' ' Cinema Romantico: My Favorite At the Movies Review

Thursday, August 05, 2021

My Favorite At the Movies Review

I have this mental image, which means it might not hold up under scrutiny by the Memory Police, of going along with my Dad to the tavern on the edge of my small Iowa hometown to pick up a pizza and seeing Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert sitting in their fake balcony on an episode of their syndicated show At the Movies on the big screen TV. As I remember it, the sound isn’t on, though that doesn’t matter because these two Midwestern movie-lovers are up there larger-than-life. Invented, semi-invented, or otherwise, this memory speaks to how prevalent Siskel & Ebert were at one time in the culture, as likely to be on the TV at your local watering hole as a Cubs game, which means the two late film critics also might be representative of a faded time in America when movies were truly monoculture, though that’s a post for another time.

Back then in central Iowa, when the Des Moines Register was a stone-cold great newspaper, before it was truly shredded by the Gannett vultures, they had a film critic, Joan Bunke, I regularly read. (I also occasionally read the Richards – Corliss and Schickel – in Time since my parents subscribed.) Even so, it was Siskel & Ebert who introduced me to film criticism, first by showing me you could have an opinion about a movie, that having an opinion about a movie made it art, or perhaps not art all, rather than mere caloric intake for a consumerist culture. And they showed me that there was this open-ended question in film criticism, one asked with every movie watched, whether you’re being tough enough when the quality isn’t there or if something good, perhaps even great, about an otherwise imperfect movie still renders it up to snuff.

That last one was captured for posterity in an At the Movies review of “Swamp Thing”, of all things, a conversation  heard in Brian Raftery’s new Ringer podcast, “Gene and Roger”, recounting the history and influence of At the Movies, in which Raftery contends the two men “taught an entire generation how to argue.” “And, for better and worse,” says Raftery, they “created the blueprint for modern media.” To back up this point, Raftery opens the podcast with audio culled from a clip of the old Siskel & Ebert At the Movies review of “Rocky IV” in which Gene begins by giving a good review leading Roger to volley a bad review right back even as you can hear Gene, off camera, to each point his antagonistic co-host makes, say, in a hysterically dry voice, “No.” 

It’s ironic, then, that while Siskel & Ebert made movie arguments go mainstream, my favorite review of theirs has always been one of accord rather than discord. Perhaps that makes me, as Gene Siskel was occasionally accused of being, contrarian. But I think the review speaks for itself.

It’s that Gene line about Steve Martin playing at a “Ginger Ale level”, which I carry with me as a verbal totem of how to go about colorfully describing elements that moved me in reviews, but mostly it’s about the intrinsic joy. “What do ya know,” Gene says, “ya got one right.” “Can’t even have an argument,” Roger confesses. Even if your brand is based on disagreement, when a movie speaks truth, you have to honor it.

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