Siskel & Ebert at/and/with/for/vs./because of the Movies

Most Internet users already heard the news: longtime film critic Roger Ebert passed away Thursday at age 70 after yet another bout with cancer. His passing comes fifteen years after that of his TV comrade, sparring partner, and dear friend Gene Siskel.

I can’t remember what impressionable age I was when I first encountered their popular syndicated movie-review series Siskel & Ebert at the Movies. Our local affiliates sometimes aired it on Saturday afternoons, sometimes in the dead of night, and occasionally found it useful for filling any programming holes outside primetime. I’d never seen anything like it; thirty minutes of two movie fans sitting in a deserted theater balcony and telling viewers whether they thought the latest movies were good or bad. It sounded like a dull concept for a TV show. I could imagine the fun if they were brandishing weapons, but just sitting there? Talking? Why?

Over time I found myself drawn in anyway. I can’t say I saw all the episodes, or even half of them, but I caught what I could. After behind-the-scenes issues required them to relaunch as Siskel & Ebert and the Movies (as if the theater were no longer the mere setting, but the third-billed costar), for some reason it became next to impossible for me to locate on our local schedule. After Siskel’s passing I stopped trying because I wasn’t interested in the search to replicate or replace their camaraderie. In later years, when the magical world of the Internet brought Ebert’s reviews directly to my virtual doorstep, it was a welcome reunion, even if Siskel was only present in spirit and without his former voting rights. I even have two of Ebert’s books in my library: his negative-review collection I Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie; and the follow-up, Your Movie Sucks. The older we got, the more we disagreed

The lessons their debates imparted upon me included but weren’t limited to:

* The concept of the “film critic”. I already knew movies could be loved, liked, disliked, or hated. I figured that one out after being forced to sit through a drive-in showing of Cannery Row at age ten. Through Sisbert’s animated back-and-forth I realized such reactions have an underlying why to them — that movies require filmmakers, that they have a lot of moving parts, that they can express many more ideas and themes beyond just “good > evil”. When all components function together smoothly, the results can be praiseworthy; when one or more break down, you were left with Dune or the Police Academy sequels. Hearing about all the aspects of filmmaking gave me my first fascinated peek inside the engine. It introduced me to a new level of discourse that required deeper thinking, long before English classes would eventually catch up and try to do the same.

* Movies don’t have to be American-made wide-release to be good. As a teen I was always anxious to hear them praise the upcoming blockbusters or dismiss the mid-level dramas that held no appeal for me. When their attention turned to movies I’d never heard of, I became confused and tuned out. Many such films would never open in Indianapolis, and those that did would only open at one or two screens on another side of town. However, I do recall the particularly rousing endorsement of the 1988 Italian film Cinema Paradiso. Even though it was foreign and tiny and I’d never heard of it, their enthusiasm was infectious and made me want to know more. It was such a small moment, but I remember that being an integral stepping stone on my path from watching just cartoons and sci-fi flicks to expanding my horizons into other genres and realms.

* Watching the good and the bad can be instructive. There’s no life-affirming reason to watch every movie ever made, or even every movie ever suggested to you. It was odd seeing Our Heroes tackle films both blessed and unbearable. We average citizens tended to watch only what we wanted to watch, or what our elders forced us to endure. Sometimes, though, if we step outside our shelter, we can find the occasional pleasant surprise in places we’d normally never look if an outside force hadn’t steered us. Later in life, I would learn a different sort of lesson from a writing standpoint: if all you watch and review are things you already like, or things you would’ve bought anyway even if you weren’t a reviewer, you’ll give your readers the impression you love everything, and quite possibly wouldn’t recognize a bad film if it mocked your family and punched you in the stomach.

* Simple rating systems are best, if you must have one. Thumbs up. Thumbs down. It was just that simple, though you could see them waver on some mediocre films. Such systems aren’t my thing nowadays, but back then it was curious to see something resembling a school grading scale being applied in real life, even if it was pass/fail.

* Disagreeing is not only okay; it’s inevitable. There’s no reason you should expect to agree with any other single human about everything you watch or read. (There’s a term for that: “sycophancy”.) The best critics are those who, when you think they’re flat-out wrong about a given film, can articulate the reasoning behind their responses well enough that you come to understand why their conclusions differ from yours. Not every reading experience needs to end with, “He’s saying what we’re all thinking!” That mode inspires zero contemplation and grows old quickly.

* You’re ultimately responsible for determining your own opinions. I never saw a single episode in which either Siskel or Ebert changed the other’s mind. That’s not to say that you should never change your mind on anything ever, but it’s in your best interest to aim for a well-informed mindset than to settle for staying uninformed and easily malleable. Do your own reading; develop your own personal criteria; avoid bandwagon-jumping; and retain the privilege of steadfastness in the face of conflict.

After those early experiences were ingrained into my budding hobbyist subconscious, I would enjoy comparing and contrasting the styles of other movie fans with public soapboxes I would discover over the years — Gene Shalit on The Today Show, Entertainment Tonight‘s Leonard Maltin, CBS’ curmudgeonly Dennis Cunningham (who struck me as an early, elderly precursor to today’s reviled contrarians), the quasi-fictional Joe Bob Briggs, and Entertainment Weekly‘s inaugural reviewer Owen Gleiberman. I’m clearly not a professional movie critic, nor do I aspire to be. Millions of other writers of varying calibers have already lined up at that door ahead of me, many of them less biased than I am, most of them better connected. Regardless, whether great or small (okay, so one or two were really small) their contributions to my informal education might never have taken root if Siskel and Ebert hadn’t made it all sound so interesting in the first place.

Countless other online obituaries and eulogies have already covered the necessary histories and remembrances for the late Mr. Ebert. Rather than tread the same ground, my own tributary impulse is leaning toward heading over to Amazon to see how much they’re charging for a copy of Cinema Paradiso.

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