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'At the Movies' is cancelled: thumbs vs. movie criticism in the age of Rotten Tomatoes

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Image Credit: Craig P. Jewell/Getty ImagesThere is a photograph of my thumb somewhere in the corporate storage files of the long-running syndicated TV show that will end its run in August known, in its final incarnation, as At The Movies. This was over a decade ago, and I was one of many guest hosts who sat in with Roger Ebert when the show was called Roger Ebert & The Movies. At the time, following the death of Gene Siskel, the producers were casting around for a permanent co-host for the show which became At The Movies With Ebert & Roeper when Richard Roeper got cast in the role.

Here’s my not very good contribution.

I had a great time. Anyhow, as part of the gig, my thumb was photographed. Because at the end of the show, Roger would sum up the discussion by saying whether he gave Movie X or Movie Y a thumb up and I gave it a thumb down, or whether we gave Movie X or Movie Y two thumbs down, and like that. No generic thumbs were used: Each guest was represented by his or her own actual opposable digit.

With the announcement that At The Movies will fold this summer, I’ve been thinking about thumbs, especially after reading my colleague Ken Tucker’s crisp commentary on the news, which in turn linked me to this analysis in The Hollywood Reporter: “Online reviews and aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic have made it easier than ever for fans to find knowledgeable opinions about movies, and have evolved the consumption of criticism in such a way that made the half-hour review show seem dated.” It’s ironic, really: Siskel and Ebert devised that thumb thingy, and owned the concept, and made the gesture a much-imitated shorthand way of wrapping up a debate. Yet I think what Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel did best in their prime, and what A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips (my friends as well as my colleagues) do well now is talk, actually talk about movies. And analyze them. And bring all their serious expertise and knowledge to bear in placing each movie in a larger context, whether it’s within the medium, within our culture, or within the body of work of a particular filmmaker or actor.

We need more of that now, not less. So I think The Hollywood Reporter is wrong. You know what they say about opinions, that they’re like, oh, you know….like thumbs: everyone has one. And when anyone with Internet access can check the “fresh” vs. “rotten” rating of Movie X or Movie Y, the value of intelligent (and yes, expert) critical analysis is more precious than ever.

With the cancellation of At The Movies, all of us interested in looking past our thumbs when it comes to movies are losing one more venue where that kind of intellectual challenge possible. I’m convinced, though, that another show, on television or even more likely on the Internet, will emerge to take its place. Who’ll give me a high-five on that?