So Roger Ebert's TV movie review show, Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies, is "on hiatus."
Sorry, but at this point in time and in this media culture, I have to say I'm surprised it's on at all. Perhaps it's time to put it to rest once and for all.
Really -- between video blogs and all the other on-demand-style movie criticism available on the Internet, the notion of a movie-review show on TV seems a little quaint.
Once upon a time, that wasn't the case. But these days, it all seems sort of last century. If anything, I'm amazed that what began as the Ebert-and-Siskel (or Siskel-and-Ebert) format has lasted this long -- or that it lasted at all once Ebert suffered the string of medical disasters that cost him the power of speech.
It was one thing for him to replace Gene Siskel when his long-time on-air partner died in 1999. You still had Ebert holding the fort, with his alternately cranky and enthusiastic vigor and rigor. Ebert is a brand-name -- the second celebrity movie critic (after Rex Reed) who became a TV star but never lost his boyish love of the movies.
I've met and interviewed Ebert several times over the years. More important, his show with Siskel was like a lifeline, when my career seemed lost in the black hole of a newspaper in Sioux Falls, S.D., in the early 1980s. Though I could escape to Minneapolis to see the smaller independent and foreign films of the day, I came to rely on my weekly dose of Siskel and Ebert on TV to provide a window into cinema that went beyond what the major studios were releasing. It was crucial, even essential viewing.
Eventually, I found my way to the East Coast -- at which point the Siskel-Ebert show became less of a necessity for me. Still, I'd check in from time to time, mostly to see how their opinions matched up with -- or contrasted with -- my own.
In the intervening years -- indeed, even while Siskel and Ebert were on the air -- there were pretenders to their throne, other duos who were slapped together to try to mimic the chemistry and strike the same sparks that Siskel and Ebert did. But none of them had the magic -- let alone the staying power -- that the original did.
I understood Ebert's indignation when his syndication company replaced his show -- which was populated by other actual critics when Ebert could no longer appear -- with a pair of chucklehead posers, as if to say, "We're not critics but we play them on TV." Like it was that simple -- as though the format was the star, rather than the actual critics.
And I understood the impulse when Ebert came back with a show he and his wife Chaz produced, using still other critics as stand-ins (with a regular feature showing Ebert typing a review that a narrator, usually Bill Kurtis, read aloud as Ebert's voice).
But I'll admit I never watched it. And, apparently, the audience was not sufficient to attract the necessary funding -- even for public TV -- to keep the show in production.
Far be it from me to offer advice to Roger Ebert. He is an acknowledged giant in my field, one whose work I have admired for decades, more than I'd care to admit.
It's a different world, one in which access to movie reviews -- and movies, for that matter -- is literally at people's fingertips. At the start -- even up until the point that Siskel died -- the Siskel-and-Ebert brand meant something. It hadn't been swamped by the one-two punch of the Internet and the hundreds of TV channels available on cable and satellite. These days, people don't even have to use a television to see TV shows.
So while I understand the fact that Ebert -- a fighter if there ever was one -- wants to give this show its shot, I'd say, well, let it go. He'll undoubtedly come up with another, better idea to excite him (beyond the day-to-day demands of simply being a working film critic).
And if he doesn't, well, how many people can say they created something truly original that lasted as long as this has?
Find more reviews, interviews and commentary on my website.
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