A long time Chicago institution has folded. Roger Ebert is shuttering up his balcony, and Ebert and Roepert’s At The Movies will be retooled, with a different name and a different format. Movie going will never be the same.
I started watching Siskel and Ebert’s movie review show way back when it first started on Chicago’s WTTW, when it was called “Sneak Previews”. I had read Siskel’s movie reviews for several years even before the two of them began broadcasting, and had always enjoyed his direct way of telling the reader about the movie. No high falutin’ references to obscure foreign cinema, no automatically favorable reviews to foreign films by virtue of them being *foreign*, and no cheap shots at any movies or actors, no matter how low the aim of the filmmakers were.
Up to then, the only popular critics that reached me in the obscure corner of the midwest that was my hometown were Rex Reed and Gene Shalit. The former’s constant snideness was tiresome and uninformative, and the latter tended to repeat the studios’ press releases, making his reviews equally uninformative.
Siskel and Ebert’s show proved to be exactly the same as I had found Siskel’s reviews to be. In their show they were two guys having a passionate conversation about the newly released movies of each week. They never pandered to the industry, nor did they ever resort to panning a movie or performance simply to show off how smart they were. They knew a lot about films, but never talked down to the viewers. Their enthusiasm for the medium was catching, and unlike most critics at the time, they made the viewers understand why they might want to see a movie that might otherwise only play to art-house audiences. Yet they never looked down on a movie if its aims were much lower. They evaluated each movie based on what it was attempting, and not on what they thought it ought to be.
The best thing of all about Siskel and Ebert, however, was that you could just about always take their opinion to the bank. Two thumbs up meant you were sure to enjoy the movie. Two thumbs down meant that you would probably hate the movie. And a mixed, one-thumb-up-one-thumb-down meant that it was probably okay to see, but consult your own judgement and taste when deciding.
I was happy to see the show become a staple of syndication, and the two hosts’ success. I always thought that one reason for it was because they came from Chicago, and its midwestern ethos. Here in the midwest we’re too polite to be snide, yet too scrupulous to be dishonest, and we’re too removed from the Hollywood machine to be enthralled by it or beholden to it. Happily, the same fundamental values continued after Siskel’s death, when Richard Roeper took his place on the aisle.
Now the show will change, and its two new hosts, Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz will take over. All that needs to be said about this new version is the observation that both of the new hosts are from the east coast.