A Closed Balcony (Pt. 2) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

A Closed Balcony (Pt. 2)

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You can read part one here.

Andrew COMMENTARYI was sitting around with a friend of mine talking about Children of Men.  We both agreed that it was a very fine film, hitting notes of hope in a situation that we may be headed to.  Over the course of the conversation we looked up Roger Ebert's review of it twice, because it was a great piece of writing and a valuable resource.  Something struck me very suddenly while we were talking.

We're never going to hear Ebert speak again, and Siskel has been gone for a lot longer.  Now the show that I used to wake up at 5 AM to watch is also gone.  Over thirty years of televised film criticism, taken completely seriously, delivered to a little kid that hadn't quite yet learned how to articulate what was so bad about Lost In Space.  I don't have that problem now, but when I got done watching it with my friends and there was a little abyss where joy used to be, and I knew something was wrong with the movie.

I learned so much from watching the various incarnations of this show.  But from the beginning Siskel and Ebert were always a lot more than the fat guy arguing with the skinny guy, as a lot of folks seem to remember them.  I remember a unique chemistry.  Ebert, who always seemed to be the more emotionally inclined of the two, and Siskel, who was a bit more analytic and methodical in his reviews, made every movie more interesting.  Their friendship was born of two competitors being forced to work together.  Because they were equals in different ways, they slowly became friends, but never lost that competitive edge.  What I was able to watch every week were two highly intelligent, incredibly gifted writers going at each others throats when they disagreed, and paying reverence to film when they found something transcendentally good.

They held grudges, but they begrudgingly learned to like each other.  They had a mutual respect, but could be horribly condescending to each other at the slightest provocation (Siskel to Ebert, "Where's your big red suit and beard Santa Claus?  You sure gave them a gift.")  They were great friends, great rivals, and it always made for great television.

When Gene Siskel died we lost someone special.  It was a long few weeks before anyone even remotely acceptable came onto the show to take his place.  There were some good co-hosts in the meantime.  Watching Scorsese review movies alongside Ebert was a delight, and there is a strange sense of schadenfreude I got from watching Harry Knowles stumble through his criticisms.  Some of them were just outright awful, and made for great TV because of Ebert's reaction to their reviews.

One of my favorite co-host moments was watching Joyce Kulhawik defend her opinion of Gladiator as one of the best movies that she's ever seen.  Ebert strongly disagreed, but through sheer force of will she is able to continue on with her opinion and drown him out for a while.  Granted, she's not able to articulate as clearly or effectively about why it's so good, but it's nice to see that sheer passion come through in her review.  She served as a nice reminder for me that we're not in the business just to analyze, but we've got to have a zest for the business.

Eventually Ebert decided on one of the revolving co-hosts to become his new partner.  Thus, the second era of duos was born and Richard Roeper became his new partner.  Their rivalry was never as intense or pointed as Ebert and Siskel's because Roeper was a colleague of Ebert's before a co-host.  They brought out different sides of each other because Roeper's seemed to become overtaken with his emotion at points like the Incredible Hulk.

One of me and Danny's favorite moments is when Ebert and Roeper were reviewing Original Sin with  Angelina Jolie.  After knocking the movie down several pegs Roeper turns to Ebert, who responds by saying he knows the acting isn't top notch, that the story is uninteresting, and that the characters are shallow but it works as melodrama so he's giving it a Thumbs Up.  A thoroughly flummoxed Roeper can't control himself and screams "You are not!" as soon as he says this and spends the rest of Ebert's synopsis hanging his head in shame.

Why this isn't available online, I have no idea.  It was a wonderful moment.

They had a few good years together, and I'm sure that they bonded quite well over Ebert's love of the Garfield films (Ebert "Kids, your uncle Richard here is an old, old man." Roeper "I'm a hipster who knows what's right for the kids.")  But Ebert's health problems grew and he eventually had to seek surgery and treatment that removed his ability to talk.

Roeper was struck with the unfortunate task of dealing with revolving co-hosts, much like Ebert years earlier.  Once again there were the good, like when Mario Van Peebles co-hosted and had wonderful things to say about the cultural implications of Borat.  There were the bad, like when John Mellencamp (yes, the "Jack and Diane" John Mellencamp) came one the show and Roeper's eyes bulge continuously at having to wait for him to finish his horrible reviews.  Then there were the strange, like every single time Robert Wilonsky was on the show.  He was a decent enough reviewer, but gave stuff like The Game Plan a good review because he loves his kids.  That was, essentially, his reason - and he reviewed films in that manner a lot.

As much as I loved watching Roeper squirm his way through Mellencamp reviews, it was nice to see Michael Phillips land the co-host position.  I also loved A.O. Scott (more on him in a few), but Phillips and Roeper could be adversarial in a way that Roeper and Ebert never really were.

Sadly, Disney eventually decided that a new entertainment show was needed instead of a movie reviewing show.  The revamped At The Movies would focus more on the general entertainment that could be brought in, instead of good film discussion.   This gave us the dark age of film criticism, the era of Ben Lyons.

I won't spend too much time on this era because more thorough bloggers than I have written tomes about the harm that Lyons has done to film criticism.  But I do want to say a few words of encouragement for Ben Mankiewicz:

It wasn't your fault the show became unwatchable.  None of it was your fault.  It's clear that you are an intelligent, reserved man that was forced to work with the single worst critic on the plant.  The comments section of YouTube contains more useful insights than anything that pile of plasticine idiocy ever contributed.  The few reviews I did watch during your era gave me many chuckles as you looked at this freak who stumbled onto the set and had no idea how to review a movie.  Incredulously, you dispensed your own wisdom and looked back again with pained eyes at the desolation that Lyons caused to At The Movies.  Thank you for trying, and I hope that there's a special place for you, beyond this mortal coil, because of what you had to endure.

Surprise surprise, the show sucked and eventually Disney got the hint and revamped the show yet again.  Phillips and A.O. Scott, a wonderfully dry and more philosophical critic, were selected to try and bring some credibility back to the show.

The ad bumps for the new and improved At The Movies made me chuckle.  Phillips and Scott were decked out in full black suits as a camera slowly panned around them while they discussed the power of film.  While this is happening a deep, commanding voice is narrating the scene telling us that the new At The Movies has "Real critics, real discussion."  The show was thrown violently in the direction of entertainment just as it was thrust again back into the realm of serious film criticism.

I like A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips a lot.  Their demeanor when it comes to criticism mirrors myself and Danny's.  Which is kind of strange because I look more like A.O. Scott and think more like Phillips, whereas Danny is roughly the opposite.  Maybe years down the road, the four of us could do a review show together and weird out whatever segment of the population decides to tune in.

But now the show is done.  We just couldn't keep the sinking ship floating.  It's not enough that their chemistry is enough to keep me interested in films they disagreed on, like Dinner For Schmucks.   It's also not enough that they were both incredibly witty.   Phillips said of Amelia (one of my favorite quotes ever),  "Here, before Earhart final flight, she and Putnam engage in a long distance conversation fraught with enough foreshadowing to cast the entire planet in shadow."  It just wasn't enough, the damage was done, and the population has moved on.

There isn't another show on television where you can see two emotionally and intellectually invested adults debating the most potent art form on the planet (to me at least).  So where does that leave us?

Well, I'd like to try and answer that by answering Gene Siskel's favorite question, "What do you know for sure?"

I know that Ebert, still at the top of his game after all these years, continues to write about film better than anyone.  I know that Siskel is at rest, leaving behind years of excellent reviews that have impacted me in a way that I'm only now beginning to understand.  I know that Roeper, Phillips and Scott all continue to give us some of the best criticism on the planet.   I know that this still isn't the end, and even without At The Movies, we may see them all again some day on the screen.

I also know that without all five of them I would not be half the critic I try to be.  They've left a legacy that cannot be filled by anyone else, and I don't know what I'm going to do when their reviews are no longer available next week.

So, the balcony is closed.  Best of luck in the future, and I hope that I'll see you all soon.

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Posted by Andrew

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