Raising a thumb to the thumb

The Baltimore Sun

Let us now grieve for the thumb.

With the demise of the crit-chat show At the Movies with Ebert and Roeper (the last episode will air Aug. 17 on WMAR, Channel 2), the thumb goes on indefinite hiatus. We will no longer see "two thumbs up" or "two thumbs way up" or even "way, way up" in the movie ads. No longer will viewers be fascinated when one critic's thumb's up proves to be another's thumb's down, or when reviewers try to wring subtle gradations from that digit with the cop-out "thumb held sideways." Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel trademarked the thumb, and Ebert and Siskel's widow retain control of it. (The show recently adopted a "see it, skip it, rent it" formula that presumably will substitute for the thumb on the revamped At the Movies.)

Ebert, who has not appeared on the show since July 2006 because of cancer surgery, has vowed, "the thumbs will return."

Richard Roeper released a statement saying "he couldn't reach a satisfactory agreement" with the show's producing company, Disney-ABC Domestic Television, after hesitating to accept a contract extension offered to him several months ago. Wishing Disney best of luck with "whatever form" At the Movies now takes, Roeper said, "It is my intention to proceed elsewhere with my ninth year as the co-host of a movie review show that honors the standards established by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert more than 30 years ago." Ebert wrote that he and Siskel's widow "plan to continue the show's tradition" of "Two film critics, sitting across the aisle from each other in a movie balcony, debating the new films of the week."

It's difficult not to infer Ebert and Roeper's frustration at the directions Disney will now take the show, starting with the hosts - two men who aren't yet known for serious journalism or criticism. At the Movies will enter its new era with Ben Lyons, a host of the syndicated Reel Talk and a reporter on the E! channel, and Ben Mankiewicz, a host for Turner Classic Movies. They insist the show will remain the same except for brand-new features, including other reviewers weighing in by satellite.

But they will not wield the power of the thumb.

For a long time, I viewed the thumb with disdain. Some reviewers love rating movies, particularly those who like to see their name under the attention- getting quote, "Four Stars!"

I've always felt ratings are unfair to movies and critics alike, reducing to win-or-lose formulae both a wildly unpredictable art form and the intricate feelings of anyone trying honestly to grapple with it. When I worked for the defunct Hearst paper in Los Angeles (The Los Angeles Herald Examin er), I swapped stars for rosebuds partly in tribute to a movie William Randolph Hearst tried to kill, Citizen Kane, and partly to indicate we saw the humor in the whole ratings game. I welcomed a change here several years ago from the star system to an A-F grade system (complete with pluses and minuses), which seemed to allow more shadings.

Yet when Siskel died in 1999, my then-colleague at Salon.com, Sarah Vowell, eulogized him in a way that opened my eyes to the larger purpose of the thumb. "In a morally ambiguous world," Vowell wrote, "where the meanest kids at school had all the power, and where their grown-up equivalents were running the country, Siskel and Ebert denounced ambiguity and indecision with one fell swoop: thumbs up or thumbs down. It all came down to this: did you like it or did you not? ... In movies, as in life, things are cool or things suck, and anything in between is barely worth noticing."

That's one way of looking at the world. Half in jest, my friend Pauline Kael once told me, "If you don't love a movie, you might as well hate it."

When I started out as a critic, I had no time for any movie that didn't live up to the works of Sam Peckinpah. But as I continued to cover films, I began to see movies in a continuum. If I hadn't recognized the modest virtues of early Curtis Hanson thrillers such as his filmed-in-Baltimore Bedroom Window, I might not have fully appreciated the brilliance of Hanson's L.A. Confidential. And as Kael was the first to note, movies are made up of so many different, varied talents that the personal best of an actor or cinematographer, a screenwriter or director can make even a messy or failed movie worth seeing. People didn't go to see La Vie en Rose for the script: They went to see Marion Cotillard act her heart out. Still, it's up to the critic to say that Cotillard was so brilliant you have to see the movie. B+ - or a thumb solidly up.

The problem with any kind of rating system is that you can't guarantee how it will be read. A film critic friend approached me in a theater lobby a few months ago and asked, "Why didn't you tell me how good Michael Clayton was?" I told him that, in fact, the review ran on the Movies Today cover and received an A. "Why didn't you mark it A+?" he demanded. Some people think a film is worth seeing only if you give it an A - or an A+. Others think that if you gave a movie less than that, you hate it. The temptation to award better grades, or more thumb's ups, usually doesn't come from a softening of critical faculties, but from the desire to pull audiences into imperfect movies that still deserve a wide viewership.

Although symbols take on lives of their own, the force of the thumb, star or report-card grade rests solely on the credibility of the reviewer behind it. Ebert and Siskel identified themselves as critics and could defend a position in open argument; that's what made their show unique. Lyons and Mankiewicz may walk the walk, right up to that time-honored At the Movies balcony. But they'll have to prove they can talk the talk.


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