- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2008

Roger Ebert is gone from “At the Movies,” but he’s an increasingly influential figure in the newly dominant realm of film criticism: the Web.

Mr. Ebert last week announced he was leaving the long-televised show he began in its earliest incarnation, with Gene Siskel, in 1975. The 66-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning critic hasn’t been on the show since 2006, sidelined, if only to a certain extent, by a battle with cancer that has left him unable to speak.

Yet he has continued to write reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times and this year began blogging on the newspaper’s Web site (https://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert). His online musings, labeled a “journal,” should be bookmarked by all film buffs.

In an entry last week titled “The Balcony Is Closed,” Mr. Ebert reminisced about “At the Movies.” Most remarkable are his heartfelt memories of working with Mr. Siskel, who died of a brain tumor in 1999.

Backed by YouTube clips, Mr. Ebert explains their contentious yet loving relationship: “Did Gene and I hate each other? Yes. Did we love each other? Yes.”

Another entry by Mr. Ebert is about the filmmaker Werner Herzog, who dedicated his recent film “Encounters at the End of the World” to the critic. He writes that Mr. Herzog “and a few other directors keep the movies vibrating for me. Not every movie needs to vibrate, but unless a few do, the thrill is gone.”

That Mr. Ebert should find a home on the Web is fitting. Though many factors made “At the Movies” the influential hit it was, perhaps none was as important as the reviewers’ “thumbs up, thumbs down” verdicts. (Mr. Ebert shares a trademark on the thumbs with the widow of his late co-host.)

While newspapers continue to dispose of their film critics, the epicenter of populist film criticism has drifted to the Internet. The same do-I-see-it-or-not ratings that Mr. Ebert and Mr. Siskel provided are reflected in the “rotten” or “fresh” judgments of RottenTomatoes.com and the number values compiled by MetaCritic.com.

Some critics disdain this kind of simplistic yea-or-nay criticism. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane once lamented that “the value of a motion picture is indicated by the rotation of a chubby thumb through 180 degrees.”

Regardless, in today’s moviegoing environment, critical influence of any kind is a rare commodity. “At the Movies” was not a bastion of illuminating, thought-provoking criticism (particularly once Mr. Siskel’s replacement, Richard Roeper, became the most consistent host) but it was an influential dialogue about what made a film good or bad.

The replacement hosts of “At the Movies,” Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, are unlikely to win the cachet that their progenitors did.

Instead, a more recommended weekly destination is Mr. Ebert’s blog.

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