¡Fo Reels, Yo! (...and for rants, and for other things too.)

October, 2009
"everyone's a critic" is old the saying.  Everyone's a critic is also a new popular movie website.  But as hard as it now to believe, with regard to film, everyone wasn't always a critic.  And if they were it was only as a stepping stone to something bigger.  Until the late '60s film reviews were often written by snobby theatre critics slumming in front of the big screen, or young staff writers, getting their feet wet on their way to becoming "real" news reporters.  Like films themselves, the world of critics began to change with the birth of New Hollywood. 

Still, the relationship between a new generation of films and new generation of critics wasn't immediate.  While the modern age of filmmaking was born in the 1960s, it would be almost another 10 years before the public was introduced to a modern age of film critics.  

Oddly, while the new age of films was born on the mean streets of New York and away from Hollywood lots, the new age of film critics was born in Chicago and away from pretentious New York contrarians like, Andrew Sarris. A man so art house and so far removed from New Hollywood that he spent the entire 1970s without naming a single Martin Scorsese film in any of his yearly Top 10 lists.  In fairness to Sarris, he did rate Raging Bull the 18th best film of 1980, just behind the immortal, Popeye.  

Thankfully, the power of Sarris (as well as the power of his rival, Pauline Kael, who went so far the other way against pretentious crap that she raved over cartoons like The Warriors) came to an end one night in a small studio of PBS Chicago affiliate.  

On September 4th, 1975 that affiliate, WTTW, first united two young rivals, Gene Siskel of the conservative Chcago Tribune and Roger Ebert of the liberal Chicago Sun-Times together for a local show called, Opening Soon at a Theater Near You.  As Hollywood was in the middle of a new Golden Age, Siskel and Ebert became the hosts of the first ever movie review show.  The pair spent that first season working on a monthly basis but their immediate success turned it into a weekly program shortly later.  By the third season, the show's name was shortened to Sneak Previews as Siskel and Ebert went into national syndication.  There, on the backs of Siskel's ironic dry wit and Ebert's emotional digs, it became the highest rated weekly PBS program of all time.  

With their iconic yet simple "Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down" ratings system which was added in the early '80s, the pair spent over twenty years together as North America's premier movie critics.  Together the midwesterners became the most important names outside of the studio system, often derailing big budget train wrecks while championing smaller overlooked gems.

Despite their celebrated on air arguments, and earlier newspaper rivalries, the two, known by many as "the bald guy and the fat guy" were on good terms once the camera stopped rolling.  

Professionally, they joined forces during contract disputes which first saw them leave PBS' Sneak Previews in 1982 to create At the Movies with Tribute Entertainment, owner of WPIX in New York.  The two again moved, this time from Tribune to Disney and were seen on WABC in New York while creating Siskel & Ebert and the Movies in 1986.  Both Sneak Previews and At the Movies continued with several different hosts afterwards, but neither was ever as successful as the show which bore the Siskel & Ebert name.  By the mid 1990s both of the former shows were off the air with one of the Sneak Previews' replacement hosts, Michael Medved, being best remembered as a failed political pundit and one of the At the Movies' replacement hosts, Rex Reed, being best remembered for a shoplifting arrest. 
As the others came and went Siskel & Ebert continued their two decade reign as the most important film critics. Through their different tastes they brought not just witty banter (banter seen not only on their show but during guest spots with David Letterman, Howard Stern, and Jay Leno) but balance as well.  Siskel was the cooler one, Ebert more hot tempered.  Siskel was more of a populist, Ebert more scholarly.  Siskel more sarcastic, Ebert more sincere.  Together the bald one and the fat one formed the perfect yin-yang in critiquing film.  Despite their differences, the two often agreed on what was good and what was crap.  In time, the phrase "Two Thumbs Up" became the most coveted phrase on a movie poster or ad.  

On top of that, and in an unlikely way, Siskel & Ebert, particularly Gene Siskel, became even bigger than certain actors and filmmakers of their time.  During the '90s as legendary actor, Jack Nicholson, chaired LA's celebrity row in watching the Lakers win zero titles, and as legendary director, Spike Lee, commandeered New York's celebrity row in watching the Knicks win zero titles, no celebrity row actually celebrated as much as the one anchored by Gene Siskel.  For six different championship seasons, Siskel was able to give a thumbs up to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls.  The team captured their NBA six titles in an incredible span of only eight years.  

Tragically, the good times ended at around the time of that sixth and final championship.  Siskel was diagnosed with a brain tumor in May, 1998.  He took a leave of absence later that year, came back to the show in January, 1999, but then died on February 20th, as a result of complications during a surgery to have a tumor removed.  The importance of the phrase "Two Thumbs Up" died with Gene Siskel.  
Ebert spent close to two years filling Siskel's chair with a slew of temporary guests (most notably Joel Siegel) before naming fellow Sun-Times columnist, Richard Roeper, his permanent cohost in September of 2000. Roeper too was a respected critic and it could be argued that his tastes matched Siskel's more than any of Ebert's other guests. Like Siskel, Roeper appeared cooler than most film geeks.  He too had written for Playboy, he too was a sports fan, yet, the show was missing something.  Perhaps it was the lack of arguments.  Perhaps it was some sort of intangible chemistry that Ebert could only have with Siskel.  Perhaps it was the digital age.  Not only the endless surplus of cable programming (much of it movie related) but also the fact that now anyone could be a critic. For whatever the reason, the importance of the show seemed to wane after Siskel's death.  So did the ratings.  In New York, WABC dropped the show as it moved WNYW.
Things took another tragic turn in early 2002 when Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.  He was operated on and then again a year later to remove a salivary gland.  Over the next several years Ebert was in and out of the hospital as parts of his jaw bone were removed as well.  Further complications eventually lead to Ebert getting a tracheostomy and losing his ability to speak.  This as his friend Joel Siegel had lost his own ten year fight with colon cancer in June of 2007. 

During those years, Roeper filled Ebert's seat with a new crop of temporary guests including, Michael Phillips, of the Chicago Tribune, Robert Wilonsky, of the Dallas Observer, and, A.O. Scott, of the New York Times.  

Perhaps because of Ebert's frequent health battles the show was renamed At the Movies in 2007.  Shortly later, the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down ratings were changed to three option system called "See It/Rent It/Skip It."  In 2008 it was announced that Ebert, Roeper, and none of Roeper's many guests would be returning as the show wanted to go in a new and younger direction.  

Disney did away with the balcony set, moved it to the Reelz Channel as Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons were chosen to captain the ship originally built by Siskel and Ebert.  While Mankiewicz seemed like a fair choice, Lyons (who had never written a single movie review) was to this ship what Gilligan was to the SS Minnow.  

Son of the long tenured but rather dim, Jeffery Lyons, Ben proved that the apple did not fall far from the tree. Even before making his way to the At the Movies set, the younger Lyons was infamous for calling Will Smith's I Am Legend one of the "greatest movies ever made!"  

The one joy of the new At the Movies was watching the look of utter disdain on Ben Mankiewicz' face every time the younger Lyons opened his mouth.  In time, Erik Childless, of the Chicago Film Critics Association called Lyons "a joke" while adding that Lyon's "integrity is out the window" and that "he has no taste."  Despite the fine work of Mankiewicz, the "Two Bens" experiment was a complete failure.

Last month Disney finally came to their senses and gave a thumb's up to intelligence.  The Bens were fired, and with Roger Ebert's blessing, replaced by former temporary hosts, Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott.  Rumors of Ebert and Roeper putting together their own show (Sneak Previews would be a great title) still persist.  This despite the fact that Ebert can no longer speak (he can't eat, drink, or smell either) but until then, the Phillips and Scott combo is a good start.  The two, both Andrew Sarris followers, are too much alike (Wilonsky and Scott seems like a better pairing) to recreate the magic of Siskel & Ebert but they're both fairly knowledgeable.  Despite remaining on Reelz, the show also went back into syndication where locally it can again be viewed on WNYW.  Hopefully the show can get some future input from Ebert.  Even if only by covering Eberfest in much the same way other shows cover Sundance. Roeper has recently signed on to Reelz and it would be nice to add Ebert to the family.  Until then, with respect to Ben Mankiewicz, this move has been a definite step in the right direction.  For now, one thumb up.  Bring back the old ratings system and the old balcony set and we'll get that other thumb ready.*