Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
The various incarnations of Siskel & Ebert & Roeper represent more than 1,000 TV programs, on which the three of us, and various guest critics, reviewed more than 5,000 movies. And now at last an online archive exists with all of those reviews.
Starting Thursday, Aug. 2, visitors will be able to search for and watch all of those past debates, including the film clips that went along with them, plus the “ten best” and other special shows we did. The new archive will be at www.atthemoviestv.com, and will be the web’s largest collection of streaming reviews.
Gene and I knew those old shows would be worth saving, but for a long time nobody agreed with us. In the years before home video, it seemed like a waste of expensive video tape to preserve hundreds of episodes of our earlier incarnations on “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You,” “Sneak Previews” or “At the Movies.” After all, the movies we were reviewing weren’t going to be opening again, and who’d want to watch a show of old movie reviews? Right?
We began on the air in 1975. Four or five years later, home video first began to attract attention, but in the early years there were format wars, buying a tape could cost $79, and most big recent movies weren’t available. Then all of that changed, and the current era of DVDs and Blockbuster and Netflix and streaming online content began to unfold. Today, there would be an audience for the original Siskel & Ebert reviews of, say, “Batman” or “Jurassic Park,” or Ebert & Roeper trading opinions on “Crash” or “Brokeback Mountain,” or Martin Scorsese and I picking the best film of he 1990s.
As nearly as I’ve been able to tell, very few of our programs taped between 1975 and 1985 were preserved. The tapes were erased and re-used, or just thrown away to make room. Television lived for today’s program, not yesterday’s. I remember when Janet LaMonica, an assistant producer for “Siskel & Ebert,” climbed into a dumpster and rescued most of the work Gene Siskel did locally for WBBM-CBS.
At first we were produced by PBS. Then Tribune Broadcasting. When we went to work for Buena Vista, they started saving the shows. And in a daunting effort over recent months, Buena Vista (now the Disney-ABC Television Group) has digitized hours and hours of those old analog tapes, amounting to more than more than 5,000 reviews.
The archive will be searchable in various ways, but I imagine most users will want to look up reviews of specific movies. For example, the program where Richard Roeper and I went three weeks early with our reviews of “Monster,” and its performance by Charlize Theron. When she won the Oscar, we weren’t a bit surprised. Or the entire show that Siskel and I devoted to Spike Lee, and especially his groundbreaking “Do the Right Thing.” Or the show we did in black and white, praising b&w movies. Or our early evaluations of laserdisc and DVDs, or our attacks on pan & scan and colorizing.
Then there are the memorable disagreements, as when I couldn’t believe Gene didn’t love “Apocalypse Now,” and he couldn’t believe my thumb was down on “Full Metal Jacket.” He said I should have been wearing a Santa suit while giving thumbs-up to “Cop And A Half.” (One day the mail brought an autographed photo of Norman D. Golden II, the eight-year-old co-star of “Cop and a Half,” thanking me for helping his career. I thought that was nice of the kid, until I recognized something familiar about his handwriting.) A few years earlier, I told Gene (offscreen) that his praise for the awful family weepers “Six Weeks” and “Table for Five” might indicate sentimentality that was inspired because Gene and his wife, Marlene, were expecting for the first time. He handed me a note, “to be read only when you are on the flight to Cannes,” telling me I was right.
After Gene’s death in 1999, we used guest critics for awhile, and you’ll be able to see Peter Bogdanovich debating me about the year’s best movies. You can also see Richard’s first appearances as a guest, after which we all agreed he was the right guy, and should go full-time. After my own illness in 2006, Richard invited guest critics into the guest seat, including Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips and New York Times critic A. O. Scott.
I’m back in action in the Chicago Sun-Times and at rogerebert.com, but not on the air; the Ebert & Roeper site will provide links to my Sun-Times print reviews. Meanwhile, I watch from the other side of the camera. I hope to reclaim that other seat eventually, but I need more surgery to restore my ability to speak. I hope the show, now in its 32nd year, goes on and on and on. That was another thing Gene and I agreed on.
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