Monday, September 14, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #91: At The Movies (1982 - 1986)

Today, I review the reviewers.

The subject of this ninety-first cult-tv flashback is At The Movies: the syndicated 1980s-era film review program that introduced many TV viewers to the late Gene Siskel, critic for The Chicago Tribune, and Roger Ebert, film critic of The Chicago Sun-Times.

In the New York area, At The Movies was broadcast on WPIX, channel 11, and usually aired around 7:00 pm on Saturdays...right before I often headed out with friends to catch a new release. And the recommendations of these TV critics always carried considerable weight in my film selection process.

Siskel and Ebert had already hosted the PBS predecessor, Sneak Previews, prior to this Tribune-sponsored variation on the format. And in 1986, the duo moved on again, this time to Disney. Two inferior critics, Rex Reed and Bill Harris, manned their stations on At The Movies and the show drifted into silliness and pop-culture irrelevancy before merciful cancellation.

The format of At the Movies was simple. After a cheeky opening sequence which found Ebert and Siskel sneaking into the balcony of a movie theater, a short clip of a new movie played on the big silver screen before them (and positioned between them in the frame). Then, following the preview, we'd switch to the reverse angle -- facing the balcony -- as Siskel and Ebert introduced each other. I always felt that last bit of business was a nice, gracious (and original) touch in what was clearly a competitive partnership. To their credit, Ebert and Siskel never choked on each other's names or credentials...

Then, in the course of a fast-talking, high-spirited, ceaselessly-amusing half-hour, the two critics reviewed four new releases, assessing them, finally, with a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down."

The series occasionally featured a fun segment with "Aroma the Skunk," the show's mascot (a critter who always sat next to Ebert, for some reason...). This led into a spirited discussion of "The Stinker of the Week."

Sometimes, the critics even turned their gaze to new "home video" releases, and I recall one installment of At The Movies in which the duo discussed the 20th anniversary release of "The Cage," the original Star Trek pilot starring Jeffrey Hunter.

Other movie critics -- not to mention several textbooks on film criticism -- have been notably rough on Siskel and Ebert over the years. An Introduction to Film Criticism (Longman Inc., 1989) dismissed the duo as a "Laurel and Hardy imitation" and noted that their reviews were "as shallow as the average review in a daily newspaper; simply the unsupported opinions of the reviewers," (pages 17-18).

With respect to the authors of this book -- an otherwise outstanding study of critical approaches to narrative film -- I disagree. While it is true that Siskel and Ebert on At The Movies reduced film criticism to a simple (but useful) binary decision of thumbs up/thumbs down, it's also critical to make note of the medium in which they toiled. In fact, their program devoted more time to discussing film as an art form than any other weekly program in television history. Of course, the drawback of the TV format is time, and that should also be acknowledged in film books too. In the freewheeling blog format here, for instance, I can write about a movie until I'm blue in the face, but that's simply not the case in television. In a half-hour span, how many films can be debated in depth, especially once you throw in commercials, plus several clips of each film described?

To ameliorate this concern, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert talked fast, working in as much detail and analysis as was humanly possible. And they often devoted entire half-hours to a single relevant subject, so they could go into deeper detail. I remember an episode on the Star Wars trilogy (following the premiere of Return of the Jedi), another on the films of Woody Allen, and a third about the durability of the James Bond franchise. I remember that the critics also devoted one episode to sequels ("The Stinkers of 1983") and another one to reporting on screen violence. Again, there was simply nowhere else on TV you could go to find this in-depth perspective on modern film.

I would also argue that Siskel and Ebert, on At the Movies, traveled well beyond the basics, and well beyond simple "unsupported opinions." In their review of Gremlins (1984), they got down to the satirical aspects of Joe Dante's initiative, and even the palette of the film, which lampooned Norman Rockwell's vision of America. In their review of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) they noted -- before just about anyone else did, I think -- Spielberg's drift towards on-the-nose sentimentality. Their review of Ghostbusters (1984) brought up relevant comparisons between Bill Murray and Groucho Marx. And in that review of "The Cage" that I mentioned above, they were able to contextualize the episode's narrative (about the dangerous, numbing nature of illusion as "narcotic") to the mid-1960s drug culture.

I was in the sixth grade when I first started watching At the Movies, and I had never, ever, seen anybody, anywhere discuss films with this degree of specificity; in these contextual and historical terms. Within the obvious constraints of TV programming, Siskel and Ebert thus managed to provide a kind of weekly history lesson in cinema. They brought up films I had never heard of, and films I would never have sought out without their guidance. I watched a few old clips of the series again on You Tube this week -- after not seeing At the Movies in years -- and once more, I found myself sucked in by the passion and charm of these guys. Even today, their motormouth reviews are packed with interesting insights.

When I began watching At The Movies, I preferred Gene Siskel to Roger Ebert. He was so acerbic, and had this funny manner of rearing his head back -- almost like a lion -- and then leaning forward when he was about to score a point. He seemed a bit more camera-savvy than his sparring partner, and could really land the zingers.

But then I began reading Roger Ebert's movie yearbooks in 1987 (and purchased every new edition of the book through 1996...) and found that my tastes more closely aligned with his. Roger Ebert also seemed much more fair-minded, I soon realized. He often recognized and acknowledged the artistry of a film, even he didn't necessarily approve of the subject matter on personal terms (he championed Wes Craven's Last House on the Left, for instance.) I also began to grow more frustrated with Siskel over the years because I felt that his personal biases sometimes prevented him from recognizing a good film. He gave a "thumbs down" to James Cameron's Aliens (1986) because the film put a child, Newt, in harms way. I never felt that was a valid criticism, even as a kid. As I like to say, how would Gene Siskel have judged the movie had the aliens -- vicious, slobbering beasts -- treated the child with kid gloves? Of course, that would have been silly and unrealistic, and a good critic like Siskel would have noted that terrible lapse in tone and realism. Yet the critic had put Aliens in a box from which the film could not escape; from which it could not achieve a good review. No doubt I've done the same during my writing career, but I do try hard to remember this example.

Ultimately, I came away from At the Movies preferring Ebert. I always liked how -- when the camera turned to him -- he would absently straighten out his cardigan and then almost imperceptibly glide forward in his chair, towards the audience...like a wise philosopher sharing wisdom with his best student in the spirit of knowledge, not arrogance or superiority. To this day, I make Ebert's blog a regular stop. He's the only film critic ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, and just recently he was judged America's most trusted pundit. Still, it's a crying shame there's no "Collected Criticism of Gene Siskel" available in print ten years after the man's death. Ultimately, it was the discovery of Ebert on the book store shelves that drew to me to his manner of thinking; to his reasonable tone, fair-mindedness and consistent standards. But Siskel remains an important enough figure in the annals of film criticism that someone ought to assemble a collection of his reviews in print, and contextualize his work.

As I noted above, At the Movies went on sans Siskel and Ebert, but without these guys at the helm it was almost a self-parody, just two critics bitching over movies they didn't like, with no clear understanding of the standards applied. I watched the new crew a few times and found the enterprise...embarrassing.

I attended the University of Richmond in 1988, and watching television wasn't really an option or concern for me at that point, so I didn't keep up with the new Siskel and Ebert series very closely. Then I got married, and moved into my own writing career, and only occasionally saw Siskel and Ebert's show again in the later 1990s. However, I was very upset to learn that Gene Siskel had passed away in 1999, and tuned back in a few times to watch the new sparring partner, Richard Roeper. I had no problems with Roeper as a film critic or on-screen personality, but felt that the magic was gone; that nobody really challenged Ebert the way Siskel did. Siskel made Ebert better; and Ebert made Siskel better. Perhaps it was the spirit of competition, perhaps it was friendship, perhaps it was just chemistry...but their partnership worked. It worked so well, in fact, that filmmakers have gone out of their way to acknowledge (or attack) the duo. The 1987 film Willow featured a two-headed dragon named Sissbert, for instance. And the dreadful Godzilla of 1998 featured a New York Mayor Ebert and his assistant, Gene. And who can forget, Carpenter's They Live (1988), which revealed Siskel and Ebert to be insidious alien invaders?!

At the Movies, more so than Sneak Previews or the 1990s version of the series also reminds me of a special and cherished time in my own life. The movies reviewed on the program in those years are ones that I recall with nostalgia and affection, whether they were actually that great or not. Ghostbusters (1984), Aliens (1986), Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), Fright Night (1985), The Right Stuff (1983), The Last Starfighter (1984), Gremlins (1984), Dune (1984), Starman (1984), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), and so on. This was the period of dueling James Bonds (Octopussy vs. Never Say Never Again in 1983), Woody Allen on blazing ascent as a serious filmmaker (Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days), and more. So for me, this cult tv flashback isn't just about remembering the good times watching Siskel and Ebert on At The Movies, it's about the movies that informed by teenage years.

You can view some clips from At The Movies -- and Siskel and Ebert at their talkative best -- below. If you watch closely, you may find yourself perched on the edge of your seat, opening your mouth to add a comment, chuckling a little bit, and nodding your head in agreement. Even if you don't agree with the reviews, the most important and lasting gift of At The Movies is that it fostered a passion for film in the TV generation; my generation. Approve of what Siskel and Ebert had to say or disagree vehemently with their conclusions, you can't deny their passion or their energy. They were good critics, and they gave us great television.

So until next time, we'll see you...At The Movies.













6 comments:

  1. Thanks for the trip down memory lane! I can remember watching their show when it was on PBS and hanging on their every word, enjoying them quarreling over the merits of a film. And you're right, they sometimes championed the obscure (most famously HOOP DREAMS) and really got the word out on films that had sometimes been marginalized.

    What I loved most about the show is that they both seemed very passionate about film and that translated very well. It certainly made me appreciate film in a new way at the time. Like yourself, I lost touch with them once they hit the big time and local stations seemed to shift the time slots for the show around. And when Siskel died, it was never the same again as you so rightly point out.

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  2. Hey J.D.

    Thanks for the comment! With the switch in personnel over at the new show (from the "Bens" back to the serious journalists...) I thought it was high time to remember Siskel and Ebert.

    I owe both men a debt of gratitude, because they directed me to many great movies over the years.

    best,
    JKM

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  3. Kudos, JKM. I really miss this pair (though, Ebert is one I continue to follow via the web since his surgeries and health problems). A great look back at a pair of gentlemen worth watching. Is it just me, or have television movie reviews become to so corporate in nature when compared to folks like S & E who you feel really love film. Thanks, John.

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  4. Though I usually found myself in agreement with Ebert at the end of the day, Siskel was the one who was more likely to champion a really left-field movie (Halloween III!)that no one else liked (I mean, no one)and its worth remembering that Siskel was almost alone among mainstream reviewers in championing Carpenter's The Thing (and both Siskel and Ebert were admirers of Halloween and Dawn of the Dead at a time when 'Serious Critics' snubbed such films)...

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  5. I love the comparison of Siskel to a lion. He did do that! I always loved when he had some counterpoint attack!

    I watched this show on PBS as well, and then as At the Movies. I loved the chemistry between these two and thought it was an extremely entertaining way to present opposing opinions (or agreeing ones when time called for it). Although I often disagreed with them (like when they bashed Blue Velvet, but it was hilarious), there was always some meat there, some validity - not that my opinions are more valid - but there is an art to making someone see a film through your eyes. That's taken for granted sometimes on the free internet waves.

    This post also reminds me of Donahue, who was so dang entertaining, that at 10 I was watching the most political crap ever. I loved that he never talked down to his audience. Ever. And Siskel and Ebert were very much the same way.

    How I long for that kind of television again.

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  6. Anonymous6:04 PM

    Siskel and Ebert, alone among their replacements and other pairings, gave me what I wanted from movie critics. Whether I agreed with their thumbs or not, they always gave me the information I sought -- whether I would enjoy the movie they discussed. Yes, they had their opinions, which they stuck in. But they never lost sight of the fact that their primary responsibility was to answer the question "Will I like it?"

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