It had been an amazing 24 year run, and with it, the coming and going of other potential partnerships (Jeffery Lyons and Neil Gabler/Michael Medved, Rex Reed and Bill Harris, etc.) and pretenders to their throne. Apparently, it was a tough decision for Ebert to continue on. He missed his longtime friend and fellow film lover, and recognized that he would never again find the chemistry that he had with his across town newspaper rival. But Disney was determined to keep the “thumbs up/thumbs down” approach intact. It didn’t want to see what was by now an accepted and expected part of the marketing machine to be lost – or even worse, usurped by some other company.
And this is the most important facet of Siskel and Ebert’s - eventually Ebert and Roeper’s - fate. Because of the continual marginalizing of the film critic’s role, thanks in large part to the “anyone can do it” availability of the web, nobody really cared what Roger and Richard had to say anymore. Instead, they wanted to cut to the decisive chase – what did the thumbs say? Two up – film must be good. Two down – a certifiable flop. One up and one down? Depends, who gave what? Oh, Ebert? He’s usually right. Roeper? God, what a shallow shill. Don’t believe what he says. As more and more showcase stunts and ancillary elements were tossed into the series, draining away the last vestiges of the considered film conversation concept, Buena Vista saw its opportunity. They fired several senior staff members, switched studios to save money, and in perhaps the most sickening ploy, used Ebert’s own battle with a terminal illness as the framework for downsizing and de-emphasizing the show’s syndication potential.
The final straw arrived last week, with Disney’s announcement that the newest season of Ebert and Roeper (with Roger still away recuperating, and Richard side saddled with a whole new crop of guest balcony warmers) would be presented sans thumbs. That’s right, after over 30 years of using the digit as a means of marking a film’s value and legitimacy, the show was going symbol-less. The reason was quite simple – remember that old trademark the original hosts secured back a couple of decades before. Contract negotiations for its use were ongoing between the studio and the series, with the House of Mouse lowballing everybody and everyone. They could see the weakening writing on the wall – Roeper, no matter who he’s paired with, was merely a placeholder. Without Ebert (who didn’t appear physically ready to return anytime soon) the premise was without purpose. Along with the continued fracturing of the fanbase, the dismissal of many print critics from the nation’s papers, and a growing wire presence throughout the media, it was obviously an end of some era.
So Ebert played his last trump card. He withheld authorization to use ‘the thumbs’. At least, that’s how Disney sees it, and what they intimated in their press release. The truth is a little more telling. The rights, still held by himself and the estate of Siskel, would no longer be part of the program - not without a new contract. Negotiations are ongoing. If - and it’s a big “if”, considering that most pundits are predicting the eventual cancellation of the series if a contract cannot be negotiated – the show returns, Roeper and his rash of interchangeable guests will be denied the right to provide an opposable ‘pass/fail’ to the movies they mention. It may seem petty, and so ingrained in the spirit of the show that it’s practically perfunctory, but Ebert is standing his ground. Frankly, at this point in his twilighting career, he has every damn right to. His Pulitzer Prize for criticism may be a tad tarnished from all the brash commercialization of his craft, and a legion of illegitimate naysayers trade on his talents every day while dismissing his importance to the profession, but as the creator of this filmic Frankenstein, he’s entitled to euthanize it any way he wants, if that’s what he wants.
It appears its now time to appreciate what we had, eulogize what we’re losing, and wonder where all this leaves the state of serious film analysis. Ebert still writes, and has turned www.atthemovies.com into a destination storehouse for every Siskel and Ebert episode ever created. Ever cognizant of his lingering legacy, he has tried to maintain a public façade while battling a crippling and energy draining disease. With or without television, with or without thumbs, as long as there are words, there will be a Roger Ebert. Few in the wildly overvalued podcast paradigm can claim as much. Sure, he may have started the downward spiral of his occupation into a slammed and sullied source of fanboy rejection, but without him, critics in general would still be seen as stuffed shirts sadly out of touch with a normal movie going crowd. Roger Ebert brought the arthouse to the Cineplex, introducing many to the luxuriant language of film. Though he rarely did it to a review in place, the inventor of ‘the thumbs’ has every right to remove them. In fact, he never really needed them in the first place.