“The balcony is closed.”

At the Movies is now over. Forever.

Watching Siskel and Ebert was a ritual when I was a kid. I loved that show. Through those two critics, I realized at a very young age, that there was a big world out there, of movies I had never seen, names I had never heard of – and they would casually reference things like “Herzog” or “Barbara Stanwyck”, in context of some other review, and I would wonder what they were talking about. And sometimes I would make it my business to find out. So that is how I discovered movies. Not just the ones playing at the local cineplex, but movies with a capital M. The entire industry and its history. Once Ebert started publishing his compilations of reviews – I think I bought my first one when I was 13 – and forget it: I read every single review, and half the time I had no idea what he was talking about, but I wanted to hear more. I was the same then as I am now. Present to me a world I know nothing about and make it seem appealing and fascinating and well worth your time – I’ll dig into it. I can’t even describe how influential those books were to me. Half the time, I couldn’t even get my hands on the movies he discussed. This was before there was a VCR in every house. But I filed the names away in my head, for safekeeping, for later. John Cassavetes. Ingmar Bergman. John Ford. The list goes on and on. The most amazing thing about At the Movies was what sets it apart from other “reviews”: They weren’t just telling you about the latest blockbuster, although they covered those too. They reviewed foreign films, they reviewed smaller experimental films, they introduced their television audience to the wide scope of what was being made – and their reviews were thoughtful and personal.

Over the last couple of years, At the Movies has gone through a lot of upheaval, well-documented, I won’t go through it.

All I can say is: a big part of my life – my childhood, yes, but my love of At the Movies lasted way after my childhood – has now ended, and that always gives one a strange melancholy feeling. It is a reminder of the passing of time, that I am not as young as I once was. One of the things I loved to do (back when movies weren’t as easily accessible as they are now – you had to limit yourself to what you could rent at the local video store) was put stars next to movies Ebert had reviewed, reviews that seemed intriguing to me, and then see if the local store had it. I am sure so many people out there had similar experiences. I saw my first Fritz Lang movie when I was 15, 16, because of a comment Ebert made in a review – that wasn’t even a review of a Fritz Lang movie. But he would throw references around like that, and I just wanted to know – know everything he was talking about – He cannot be allowed to just mention Fritz Lang without me understanding him!! Next time someone says “Fritz Lang”, by God, I will understand!

Roger Ebert has some words to say on his blog about the ending of At the Movies, and highlights some exciting new prospects for a new show. I think he’s right (at least in my experience hanging around with online film critics and film bloggers – not to mention the people who comment on such sites): People watch more movies now, due to the many different venues where you can get your hands on such films, even if you live in the boonies. You don’t have to wait for there to be a German Expressionist film festival in the big city 2 hours away from your house to gorge yourself on Fritz Lang. It could be years. People in my generation who are film buffs know what that feels like. I would scour the TV Guide every single week, looking for any Elia Kazan movie that might be playing. This was when I was in high school. They were usually playing at 2 o’clock in the morning, or sometimes, excitingly, they’d play on the weekends. But that was how I got a chance to see those movies.

It’s different now.

You want to watch every single film Kurosawa made? You don’t need to rely on your mom-and-pop video store, or (God forbid) Blockbuster. Netflix has them. So while the situation may seem bleak if you look at your choices at the local movie house – it really isn’t, because there are so many other ways now to see movies – the movies YOU want to see.

Regardless: Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, sitting in that balcony, arguing and talking and basically educating me, were such a huge part of my life for so many years. It is sad that it is gone, although it was time to let it go. (Once they got rid of the balcony and created that new set which made it look like Entertainment Tonight, you could see which way the wind was blowing. There was a total identity crisis.)

Go read Roger Ebert’s elegy for the show that introduced so many of us to the glorious enterprise that is “the movies”.

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13 Responses to “The balcony is closed.”

  1. Cullen says:

    And remember, they might be printed on paper and pulp, but words are the original CGI.

    I LOVE this! My books aren’t his books, but I feel the same way. In as much that I have a stored set of “reference material” in my head for inspiration.

    You want to watch every single film Kurosawa made? You don’t need to rely on your mom-and-pop video store, or (God forbid) Blockbuster. Netflix has them. So while the situation may seem bleak if you look at your choices at the local movie house – it really isn’t, because there are so many other ways now to see movies – the movies YOU want to see.

    It’s a blessing and a curse, I think. I love the access, but I wonder if folks appreciate the movies as much as you do because of the ease of access? Just a thought.

  2. Cullen says:

    So, I put my comment about Brendan’s thing in the wrong comment. I tried to fix it. Ugh.

  3. red says:

    What I sense, at least in my crowd, is a voracious appreciation that these favorites – which have been hard to find for most of our lives – are now easy access. This also goes along with the general appreciation of companies like The Criterion Collection and channels like TCM – which actually deepen our appreciation for the brilliant work done throughout the history of the industry.

    I don’t sense any taking for granted at all – mainly because most of us are of the age that remember when you couldn’t get your hands on a John Cassavetes film ANYwhere in your town – and they never got TV play – so what the hell were you to do?

    I really hope Ebert’s new show moves forward. His attitude towards new media is so refreshing and reflects my own attitude. In the past, film fans like myself sometimes felt isolated. Because there was one art-house in Providence in Rhode Island, and … other than that, you were on your own.

    Now I can go online any day of the week and see essays written by my friends about William Wellmann or Barbara Stanwyck or Peter Lorre, and it seriously makes me feel less alone. It’s so vibrant – and Ebert is totally a part of it, which I love!

  4. Cullen says:

    I guess I thinking more about younger generations. I don’t see quite the appreciation for these films among the 20-somethings that I do in my crowd. Though, I’m nowhere near the fan you are, so there’s some dissonance in my perception – I’m probably just not seeing the fans that there are.

    It’s one of the communications issues that I find interesting – how access affects attitude.

  5. red says:

    There are enormous numbers of fans in that generation – many of the blogs I read are from film fans between the age of 20 and 30, who throw around references to Stroheim and Antonioni with the best of them. It’s certainly a specialized group – one need only look at the top blockbusters of each week to realize that – but film fans like that will always be specialized. Some people call us snobs. I accept that moniker gladly.

    If you go on my blogroll and look in the film section, you’ll get a sense of who is out there, and that’s not even scratching the surface.

    Again, things like TCM and Criterion Collection have actually created MORE fans due to the ease of access – which I think is awesome.

  6. red says:

    Many people who have never even heard of Barbara Stanwyck – are now able to see her movies on any day of the week – and not just the well-known ones like Double Indemnity – but her pre-code movies, like Baby Face and Night Nurse – and so people get to discover her anew now. I myself am a huge Stanwyck fan but even I never saw Night Nurse – where the hell would I find it? – until TCM played it recently. It is awesome!

  7. red says:

    It’s tribal. You find your own tribe. It’s comforting to reference Thomas Mitchell and have people go, “OH I LOVE HIM” rather than: “who?”

    The Internet has brought the tribes together in a way that they just flat-out weren’t before. I love that Ebert, with his Twitter and his blog, has totally embraced it.

    I haven’t watched At the Movies in a long time, and the Ben Lyons debacle was mortifying to watch unfold – but I will always hold a place for that show in my heart (with Siskel, and also Roeper) – they helped me become the fan that I am. They presented names to me I had never heard before, and through researching and seeing said movies – my world opened up. I can’t think of many other shows that do that.

  8. Tommy says:

    Nice post, and nice call on the “living in the boonies.” That line’s funny to me, if only because a group of friends and I, in 1992 or 93, actually ordered The Hidden Fortress through a Mom & Pop video store, because we’d read that so much of Star Wars was taken from it.

    We had to buy it from them, because Movies Unlimited was apparently just a catchy name, and they didn’t think it was worth the cost to them to keep it to rent to other customers.

  9. red says:

    Tommy – hahahaha Oh man that is classic!! God bless those Mom and Pop stores!

    But I do not have nostalgia for those days – not really. Before, interest in that type of movie was for the “expert” – and I suppose it still is – but now: anyone can see it. There is nothing STOPPING people now from immersion in films by Jean Renoir or Andrei Tarkovsky (who was nearly IMPOSSIBLE to find not too long ago).

    You live on a dirt road in the country? Well, you also have a mailbox and you can get some documentary from Romania delivered to your door. It’s a whole new world!!

  10. Tommy says:

    Right there with ya. And while the arthouse stuff still doesn’t filter down to East TN like I’d like, it’s awesome (in the true sense of the word, to this kid who was actually ringleader in the Hidden Fortress Effort) to be able to have at my door in a day, or on my computer (to a slightly lesser degree, but one growing geometrically it seems) in half a second….

  11. Cullen says:

    Tommy, you outta make your way to West Tennessee this week. Google “Sivads of March” to find out why.

  12. Jaquandor says:

    One of my favorite “arguments” between Siskel and Ebert was for some movie I don’t even remember, which Ebert liked but Siskel didn’t. At one point, Ebert said, “I don’t think you wanted to like the picture.” That comment seemed to wound Siskel more than any other Ebert had ever made in a heated moment; he looked shocked and stammered something along the lines of “How can you say that? I love to like pictures!”

  13. Jeff says:

    I can remember the very first one I saw – reviewing “The Stunt Man,” starring Peter O’Toole, in November 1980.

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