An appreciation: At the Movies

Siskel & Ebert’s balcony closes for the final time

Siskel & Ebert

This week’s episode of At the Movies was the last of the series that premiered 35 years ago, originally hosted by Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel.

I remember my mother finding Sneak Previews (the show’s name then) on the local public television station when we lived in Detroit. At the time, I had no idea who Siskel and Ebert were and, more importantly, that film criticism was a profession and these two guys got paid to watch movies and then write, talk, and argue about them. Even after I became a regular viewer, I didn’t realize that I was actually doing the same thing with my mother and my friends  except I was doing it for free.

Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert

That was the secret to their success: their reviews of the current movies of the day,  in their “regular guy” fashion, were just like those of any random moviegoer who had just seen whatever was playing at the local theatre. In their educated but accessible style, they critiqued the actors’ performances, whether the story or script was good or weak, and most importantly, whether or not the movie was worth taking the time to see at all. There was no scholarly jargon in their reviews and only occasionally a comparison to a similar film. Their Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down review designation was popular with the moviegoing public and a coveted Thumbs Up approval was often mentioned in a film’s advertising and marketing campaign.

Richard Roeper and Roger Ebert

Over the years, change came to the show. After its syndication around the country by Disney, it became At the Movies.  The famous faux movie theatre balcony for two was vacated by Siskel when his illness from brain cancer forced him from his chair. Ebert carried on without his cross-town newspaper rival and hosted the show with a series of guest critics. One of his guests, Richard Roeper, was his colleague from the Chicago Sun-Times. He proved himself to be a worthy chair-filler and had a different, younger and even geekier perspective than Ebert or Siskel.

When illness forced Ebert from the balcony, Roeper continued with another series of guest critics that included a mix of celebrity movie fans (Aisha Tyler, Michaela Pereira), a movie director (Kevin Smith) and critics from other publications (Kenneth Turan, Tom Shales).

In its final form, At the Movies was hosted by film critics A.O. Scott (New York Times) and Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune). They carried on the tradition of discussion and occasional argument but were forced to use their own marks of distinction (See it, Skip it, or Rent it) due to the phrase “Two Thumbs Up” having been trademarked by Siskel and Ebert years earlier.

This last episode included a short retrospective of Siskel and Ebert doing what they did best and first: discussing movies with humor and diverse opinions. Today, movie audiences have a wide variety of sources for movie reviews, both professional and amateur, but Siskel and Ebert were pioneers for disseminating criticism to an audience that didn’t always want to have to read a paper for their views and, in the early days of their show, didn’t have the internet to turn to. They were champions of many small, independent, and foreign films, and filmmakers whose work would have never been discovered by general audiences outside the major entertainment centers of New York City and Los Angeles or a niche fan base without their support.

Roger Ebert

Gene Siskel

In 2000, the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was renamed the Gene Siskel Film Center. He was a member of their advisory board and hosted film screenings there. The center was mentioned in several of his articles and  said that it was one of his three favorite things about Chicago.

Although his illness has silenced his natural voice, Roger Ebert still reviews films for the Chicago Sun-Times which appear on his web site and writes many books about film. He recently has resumed speaking through the use of a computer program that simulates his speaking voice.

All of the guest critics can now be found somewhere on the web.

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