When news broke that A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips would be replacing Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz as hosts of At The Movies, I welcomed it as a sign that quality and care just might, for once, be winning out over the kind of breezy showbiz coverage that’s become the standard on television. Even though I had no real plans to become a regular viewer, I’ve always liked both Scott and Phillips’ work, and I had a nice chat with Phillips at the Toronto film festival two years ago, so I was inclined to root for them as two smart, likable guys with solid reps in the critical community. I dutifully set my TiVo to record the first episodes of the revamped At The Movies last September, planning on checking it out a few times, just to support the team.
As it turns out though, I haven’t missed an episode since. My local ABC affiliate airs At The Movies at 4:00 a.m. on Sundays, so I record it to watch on Sunday afternoons, after I zip through the highlights of the previous night’s Saturday Night Live (which never takes too long). It’s become a cherished Sunday ritual for me, even if I can’t say that I need what the show has to offer. (Because I already know about the movies under discussion, and I’ve often read Scott and Phillips’ reviews already.) Still, I get a nostalgic rush from the theme music, and from the tone of the conversation. Watching At The Movies now reminds me of what it used to be like watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert—which I did nearly every week of my youth, from the age of 10 to when Siskel died.
My first memory of Siskel & Ebert comes from the Sneak Previews days on PBS. I remember watching the show with my dad, who at one point announced, “I don’t care what these jerks have to say, I just like to watch the clips.” (My father always had kind of a chip on his shoulder when it came to anyone professing to be an expert.) Our family went to the movies together roughly twice a year—which was all we could afford back then—so like my dad, I started watching Sneak Previews every week to get a peek at what I was missing. The difference was that I did care what those jerks had to say.
I especially cared as the decade rolled on, and I became more interested in movies. In the ‘80s, as the independent film movement expanded beyond the festival circuit, Siskel & Ebert were among the first to give national exposure to the likes of Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers, and though they didn’t always like the new indies, I appreciated that they were as eager to report on future cult movies as they were on Oscar bait and blockbusters. Siskel & Ebert really steered the conversation on cinema back then—especially with their special episodes, where they’d look at genres or directors or moments more closely—and I’m sure the attention they brought to smaller films partly explained why, even in the days before my hometown of Nashville had a dedicated arthouse, our local multiplexes often saved a screen for some tiny American or British movie. I watched the show with a notebook in my hand sometimes, and it was thanks to At The Movies that I made an effort to go to the Vanderbilt student cinema to see Swimming To Cambodia, and to the corner videostore to rent Secret Honor. Some cineastes have blasted Siskel & Ebert for their thumbs-up/thumbs-down reductionism and their dispatching of movies in three minutes of conversation, but those nay-sayers likely didn’t watch the show week-in/week-out. I’d argue that Siskel & Ebert did more to foster a broad interest in artful cinema than any critic ever has.
At the least, they showed that it was possible to talk about the movie business on television without having it be all about money or gossip. It just about crushes my soul when I tune in the red carpet coverage on Oscar night—or even the cable news coverage on nomination day—and suffer hosts who clearly haven’t seen or even heard most of the movies they’ve been assigned to cover. The guiding principle of most movie coverage on television is that viewers are interested in celebrities, not the work that makes celebrities.
Now compare that attitude to the current incarnation of At The Movies. A few weeks ago, Scott and Phillips devoted a whole segment to three documentaries unlikely to play outside a few cities: Prodigal Sons, October Country and The Art Of The Steal. In this past weekend’s show, they touted A Prophet, argued passionately over whether Green Zone exploits real problems for the sake of cheap thrills, and spent a follow-up segment dissecting the career of Matt Damon. When Scott blasted Robert Pattinson’s performance in Remember Me, he showed a clip to back it up, and when Phillips rolled his eyes at Our Family Wedding’s message that racism exists in L.A., Scott quipped, “I’ve seen Crash, so I know it does.”
In short, Scott and Phillips are hosting a show that’s informative and snappy, and though I wish they had more time to dig into an individual movie’s merits, they certainly don’t waste the time they’re allotted. And whenever they spend an extra segment talking about the career of an actor or director—which they’ve been doing more and more frequently—they’re honoring the tradition of what Siskel & Ebert used to do.
I know that in the era of the internet and audience fragmentation, a weekly half-hour TV show about movies may seem outdated, but Scott and Phillips still reach a large audience (at least in comparison to a print or web review), and they seem to appreciate that opportunity. The new At The Movies makes learning about, caring about, and arguing about movies look like fun, which for me it has been for most of my adult life, both professionally and personally. I watch mainly as a weekly reminder that I do what I do for a living because it's enjoyable, and maybe even valuable. I’d like to think that there are some young movie fans out there who’ll use At The Movies the way I did as a kid, to jump-start an ongoing education in the artform. Because let me tell you: there are certainly worse ways to spend a life than nestled into a theater chair, eagerly anticipating the opening credits.
The new At The Movies is a good show. I say “See It.”