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Life after Siskel: one thumb down; Since the death of longtime partner Gene Siskel, film critic Roger Ebert has continued their popular TV show with a series of guest hosts. So far, the reviews are mixed.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHICAGO -- The balcony is still open.

Five months after Gene Siskel's death, Roger Ebert continues to give the thumbs-up and thumbs-down from the faux movie perch he shared with his film-critic partner for 24 years. Each week he still tapes "Siskel & Ebert," but now with a rotating set of guest critics. He continues to crank out numerous reviews and feature stories for the Chicago Sun-Times, to publish books and host film festivals. Washington Post critic Tom Shales, who was "Siskel & Ebert's" first guest critic when Siskel fell ill with brain cancer, describes Ebert as "possessed." "Talk about 'Old Man River,' " says Shales. "He just keeps rolling along. I admire that."

It would have been easy for Ebert to pack in the TV gig after Siskel's death; and, in fact, some fans who can't get used to the interlopers sitting in Siskel's chair may wish he had. Indeed, it's been jarring to watch a cadre of lesser lights trying to go one-on-one with the master of film debate. But no one knows more than Ebert that the show will never be the same.

But even after five months, Ebert is uncomfortable discussing his feelings about his late partner. "As a journalist myself, I know my answers are not going to be very useful, but there are things I just plain don't feel like talking about," he says via e-mail, his preferred format for print interviews.

A hint, though, came in a column he wrote after Siskel's death, in which he referred to their unlikely relationship -- "for two men to be rivals six days of the week and sit down together on the seventh." "But over the years respect grew between us, and it deepened into friendship and love. ... For the first five years that we knew one another, Gene Siskel and I hardly spoke. Then it seemed like we never stopped."

Indeed, it was the unique chemistry between rival newspapermen who became close friends that made their show work. "Gene and I were very comfortable in working with one another, and of course now the show is like trying on a new pair of shoes every week," Ebert says. "But I have been surprised at how well the guests have adapted to the format and join in in the spirit of the enterprise."

For Ebert, the show will go on. Beginning this fall, it will be renamed "Roger Ebert & the Movies" but retain the guest-host format -- much to the dismay of critics with their eyes on Siskel's former spot. "Roger has to develop a rapport, and he really can't do that in one show," says Shales, who some think of as a top candidate to fill Siskel's shoes.

Perhaps. But permanently replacing Siskel would be like trying to replace Batman's Robin or Abbott's Costello. Or, as Chicago Tribune TV critic Steve Johnson wrote: "Actually imagining what might take the place of 'Siskel & Ebert' is an exercise in bad second choices. Any scenario has the whiff of Siskel's beloved Chicago Bulls losing Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, yet continuing to wear red uniforms and play against NBA teams."

Still, even Johnson believes Ebert should continue the show, writing that: "There are endless hours of television that deal with the entertainment business, but very few shows with the backbone to challenge its product and counteract its hype."

The early years

Few would have believed that Siskel and Ebert could rise to such a level of influence when they began their weekly debates on public television in 1975 with "Opening at a Theatre Near You." They were ill at ease on television and argued about nearly everything. But the show was a hit. After two seasons it was renamed "Sneak Previews." When they moved to commercial television in 1981, the show became "At the Movies." Five years later, Disney's Buena Vista Television division bought the show and, recognizing the pair's popularity, renamed it "Siskel & Ebert."

When the duo's popularity began to rise, they took some knocks. Some critics still say that their thumbs-up, thumbs-down mentality, combined with the star system of print reviews, is a dumbing down of public discourse on ideas that has even seeped into discussion of the nation's politics -- witness The McLaughlin Group's use of a 10-point scale for political punditry.

But Shales says that criticism of the show was unfair. "Most films do not call for a dense, substantive analysis," Shales said. "Most of them are pretty simplistic. And in the end you have to tell people 'yes' or 'no.' "

Its signature thumbs notwithstanding, the heart of the show was the spirited debates between fierce competitors who at first genuinely did not like each other. The pair eventually became close friends and partners more than competitors.

While Ebert to this day is the Sun-Times star reviewer and one of the hardest-working journalists in the city, Siskel followed the celebrity route, becoming the Chicago Bulls' No. 1 fan, a la Spike Lee with the Knicks or Jack Nicholson with the Lakers. His writing duties at the Tribune were trimmed to a short weekly column and capsule reviews; the Tribune's had a different chief film critic since 1993.

Going it alone

Ebert now has only himself to market, and going it alone won't be easy. Most agree that "Siskel & Ebert" made for great television more because of the interplay between the rivals; various attempts to duplicate the formula with other critics have failed. The pair weren't pretty to look at -- after all, they were newspapermen -- and they didn't bring anything unique to the art of film criticism. But they made film criticism accessible to the general public with simple summaries and sophisticated opinions rendered in an intelligible, yet easy-to-understand way.

Given the performances of the guest hosts to date, Ebert, who began his career as a 15-year-old sportswriter in Urbana, Ill., will have to carry the load on the new show. His guest hosts can only hope to make a respectable go of it -- after all, how do you compete with recent Ebert gems like these, all from the same show this spring:

* On "The Other Sister," starring Juliette Lewis, Diane Keaton, Tom Skerritt, and written and directed by Garry Marshall: "I hated this movie; This goes straight onto my list of worst films of the year."

* On "Just The Ticket," starring Andie MacDowell and Andy Garcia: "Feels like an uneasy assembly of leftover ideas from a lot of other bad movies."

* On "200 Cigarettes," starring Courtney Love: "I detested this film. It's flat and slack and real slow and not much happens ... a real dead zone. Just a mess."

And during an April show, he had this to say about "Friends & Lovers," starring Stephen Baldwin and Claudia Schiffer: "During the first reel I complained that I couldn't understand the dialogue, and during the rest of the movie I complained that I could; I don't think there's anybody alive and intelligent who would like to see this movie."

Perhaps the most intriguing guest host to date has been Harry Knowles, the only host who really has a gimmick that could update the show. Knowles is the creator of the Ain't It Cool News Web site; sort of like the Matt Drudge of Internet movie reviewing, only a far nicer guy. Knowles also has an interesting, almost cartoonish appearance; he's a large, non-threatening man with curly, shaggy red hair, a beard and glasses.

While Ebert wouldn't single out any of his temporary partners for comment, Shales was quick to mention Knowles as someone who caught his attention for his enthusiasm.

Ebert seemed bemused by Knowles, and Shales said the show had rare moments where Ebert was caught a little off-guard. "It was like Mork had landed," Shales said. "[Ebert] wasn't exactly sure what planet this guy was from."

Knowles says doing the show was a challenge. "On the show, I treated it as though I was just talking to 'another movie fan' and not 'Roger Ebert, a personal god of mine' and as a result I think Roger enjoyed the change of pace quite a bit."

But whoever might be tapped to replace Siskel, Knowles says Ebert "has to continue" the show. "As a movie fan, I've come to be addicted to the show, and the loss of Siskel was bad enough. I can't imagine adding to the pain by having Ebert cease his televised reviewing."

For his part, the one thumb left standing says he still can't help but wonder what Siskel might have thought about the films he continues to review. "All the time," Ebert says. "And often I think I know -- or can guess."

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