Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel changed the way the general public viewed film criticism. Before Siskel and Ebert, film criticism was viewed as an esoteric practice written by aspiring filmmakers and read by actual filmmakers. Siskel & Ebert, both through their television show and respective writing, made the form fit for public consumption.
It all began as a 1975 local Chicago show featuring two, dueling, rival critics (Siskel from the Chicago Tribune and Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times) before it transitioned to PBS for national syndication in 1978. By 1986, Siskel & Ebert & The Movies was regarded as a major influence on box-office takes. In the years before the internet and twitter, their coveted “Two Thumbs Up” added major publicity and clout to small, independent films that may not have otherwise have found an audience. Movies like Say Anything and My Dinner with Andre gained initial public recognition because Siskel and Ebert championed them, demanding they find an audience.
In a post-YouTube, Facebook world, it’s hard to imagine how influential Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were to the cinematic landscape. However, they were among the first to present film criticism as both sophisticated and accessible. They were smart and funny (some of the comments uttered when they disliked a film were laceratingly witty), but they were also relatable. They had what was arguably the greatest job in the world–they were paid(!) to watch movies and discuss them! The average individual would probably not have even thought this was a possible means of employment were it not for them. However, they took that job seriously. They clearly loved movies-defending, demolishing, and debating about them. Their passions and enthusiasms, not to mention their contempt for dreadful movies that wasted their time, were contagious.
Roger Ebert was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize and the first to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His writing style was sharp, articulate, and well-argued, whether you agreed with him or not. He demanded film criticism be taken seriously, and anyone who read him or watched him on television had no choice but to do just that.
In 2006, following a lengthy battle with thyroid cancer, his carotid artery ruptured, and subsequent surgeries robbed him of his lower jaw and the ability to speak, but his voice continued to live on in his weekly film reviews still published for the Chicago Sun-Times and his blog, viewable through his website, www.rogerebert.com.
In 2011, his memoir, Life Itself, was published to great acclaim. I read it instantly, still finding myself capable of being swept along by his writing style. Both in his memoir and his film reviews, he wrote as though he was speaking directly to the reader in a conversational style that felt neither dumbed-down nor as though one was hearing an academic lecture. He was that brilliant mentor one could look to for cinematic guidance and debate. Such was his influence that you would even care what he had to say about matters outside the world of cinema, such as favorite restaurants. I see his ringing endorsements of one of his favorite restaurants at every Steak and Shake when my mother and I stop for a milkshake and hamburger while driving across country from Wichita (where I now reside) to my hometown of Nashville. I comment on it every time we stop there.
In December of last year, he suffered a fractured hip, and his review output began to decrease in numbers. On April 3, 2013, he posted a statement on his website, saying he was going to “take a leave of presence” because his fracture was found to be cancer-related. He was still planning a Kickstarter campaign to relaunch At The Movies, a new collection of “Great Movie” reviews, and various other projects. Instead, he passed away on April 4, 2013.
As strange as it may sound, I remember the very first review I heard from Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. It was for the 1994 Jim Carrey vehicle The Mask. They both liked the film. I had just seen the movie, and I had liked it too. In fact, I still like it. I didn’t watch movie review shows at that age (Why would I? I was nine), but for some reason that has left an impression upon me. I knew who they were, mainly because I remember hearing “Siskel and Ebert give it two thumbs up” on various movie trailers, but I had little awareness of them beyond that. I grew up with Ebert and Roeper, featuring Gene Siskel’s successor, Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper, and I never missed them throughout their lengthy syndicated run. Thanks to the invention of YouTube, I am now very familiar with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and I am continually struck by their chemistry on screen. They defend their views passionately and articulately, but there always exists an enjoyably affectionate rivalry between them. Even when they agree with each other, each one wants to be more correct than their counterpart. When they disagreed, their arguments were things of beauty.
Through Ebert’s reviews I learned about movies like Whale Rider, Cold Weather, and The Red Riding Trilogy. It is because of him I sought out foreign films like Cinema Paradiso, Cache, and The Secret in Their Eyes. I gained an appreciation for cinematic masters like Cocteau, Bergman, Fellini, Truffault, Goddard, and Kurosawa (and can refer to them by last name-only and still know who they are). I found myself weeping at the quiet, devastating brilliance of Tokyo Story, because he gave it a “Great Movie,” and I remember gloating to my mother when he included Withnail and I (a movie I love and she hates) under that same label.
However, he didn’t merely examine “important,” foreign cinema. Spielberg’s E.T., John Hughes’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day have also been given this same appreciative examination. To Roger Ebert, it didn’t matter whether the movie was mainstream fare or arthouse chique. Either could be great entertainment, and both were worthy of academic consideration. Through him, I learned to appreciate and love movies with equal measure. The ability to analyze and break down a film came from watching/reading Roger Ebert do so in a way that seemed effortless and treating every piece of cinema as capable of being great art.
It’s not that I agreed with him every time he published a review. After all, he gave 3 and 1/2 stars to Anaconda, but only 3 stars to The Godfather Part II?! His review is the only reason Speed 2: Cruise Control has a 2% critic approval rating on rottentomatoes.com, but he disliked David Lynch’s Blue Velvet?! In addition, I frequently found myself at odds with his views on the slasher genre, a genre both Siskel and Ebert raked across the coals on an almost weekly basis. They even went so far as to host a special episode about the vile nature of the slasher genre, which Roger Ebert referred to as “Dead Teenager Movies.” I like the slasher genre and have never found them to be a corrupting influence on America’s youth. We had our differences, sometimes to the point of me yelling at my tv/computer screen in complete frustration, but I admired, respected, and liked him. The fact that I felt passionately enough about his views to argue against him speaks to the high regard in which I hold his opinion. If I didn’t respect his views, I wouldn’t bother raging against them.
Roger Ebert inspired many to love and cherish movies more than might have been the case had Gene Siskel and he not graced the small screen. He inspired many to love film and to examine it as an art form, rather than mere pop entertainment. He was passionate about it, and his passion was infectious, inspiring many to cite him as a major influence (including myself, I’ve always wanted to be one-half of a Siskel-Ebert duo) in developing a love of cinema. President Barack Obama paid tribute to him today, as well as the governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.
I never knew Ebert, of course, but I feel like I have lost someone critical to my development and outlook. I value the ability to dissect and analyze film, and I know that love came from my exposure to Ebert. I hope in a world of 144-character tweets and Facebook status updates his articulate, intelligent film reviews will live on, and that somewhere Ebert is sitting with Siskel, arguing about the virtues of the latest cinematic releases.
I leave you with two videos. The first comes from SCTV, featuring a clever parody of Siskel & Ebert & The Movies. Their popularity at the time was such that they could be spoofed on a sketch show and the audience would get the joke. Note the dark version of the “Dog of the Week” segment, which was an early feature on the show when it was still called Sneak Previews.
This next video is a tribute to the best of Siskel and Ebert and Ebert and Roeper– volume 1 of many, many tribute segments put together by one fantastically helpful YouTube subscriber. There was never a duo like them and there never will be again.
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