Correction Appended: An earlier version of this article misstated the time of the show. “Ebert Presents” airs at 7:30 p.m.
Ebert Presents: At The Movies
Fridays at 7:30 p.m.
“A movie is not about what it’s about. It’s about how it is about it.”
That’s the firm opinion of world-renowned, stalwart film critic Roger Ebert. Opinions are relative, except of course when they’re not, and Ebert’s essential view on what makes a film is the absolute truth. How can a film about, say, a newspaper tycoon or a racketeer on the loose in Vienna connect with its audience? A good critic can tell you.
Ebert’s career has been largely defined by his role on “At the Movies,” the long-running TV movie review series with the iconic thumbs up/thumbs down rating system. The show also received mass derision from many working critics for boiling down the nuanced prose of their profession to a simple binary scale — ironic, since “At the Movies” was never about its thumbs, but about how its hosts defended those thumbs, with ping-pong discussions and heated banter. More importantly, the hosts’ passionate discourse taught impressionable young film buffs all over that it’s OK to yell at your best friend over the merits of “Blue Velvet.”
Now the latest iteration of “At the Movies” is upon us. It’s a deliberate, PBS-funded slap in the face to those who say that criticism is a dying profession, with Ebert back on TV for the first time since his thyroid cancer surgery in 2006. And the brief, two-minute segment when he’s on air — during which he heaps praise on new animated film “My Dog Tulip” — is the show’s best moment, thanks to legendary director Werner Herzog’s brilliant reading of Ebert’s prose.
This is Ebert’s only physical appearance on the show, but as executive producer he’s definitely making his presence known. Associated Press critic Christy Lemire, one of the new co-hosts, introduces the week’s film lineup by saying “This week on ‘Ebert Presents’ ” instead of “This week on ‘At the Movies,’ ” as though the movies themselves were being presented by Ebert. And then there are the old clips of him and former co-host Gene Siskel, since deceased, that play over the end credits. If this is indeed going to usher in a new era of critics, as it’s clearly intended to, Ebert wants to be the newly reconstructed face of it.
So what is the new face of film criticism — how is “Ebert Presents” about what it’s about? Well, there are still the two faces arguing about the films of the week: Opposite Lemire is 24-year old, Moskow-born film blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. She’s the traditionalist; he’s the new media representative. She hates everything; he likes everything, even “No Strings Attached” and “The Green Hornet.” They boast large, local-news smiles.
But their discourse — the only reason a show like this should exist — rarely sizzles above room temperature. There’s little back-and-forth, and Vishnevetsky mostly limits his arguments to saying, “I completely disagree.” Siskel and Ebert never cared about being nice or even articulate, but they had passion, and that was the point. The bread and butter of criticism is passion, not simply the doling out of opinion.
Granted, the task of providing dialogue worthy of Ebert’s vocal history is a considerable one, made harder by his insistence in being the show’s mostly unseen “third man.” Lemire and Vishnevetsky should improve their discourse over time. But how are they supposed to distinguish themselves while working underneath Ebert’s enforced shadow?
Fittingly, there’s one figure that hovers over the proceedings even more than Ebert, and that figure is Orson Welles. Between a clever introductory skit parodying the original trailer for “Citizen Kane,” a (somewhat vapid) segment where Sunset Gun blogger Kim Morgan celebrates “The Third Man” and a production company logo that casts Ebert as the infamous Harry Lime, there’s a distinctly Wellesian undertone to the first episode of “Ebert Presents.” It makes sense, considering the naked ambition in Ebert’s attempt to revitalize the world of film criticism, and the hubris of making his name so visible on the marquee.
Will Ebert, as the “third man” of criticism, succeed? Only if he can heed his own immortal words and keep the “how” of the show in the forefront of his mind. Film buffs everywhere will be holding their collective breath.