15 August 2010


Yesterday marked the end of an era. In 1975 movie critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert launched a television show which provided viewers with information on movies being shown in theaters (generally reviewing four to five films each show). The original PBS show, Sneak Previews, morphed into various iterations of At The Movies in 1986 when Siskel and Ebert moved to Disney/NBC. Their commentary was consistently fresh, informative and colorful. They never gave away critical plot points. What they did do, expertly, was talk about how well or poorly a film was crafted -- in direction, in acting, in screenwriting -- providing just enough plot background so that a viewer could make an informed decision whether or not a given film was worth seeing. Their trademark "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" became part of the culture.

I was a huge fan of the show from the beginning. Here were two intelligent, articulate and knowledgeable people who never condescended to their audience, who sometimes disagreed with each other (often with legendary verbal sparring), and who transformed the cinema landscape by democratizing the film experience -- informing audiences in cities, in small towns, in rural areas, about what movies were being made and how good those movies were. In places with only one or a few movie theaters, this window onto the larger film world was priceless.

In early 1999 Gene Siskel died from a brain tumor. Roger Ebert carried on, accompanied by a series of guest critics until settling into a new partnership with Richard Roeper in 2000. In 2006 Roger Ebert had to leave the show, due to difficulty speaking arising from tumors on his thyroid and salivary glands. Roeper in turn carried on, partnering with assorted guest hosts. During the past year, the show was hosted by the best pair since the original Siskel and Ebert -- Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott.

Yesterday, Phillips and Scott delivered a moving tribute to the thirty-five year run of the show. Why it has been discontinued, I do not know. The show's current website provides no clues. I've written to Buena Vista Entertainment via the website, protesting the cancellation, and ask that others do the same. Aside from a number of programs on PBS, At The Movies was one of the few shows on broadcast TV to give us intelligent, entertaining discourse. In a word, culture. Until (hopefully) a replacement show comes along, former viewers still have access to the online opinions and insights of Roger Ebert at his excellent critic's website. It's just not the same as a conversation between two critics whose disagreements, as much as their shared views, inform the viewer with added dimension and perspective.

At The Movies, with all your hosts over the years, but most especially with Siskel and Ebert, I salute you.

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