Roger Ebert died today. In his honor, I am reposting this blog I wrote in August 2010 about his show, At the Movies. I credit Ebert, along with his sidekicks Gene Siskel and Richard Roeper with teaching me that movies are more than just entertainment – they can also be art. Rest in Peace, Mr. Ebert.
In 1994, I was seventeen years old. One evening I was up late, flipping through the TV channels and I stumbled across the show At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert. I’d never actually watched the show before, but I did know of it. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were the owners of the two most famous thumbs in America, you know? Turns out, I actually liked the show. So I made a point of watching it whenever I could.
Their support of a certain movie got me out of a movie rut. When I watched this particular movie, it really opened my eyes to the fact that movies which don’t seem to be about a subject I like can actually be good. I learned that documentary features can be good actual movies, rather than the dry boring crap we had to watch when we had substitute teachers in school. To this day, Hoop Dreams is one of my all time favorite movies. And I can personally thank Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert for constantly fighting for that little movie and urging people to see it. I’m proof that sometimes that works.
In 1999, Gene Siskel died, but Roger Ebert carried on, initially going through a round robin of guest hosts. He finally settled on Richard Roeper as his balcony-mate and for the next six years, At the Movies continued in the same format with Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper. I must admit, it was the show with these two that was my favorite of all the versions of At the Movies. Ebert is accessibly intellectual and Roeper is just plain funny (and not that bad to look at either!)
As Ebert’s health issues became worse, Richard Roeper continued, also with a round robin of guests. Two of the most frequent guests were Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune and A.O. Scott of the New York Times. A contract dispute with Buena Vista Television (who syndicated At the Movies) shut the show down for a while, until it was brought back with Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz. We will just refer to this period of At the Movies as the dark period. And let us never speak of it again.
Less than a year later, the Bens were (Thank God!) fired and yet another version of At the Movies was introduced, this time with Phillips of the Chicago Tribune and Scott of the NY Times. It was back and it was nearly as good as it had been in the days of Ebert and Roeper.
Until last week that is; when the balcony closed for good. The show, which was so integral to my late adolescence, has been canceled.
I can’t really explain how bummed I am about this. It’s such a weird thing, to have been so attached to this show for so long and to have it just taken away from me like this. Why did it mean so much to me? Well, I grew up in a small town, and in the pre-internet age, I had no way of knowing about indie movies or arthouse films. Siskel and Ebert made a movie like Hoop Dreams accessible to me. Sure, I never got to see it in the theater, but I was able to remember it and look for the video when it was released.
From 1994-1996 I worked in a video store. (Fun fact: the independently owned video store where I worked is still open. Despite the fact that the town’s other video stores, a Blockbuster and a Hollywood have long since shut down. Score one for locally owned businesses!) I could watch Siskel and Ebert, learn what indies were coming out and get them from the store.
But it wasn’t really just about the movies. It was the personalities that made the show so great. (In my area, we were stuck with the shittiest of all local film critics, Arch Campbell. Who, somehow, still has a career.) Siskel and Ebert had some legendary arguments, but you could see how much each respected the other. And all the other hosts (with the exception of the incredibly dull ignoramuses of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz) have followed suit. Movies became accessible. Up until Siskel and Ebert’s thumbs became famous, film critics existed in some kind of weird ivory tower. But movies for the masses can be good, and none of these hosts ever forgot that. Movies were taken both seriously and as entertainment. If a movie was bad and it could have been better, it was just a damn shame.
Roger Ebert seems to be enjoying a new weird celebrity, and is the author of a wonderful blog I’d urge you to check out. He is, I believe, still mute from his health issues. Roeper, Phillips and Scott are still writing criticism. If there’s any hope for television film critics, it’s that all three will have future careers reviewing for the masses on TV once again.
So join me in toasting a show that lasted for thirty-five years, countless hosts, thirty-five Oscar races, and God knows how many station moves. Here’s to you, At the Movies.
*Anyone interested in film critic TV shows should check out the Rotten Tomatoes TV show on the Current Network if you have it. Not quite as intellectual as At the Movies, it still manages to be smart and funny and long on personality thanks to the charming hosts, Brett Ehrlich and Ellen Fox. Also, there’s more snark than At the Movies ever had.
(ETA – The Rotten Tomatoes Show was cancelled shortly after this blog was originally posted. Boo-urns.)
**Seriously, watching documentaries on subjects you thought you had no interest in? It’s awesome. If you don’t mind, I’d like to recommend the following:
2-The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
5-Why We Fight
6-The War Room
7-The Atomic Cafe