Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Ebert film criticism TV program will live on, regardless of where or when it airs

Perhaps I’m about to age myself, but when I think of the concept of Roger Ebert on television offering mini-criticisms of current movies, the program that comes to my mind is “Sneak Previews.”

That is the PBS version that was WTTW-TV’s contribution to public television back in the 1970s (at times, it seemed like Boston’s WGBH produced everything else), which featured dueling film critics of Chicago’s two daily newspapers. It was obvious in those early days that Ebert of the Sun-Times and Gene Siskel of the Tribune felt some professional hostility toward each other that made for intellectually stimulating – and entertaining – viewing.

THEIR ARGUMENTS COULD get feisty in a way that just can’t be faked.

I even still remember “Spot, the Wonder Dog,” the canine buddy who was used to introduce the program-ending “Dog of the Week” segment where Siskel and Ebert would pick away at the week’s worst movie.

Because I remember what Ebert’s film criticism on television used to be, I have always considered all of the successor programs he and Siskel (and for the past eight years, Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper) did to be second-rate.

They were just too structured. Segments were so rigidly timed, and the disagreements were just too contrived. Such were the demands of commercial television programming in the United States.

THAT’S WHY I can’t get too worked up over the fact that Roeper and Ebert announced Monday they were leaving their current program – “At the Movies.”

Officials let it be known that the program’s producers would like the show to evolve from one of mini-film criticism to one of Hollywood entertainment news – almost like a slightly more news oriented “Entertainment Tonight.”

I have no doubt that such a program would attract a certain amount of ratings. Of course, Ebert & Roeper would have got better ratings if it aired in a better slot (10:30 p.m. on Saturday?) There’s always a certain demand for programs that delve into such in-depth issues as whether Salma Hayek’s breasts are naturally that big?

Personally, the thought of such a program makes me ill. I don’t see the need for it. I think there are enough outlets that provide celebrity trivia such as whether Katie Holmes is planning to take baby Suri and leave hubby Tom Cruise.

AND EVEN THE establishment news media outlets that like to think they are about celebrity news are delving more and more into the trivia. I couldn’t help but notice in accounts this week about proposed changes to the format of the Chicago Tribune is that the newspaper’s first section will be devoted to consumer and entertainment news, with the public affairs type reporting of Chicago and around the world being shifted to Section Number Two.

So I kind of derive some pleasure in hearing that Ebert and Roeper are not willing to take the big bucks they would have received from cooperating with such changes. They are willing to move on, even though having to structure a completely new program can be a hassle.

I couldn’t help but notice that Ebert, in discussing his move from the existing program, notes he and Siskel widow Marlene Iglitzen own the trademark to the symbol of “thumbs up” to recommend a film and “thumbs down” to reject one.

Any new program would probably try to feed off that symbol as a way to distinguish it from other programs that purport to offer film criticism.

SOME PEOPLE LIKE to argue against newspapers (and in favor of the Internet as a news transmission medium) by saying some stories are best told with audio and video. But some stories (usually the ones most worthy of being told) are best expressed with the written word.

Film criticism, I have always believed, is one of those genres that works best on the printed page. So much can be said in the 600-word essay that cannot be told in the two-minute-long video segment.

Two minutes can be about 90 words, and few details can be used in them without cluttering up copy. Even the existence of a snippet of film from the cinematic production makes up for the form’s shortcomings.

That is the problem with the current film criticism programs – even “At the Movies.” Just at the point when it seems like either Ebert or Roeper is about to get into some interesting thought about a film, his time is up.

WATCHING THE PROGRAM can feel like trying to comprehend several contrite reviews that don’t offer enough, rather that giving one detailed account that could help us understand what is worthy (or despicable) about some new cinematic release.

I can’t help but wonder if the future of an Ebert/Roeper pairing as television-oriented film critics is on some cable television network – some place where they won’t feel the need to cram seven or eight film reviews into a 22-minute program (the other eight minutes in the half-hour show are devoted to commercials that pay the bills).

For what it is worth, Roeper hinted that he has some future show in the works, but he would not offer details on Monday.

Seriously, I’d watch something that would allow Ebert to show off the knowledge of film he has acquired during the four-plus decades he has been the Sun-Times’ movie critic. That knowledge has always been what made his written reviews in the newspaper so interesting and enjoyable.

THAT KNOWLEDGE IS also what will make Ebert’s eventual passing such a loss to the public, similar to that suffered Monday with the death of one-time Sun-Times and Tribune baseball writer Jerome Holtzman, whose writing of the sport gave the public a detailed sense of the game’s joys and its business end. Who else can say they came up with the statistics that make relief pitchers worth paying attention to?

The sad thing is that Ebert’s eventual obituary (which hopefully will not need to be edited into publishable shape for several more years) will focus on his role in making television-oriented criticism of film a commercially acceptable premise, instead of reminding us of his role in helping us to understand the joy that one can experience just by sitting in a darkened auditorium to watch a classic cinematic experience on the big screen – particularly if accompanied by a big tub of popcorn or a box of Snow Caps (my personal favorite).


EDITOR’S NOTES: Ebert & Roeper will try to move on to a new program about (http://www.suntimes.com/business/1066861,feder072108.article) film criticism.

My personal dirty secret of Internet surfing? There are times I will weed my way through (http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/) Roger Ebert’s archive of old film reviews as a way of passing time in an interesting manner.

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