A bit of TV history dies in a few hours when the last new episode of At the Movies is broadcast at 3:40 a.m. local time. Don’t feel bad if you don’t stay up to watch. I’m not doing it, for one thing. For another, you can catch the episode in the morning on the show’s website.
This is the definitive end of the enterprise started by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert back in 1975, as a local TV show for the Chicago area. Of course, Ebert weighed in back in March when the show’s impending cancellation was announced. So did others.
I don’t think this portends anything about the state of film criticism. I think much of the show’s success depended on the unrepeatable chemistry between Siskel and Ebert. Some of it came from the fact that they looked very different from each other, and some of it was down to them being unpolished Chicago newspaper guys, as opposed to more overtly intellectual New York critics or smoother L.A. types. Mostly, though, it was just the fact that when they disagreed about a movie, they did it in such a vehement and compelling fashion. Yes, sometimes it devolved into shtick. (“You’re fat!” “Oh, yeah? Well, you’re bald!”) But more often it was two intelligent guys who were passionate about their jobs and couldn’t believe it when the other guy hated a movie that he liked. Viewers complained about the lightweights when Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz had the show in 2008-09, but the current critics Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott aren’t lightweights. They’re formidable critics, but when they disagree, they do so in a polite and collegial manner, and it’s just not as compelling as when Siskel and Ebert battled it out. One piece on the web (scroll down further for the link) compared At the Movies to ESPN’s current Pardon the Interruption, and that’s exactly the right comparison. Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon have that same sort of dynamic working for them, and when they stop hosting their show, it won’t be the same. Siskel and Ebert could have been arguing about sports or politics or which flavor of wings to order at the local bar. We would have watched.
I didn’t become a film critic because of Siskel and Ebert, but their show was regular viewing for me. I won’t miss it, but when some TV producer finds two critics who are as contentious with each other and as professional about what they do, I’ll be watching.
Here’s that piece I alluded to earlier, an appreciation of At the Movies illustrated with YouTube clips. Here’s footage from Siskel and Ebert’s 1994 guest appearance on The Critic, an animated TV spinoff of The Simpsons that never found the audience it deserved. This is Ebert’s tribute to Siskel after his death. Robert Townsend’s 1987 comedy film Hollywood Shuffle had an embedded parody of At the Movies, in which the critics not only give movies “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” but also “high five” and “the finger.”