A Look Back At AT THE MOVIES

This weekend marked the airing of the last episode of At The Movies. After – years, thousands of movies reviewed and countless failed imitations by others later, the movie review program famously launched with critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel has closed the balcony for the last time.

And as current co-host Michael Phillips stated in this week’s final episode, “Good-byes are never easy if what we leave behind had any value at all.”

From its humble beginnings (with the ungainly title of Opening Soon at a Theatre Near You) as a local Chicago PBS television show featuring the two main film reviewers for the city’s two competing daily newspapers, At The Movies, in all of it’s various incarnations, grew to be become one of the most recognizable outlets for film criticism in the country. After two years as a local show, the show was rechristened Sneak Previews and debuted across the country on PBS stations. In 1981, Siskel and Ebert would leave PBS for commercial syndication and the show would now become At The Movies.

And as the show gained popularity, Siskel and Ebert found themselves to be unlikely media stars, appearing on the likes of David Letterman’s and Howard Stern’s talk shows. Their “thumbs up/thumbs down” pronouncements became so engrained in the public’s mind that they were forced to trademark them to avoid their usage in advertising. They even appeared in cartoon form for on the John Lovitz-starring animated series The Critic.

Of course, over the years the show and its hosts have earned its share of detractors. A few years back, I attended an advance screening of a film in New York City and found myself seated a few rows in front of a nationally known critic who spent the time before the movie started running down Ebert to the person seated next to him, in one of those pseudo-whispers calculated to be heard by everyone around him. I suspected from his tone, though, that he was perhaps more than a little fueled by sour grapes over his own failed attempts with shows similar to Siskel and Ebert’s.

Noted critical curmudgeon Armond White recently stated on the Slash Film pod cast that Siskel and Ebert did more harm to film criticism than help with the show, claiming that Ebert has reduced discussion of film down to complaining about continuity errors. If anything, it’s White’s assertion here that is reductive. Sure, they may have pointed out faux pas in the filmmaking process that should never have made it to the screen, but only when it was emblematic of a film’s sloppily put together nature, a perfectly valid criticism. And White himself is no stranger to railing against a film maker when his product doesn’t live up to his own exacting, though somehow never adequately defined, aesthetic criteria.

But Siskel and Ebert did more than just review films. They devoted special shows to each year’s Academy Awards, discussing the Academy’s choices of nominees and pointing out films they felt were overlooked. They also gave over entire half-hour episodes to various other topics over the years, including one installment analyzing the films of Quentin Tarantino – at a time when the director only had two films made! (The segment is available on certain pressings of the Pulp Fiction DVD) When Ted Turner announced that he was planning on using computers to add color to black and white films, they were the standard bearers in the protest against the idea.

They were far more than just “the fat guy and the other one” yelling at each about movies. (Their alleged animosity towards each other may have been born out of their newspaper rivalry, but soon mellowed into a friendship that allowed them to tease each other with no hard feelings.) They were about creating discussion about films, treating them as entertainment that could very well be art. As much as directors like Scorsesse, Coppola and Spielberg were fans of movies growing up before they entered film school, Siskel and Ebert were movie buffs who entered journalism school and went on to write about their passion. And that passion and wealth of background knowledge was infectious to many of us who watched the show on a regular basis. What mattered was that they got us thinking and talking about movies as something more than just something to watch while munching on popcorn.

When my family got their first VCR back in the spring of 1985, I was 16 years old. One of the very first movies I rented with the family’s brand new membership at the local video store, after that first weekend marathon of repeated viewings of Stop Making Sense and The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai, was My Dinner With Andre. Certainly not a typical title for a high school sophomore to rent, but one that I felt compelled to check out thanks to Siskel and Ebert’s enthusiasm for the film leaving such an impression. They opened up so many doors to new worlds of films for me in those days when no one even dreamt of the internet that I can not be anything but be thankful.

Sure I always didn’t agree with their reviews. (Really, Gene? Predator was “100% boredom”?) I don’t think anyone was in 100% agreement with them. And sure, some of their predictions turned out to be wrong. In their review of Robert Townsend’s debut film as a writer/director Hollywood Shuffle, they called him a “force to be reckoned with,” though Townsend’s career almost immediately floundered and has never really recovered.

Time marched on and in February 1999, Gene Siskel reviewed his last film, passing away from complications of a brain tumor. Ebert continued on, being joined by a rotating number of co-hosts that included other film journalists, online upstarts like Ain’t It Cool’s Harry Knowles and even directors like Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese. Finally Chicago writer Richard Roeper earned the permanent seat across the aisle for Ebert and the show continued for several more years until Ebert’s own bout with cancer in 2006. This time Roeper continued the show with a variety of guests including comic Jay Leno, singer John Melloncamp and directors Harold Ramis, Mario Van Peeples and Kevin Smith. Finally, Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips was announced as Roeper’s new co-host when it became clear that Ebert would not be able to return.

Then came the year that fans of the show don’t like to talk about. Roeper could not reach a contract agreement with distributor Buena Vista television and left. In the hopes of reaching a more youthful demographic, Buena Vista brought in Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz to host the show. Mankieowicz had Hollywood in his blood, being the cousin of screenwriter Tom, grandson of writer Herman and grandnephew of writer/director Joseph L. Additionally, Mankiewicz was a host on the Turner Classic Movies cable outlet. Lyons was the son of critic Jeffrey Lyons. But while Mankiewicz clearly showed signs of his heritage in his knowledge of film and insightful criticism of the movies under discussion, Lyons quickly came under fire for being incredibly out of his depth on the show. The Bens lasted one season before being replaced by a returning Michael Phillips and New York writer A. O. Scott.

Phillips and Scott did a great job of bringing the show back from the morass of stupidity that Lyons had sunk it in. They brought energy and intelligent viewpoints back to the show and even engaged in a bit of argumentative back and forth that so many of us recall from the hey days of Siskel and Ebert. My only complaint about this last incarnation of the show is that their reviews of new films tended to be fairly rushed, so as to make time for other segments highlighting new video releases and recapping reviews for older movies still in theaters. Even then, though, Phillips and Scott were able to post longer conversations about certain films on the show’s website.

All this history came to an end this weekend. Scott and Phillips had a spirited disagreement about the Julia Roberts vehicle Eat Pray Love and agreed that people should see Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. Scott recommended that people “open up a lite beer, slap on a fake tattoo, fire up a cigar” and rent The Expendables after a hard day at the office while Phillips just said to “skip it.” And then, after giving a brief history of the show, the two opined that even though the show is ending, its spirit will live on. And they’re right.

While At The Movies will no longer exist as a place where discussion on new films can begin, much of Siskel and Ebert’s classic commentary from 1986 onwards can be found online here. (Though it remains unanswered how long the show’s producer Buena Vista Television will maintain the website.)

And the show’s true legacy can be found in the number of writers and film lovers who were impacted by the show over its three and a half decade run. I wouldn’t be writing today if it wasn’t for the show, and I know that fellow FilmBuffOnline staffer William Gatevackes wouldn’t be either. (You can see his own thoughts on the show’s ending here.)

So thank you Gene and Roger, Richard, Ben M., Michael and Tony. you opened the balcony up to the rest of us. And because of you, the balcony will never really be closed.

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About Rich Drees 6692 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty years experience writing about film and pop culture.
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August 15, 2010 5:10 pm

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William Gatevackes
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August 15, 2010 5:58 pm

I wonder what that nationally known critic thought of the Ben Lyons era of the show. I bet he loooooved it.