My dad used to watch At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert when I was a kid. So I did too. All the time. I remember once in high school telling another classmate – I don’t remember who because I didn’t know them very well – that they shouldn’t see the movie they wanted to see because Siskel and Ebert didn’t like it. This person informed that she didn’t listen to critics. She might as well have told me to buzz off, it would have been an equal insult. I wasn’t sure why someone wouldn’t listen to critics, to save them the hassle of seeing a bad movie. I’m sure you can tell by now the huge amount of popularity I enjoyed while in school.
I eventually hit a point where I was taking the critics too seriously, watching everything that was supposed to be good. This led me to a disastrous screening of Leaving Las Vegas at the age of 16 or 17 with a friend and her mom. Awkward! I also saw other films like The Crying Game (it’s plot twist famously spoiled by Mr. Siskel) which I didn’t really like.
Eventually I realized that critics were good gauges of a film’s quality, but not necessarily the best indication of what movies I personally was going to like. So I continued to watch, with a grain of salt. By this time, Gene Siskel had died and been replaced by entertainment reporter Richard Roeper, who I never cared for. So now I was taking the advice with two or three grains of salt. Sometimes an entire shaker.
Then, Ebert became ill and guest critics would fill in for him. Most of them were terrible, but there was one in particular I liked, Michael Phillips (of the Chicago Tribune.) He was not only a good critic (far better than Roeper) but he seemed to be watching movies with a similar eye to mine, on the lookout for all the things I liked. Finally, a critic I could trust.
Times, they change though, don’t they? And with Ebert unable to return to work, producers of the show decided to take it in a ‘new’ direction, by hiring a couple of baboons to do the criticism. There was Benjamin Mankiewicz, a critic for Turner Classic Movies and Ben Lyons of E! Entertainment television and son of sub-par critic Jeffrey Lyons. I watched a couple of these shows before I laid to rest my long-held tradition of watching At the Movies. They might as well have hired Beavis and Butthead to do the criticism, it would have been more insightful. There is an entire website devoted to Ben Lyons, entitled “Stop Ben Lyons,” which notes his “inability to articulate his opinions” and that often he sounds like he is “dictating a blurb for an ad rather than giving serious counsel as to whether a consumer should buy a ticket.”
Apparently I was not the only one who changed the channel, for a week ago I learned that the show had been revamped again, this time putting Michael Phillips and the one other critic from the roving panel that I admired, A.O. Scott of the New York Times, in the balcony. (Regrettably it is no longer a balcony but a set with two chairs and a small table.) The show is now being marketed as informed criticism by serious journalists.
I understand that we are consuming media in myriad different ways and that the choices for entertainment are endless. Media and entertainment industries need to be wary of that and they need to adjust for the times. But people like the mystery high school student, who don’t listen to critics because they’re old or boring or whatever, they’ll never listen to critics so there’s no use trying to appeal to that demographic. The people that will listen to critics want good critics. I’m happy that I can now safely return to my critic watching days.