The end of an era
It’s the film criticism equivalent of Tiger Woods hypothetically retiring next week or of the death of Ronald Reagan. Roger Ebert is walking away from the show that made him certainly the most-famous and arguably the most-influential film critic ever.
In its various incarnations, from PBS to syndication, from “Sneak Previews” to “At the Movies” to “Siskel and Ebert,” his show was the show that put film criticism into the popular consciousness and made stars of him and Gene Siskel, to the point they were commenting on the Olympics, appearing on Carson and Arsenio, and speaking to Harvard Law School and Playboy magazine (one of only three issues I ever purchased). His reflected glory was even enough to make a star of Richard Roeper, who also is leaving the show, and the breakdown of whose negotiations with Disney apparently created the occasion for Ebert’s official leave-taking. People who have seen him since his jaw surgery had told me they doubted Ebert would ever appear on TV again, because of what the surgery had to do to his voice and his face. This statement though seems to imply Ebert may be back on TV:
The trademark still belongs to me and Marlene Iglitzen, Gene’s widow, and the thumbs will return.
I’m not sure that’s the best idea, as it might be the equivalent, not of Tiger retiring next week, but one of Muhammad Ali’s comebacks. I wrote my eulogy of Ebert’s career a couple of years ago, and what I said then still stands up, I think. His taking leave of the show is not the death, but the funeral. I was a religious viewer of Siskel & Ebert and then a semi-religious viewer of Ebert & Butt-head too. I’ve only watched a few of the Roeper & Guest shows, from beginning to end, since Ebert had to take leave from the show because of his cancer. So it’s hard for me to have a very different reaction than that of Patrick Goldstein in the LA Times:
As much as I admire Ebert, once Siskel was gone–he died in 1999–the show lost momentum. The magic was gone. …
Television is a performance medium. Criticism is about words and ideas, which is why it belongs on the page, be it in a newspaper or on a computer screen. As a fan of Ebert, I’m delighted to see him abandoning TV and putting all his energy into writing again. It’s where he belongs. He recently launched a blog, called Roger Ebert’s Journal, which has been an absolute delight to read …
Still, I wouldn’t write that second paragraph as strong as Goldstein did. I do think he underestimates how strong the show was. As I wrote a couple of years ago (link above):
It’s tempting to forget now, with Mister Roper on the other side of the aisle, just how good Siskel & Ebert TV show was in the 80s. For us, Siskel & Ebert were doing something other than hyping the latest blockbusters and running Top 10 grossing lists, like Entertainment Tonight. It was the only word you could get at the time that there were the important Indie and foreign films to look out for if they eventually came to your town. And the two actually had something to say about film history and the classics. Again the comparisons with the clone shows — involving Jeffrey Lyons and Michael Medved, or Rex Reed, Bill Harris and Dixie Whatley — make the point about how much more substantial Siskel and Ebert’s show was. The other mentioned critics are all justly forgotten (except for Medved, who’s carved out a career as a political commentator).
All you have to do is look at the segments now, which are widely available on YouTube (and which I just wasted hours watching again). Here is their segment on ROGER & ME (which I saw before declaring it 1989’s best film in one of the first reviews I ever wrote, for the college paper):
Here is their dispute on BLUE VELVET (which I didn’t see at the time):
Here is their battle over FULL METAL JACKET (which I did see at the time):
And you know … just looking at these segments is somewhat sad. Even now, it doesn’t matter whether they were right to love ROGER & ME or who I thought was right about FULL METAL JACKET or BLUE VELVET (though they were; and it was Gene on the first and Roger on the second). These are seriously descriptive and substantive discussions (constrained by time and the limits of impromptu oral argument). Gene and Roger went into the details of the films and allowed a clip to go on for as long as 20 seconds and more, making Siskel & Ebert worth watching for the sheer intellectual sport and to help gauge and mold your own reaction.
There is no show on TV like that now, not even Ebert & Roeper in its last couple of years; no show that I can imagine lighting a fire under a young cinephile. And I certainly don’t expect Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons to do it. But hope is obligatory in criticism, and in life in general too.