Thursday, March 23, 2023

At the Movies

You may not have realized it, but we a coming up on an important anniversary in a little under two weeks. 

Ten years ago - on April 4th, 2013 - Roger Ebert passed away. And there has not been a critic like him since. 

For people of my generation, Ebert was THE film critic. He, along with his television partner Gene Siskel, was the go to reviewer. Newspapers and television ads would eagerly slap "TWO THUMBS UP!" on every film they could. I would religiously watch "Siskel & Ebert: At The Movies" every weekend, cursing when it got pre-empted by a dumb sports event like the Wimbledon finals. 

The show was fun and breezy, yet still informative. Over the course of 30 syndicated minutes, they'd review four or so new films. To a young boy living in Halifax, NS, it was my first exposure to foreign films, independent films, and stuff you wouldn't see at one of the whopping total of 8 screens we had in the city. (I cannot even describe how wonderful it was to get a tiny, badly-heated, arthouse theatre with uncomfortable seats in town. You kids today with your ability to stream every movie in existence on demand have no idea what it was like to sit in a drafty basement so you could watch Tetsuo: The Iron Man. RIP Wormwood's Cinema.)

Everybody knew who Siskel & Ebert were. Their reviews could make or break a movie. They appeared on late night talk shows all the time! One time, they even bumped a young Jennifer Lopez off of Conan O'Brien when their segment ran long! Can you imagine an ink-stained wretch getting airtime over freaking J-LO today? 

Siskel died in 1999 from a brain tumor. And when Ebert passed away, after his years long battle with cancer, there were effectively no national critics.

Think about it... Is there a name you see in movie ads that could make you change your mind about a movie? Without googling it, who is the lead critic at the NY Times these days? (I thought it was A.O. Scott, but he literally retired a week ago.) Movie ads are as likely to namecheck random users on Twitter or Rotten Tomatoes as they are critics at actual newspapers. (A recent King Arthur film got such terrible reviews, they had to get a pull quote from someone named "Zoidberg95." Twice!)

I know, "gatekeepers bad," but part of the reason that Siskel & Ebert were so great to have around was that you knew what kind of films they liked! I have no idea what Zoidberg95 likes to watch, aside from bad King Arthur remakes. But if Ebert liked a movie, and if you generally agreed with his tastes, you'd probably like that movie, too. 

And if Ebert did get it "wrong," he at least explained why he didn't like something. Famously, Ebert panned David Lynch's film Blue Velvet. While most critics placed it at or near the top of their Best Of lists, Ebert gave it one star. He hated the contrast of stark, raw and emotional scenes that were surrounded by deadpan humor and camp. Which is kind of Lynch's whole thing, but Ebert carefully explained why it didn't work for him. 

Honestly, the last thing Ebert would ever claim to be would be a gatekeeper. He and Siskel constantly championed new voices and filmmakers. Spike Lee, Kasi Lemmons, Carl Franklin all got raves from the duo which certainly led people to their films. He loved movies and it always came through in his writing, which was full of warmth and praise.

The internet has done a lot of wonderful things for society, but it has also accelerated the rise of ironic detachment and sarcasm. Snark and quips have replaced critical insight. Ebert was never snarky, even in his most iconic pan, that of the Rob Reiner movie, North. (Direct quote from his review: "I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.") Rather, the entire review is more sad. He knows Reiner is a good director, Spinal Tap is a favorite movie of his, so it's terrible that this one is so bad and unfunny.

Considering that on the internet literally everyone's a critic, what would it take to get another critic like Roger Ebert? Not just someone whose reviews are respected and well written, but someone who has a nationally prominent spot in the media. The media landscape is so fractured, could anyone bring enough people together to listen to or read a review?

As someone who likes to watch movies and writes the occasional review, I know I've drawn a lot of inspiration from Roger Ebert. His writing on the whole is beautiful, and happily is all archived at If you have a quiet afternoon, scroll through and see what he thought about your favorite movies. And maybe check out Life Itself, the documentary about his life made by Steve James (the director of Hoop Dreams, another film Ebert championed). It's a lovely tribute to Ebert, who was a lot more than just "Thumbs Up."

Victor Catano lives in New York City with his wonderful wife, Kim, and his adorable pughuaua, Danerys. When not writing, he works in live theater as a stage manager, production manager, and chaos coordinator. His hobbies include coffee, Broadway musicals, and complaining about the NY Mets and Philadelphia Eagles. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @vgcatano and find his books on Amazon

1 comment:

Elizabeth Seckman said...

I remember watching their show. I think why I liked them so much was that they related movies to common viewers. No cinematography this or that...just was it entertaining. That's what I want to know- will I be entertained if I spend money on a movie.

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