In my tribute to Gene Siskel last year on the tenth anniversary of his passing, I described how At the Movies ignited my enthusiasm for film. Now I have discovered that the venerable series, begun about thirty-five years ago in Chicago and then syndicated nationwide by Disney in 1986, has aired its last episode. It has been years since I watched the TV broadcasts, but I have followed the series online, with Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips and New York Times critic A.O. Scott forming the strongest combination since Gene and Roger occupied the balcony. Their last episode — in which they review Eat Pray Love, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and The Expendables — is available to stream online, and it concludes with a short but sweet look back at what made the series influential. Its cancellation was announced months ago, but it still comes as a surprise.
The criticism most often levied on the series was for its reductiveness, sacrificing analytical vigor for a simplistic yay-or-nay vote — all thumbs, no substance. Such purist complaints never passed muster for me. When I first watched the program as a young teenager, I had no concept of film criticism, but all of a sudden I had a concept of film. I started writing reviews of my own and have done so now for more than a decade. More importantly I saw films I might not otherwise have seen, discovered critics I might not otherwise have read, gone back into film history and sampled works by cinema artists as diverse as Bergman, Ozu, Chaplin, Fellini, and Woody Allen. I’m surely not alone. At the Movies was not a bastardization of film criticism. It was, as Scott describes it in his parting words, a “democratization.” It opened up the world of film to a broader audience, and by extension opened up film criticism. At a time when the medium is in dire straits, the loss of the series is another canary in the coal mine.
After Gene Siskel’s death, Roger Ebert rotated various critics in his balcony perch before settling on Richard Roeper as his permanent co-host. Roeper — a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, which also employs Ebert — always seemed an ill fit for Siskel’s seat, not because his opinions were wrong (opinions can never be wrong), but because he seemed thoroughly outmatched by Ebert’s superior film scholarship. Ebert became more comfortable, contending against a less formidable opponent than he faced during his often combative friendship with his professional rival Siskel, and thus the series became less compelling. Roger Ebert fell ill with cancer in 2006 and left his post, and my relationship with the series for the most part ended.
Roeper continued for two more years with a revolving door of guest critics until his ouster in 2008. Under the new-Hollywood axiom that time-honed expertise is of little interest to 18-49-year-olds, Siskel and Ebert’s old seats were filled by Ben Mankiewicz and, disastrously, Ben Lyons. Of their pairing Roger Ebert wrote in a blog entry: “The show’s reviews were not kind. Two websites opened to catalogue Lyon’s lapses. I e-mailed Mankiewicz in sympathy, comparing him to the victim of a drive-by shooting. That he remained polite and supportive throughout the ordeal is the mark of a gentleman. I was nowhere near that nice to Siskel, and I loved him.” Lyons had never published a film review.
Lyons and Mankiewicz were soon fired — proving that sometimes you can go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public — and when Phillips and Scott made their way to the balcony, so did I, for one last year that honored the show’s legacy with thoughtful criticism informed by years of professional experience. Phillips and Scott never had the combustible love-hate chemistry that made Siskel and Ebert famous, but their lower-key rapport restored a critical authority that had long been missing.
Ebert has discussed plans to begin another movie-review show in some form. I think the internet might be its ideal home. And at a time when even Variety’s top film critic isn’t safe from the pink slip it might be not only a valuable resource for film lovers but an outlet for reputable critics, and without the restraints of broadcast television there might be even greater freedom to expand the scope to classics, foreign films, actor and director spotlights, and so on. All you need is a couple of chairs and two people in them who understand the movies, and love them.