The word that Roger Ebert (pictured) and Richard Roeper had severed ties with the film-review program At the Movies -- and that their replacements will be Turner Classic Movies' Ben Mankiewicz and E's Ben Lyons, who are TV personalities with virtually no hardcore critical background -- couldn't help stirring a mixture of nostalgia and regret in this particular movie addict.
First, the nostalgia. Growing up in Grand Junction during the '60s and '70s, where screenings of independent or foreign films were more rare than steak tartare, Ebert's original review programs, Opening Soon at a Theater Near You and Sneak Previews, which succeeded each other on PBS outlets, offered a window onto a different world. Sure, Ebert, who wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times, and his original partner, the Chicago Tribune's Gene Siskel, critiqued the blockbusters, and listening to them bicker about their quality, or lack thereof, was a lot of fun. But they also championed lesser-known flicks that would probably never make it to my Western Slope home -- but I felt better knowing that they existed.
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When the pair jumped into syndication in the early '80s, first with At the Movies and latter in Siskel & Ebert & the Movies, I followed, occasionally grousing that Ebert was getting soft or that Siskel was off his bean but never abandoning them completely. Theirs was an odd dynamic -- even odder than most viewers realized, as I learned firsthand when I got a chance to attend a critics' screening of Disney's The Little Mermaid with them in 1989 while attending the journalism school at Chicago's Northwestern University. They sat rows apart in the smallish room and seemed to go out of their way not to acknowledge each other. If I recall correctly, Siskel was accompanied by one or more kids -- he fathered three. But I couldn't tear my eyes away from Ebert, who left a seat open next to him for snacks -- boxes and boxes of them. I saw no concession stand -- the screening didn't take place in a standard theater -- so I can only assume Ebert brought the goodies himself, and he certainly enjoyed them. Indeed, he went through the popcorn and candy with so much gusto that I feared those sitting around him might be sucked into the vortex created by his hand rapidly moving toward his mouth.
At that point, Ebert appeared to be eating his way into an early grave, but he survived his partner -- Siskel died in 1999. In recent years, however, he struggled with thyroid cancer, which played havoc on his voice, forcing him to sit on the sidelines while Roeper, Siskel's glib but still worthy replacement, soldiered on with a series of sidekicks. But now, both will be gone -- replaced by Mankiewicz, the grandson of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, and Lyons, the son of critic Jeffrey Lyons, whose E duties include trying to guess what movies will gross in their opening weekend.
In some ways, movie criticism has come full circle since the '70s. Back then, serious film talk was tough to find, especially for someone in a small community like Grand Junction -- and now, with the downturn in the newspaper and magazine businesses, fulltime reviewers are losing their jobs in record numbers. There's no shortage of movie opinions on the web, of course, but a lot of them come from regular folks, as opposed to those with formal training in journalism or film. No wonder the changes in At the Movies feel like the end of an era -- one that makes me pine for the days when Siskel and Ebert were sniping at each other in between pledge drives. -- Michael Roberts