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Aisle Remember You: A Tribute To Siskel & Ebert

by The eFilmCritic Staff

A historic show is coming to an end this weekend. Through its many incarnations, it has remained an influence for millions of movie lovers, hopefully a few filmmakers and, most certainly, new generations of film critics. A few of us would like to bow our heads, raise our thumbs and offer a humble tribute to the show and the film lovers who have helped make us what we are today.

Peter Sobczynski
In news that will perhaps surprise no one, I was somewhat of a precocious child in my early years and by the age of three, I was already reading and watching movies. Since I loved doing both, it was only a matter of time before I discovered that by getting the newspaper from my father when he came home from work, I could read about the films that were currently in release. And since we lived in the suburbs of Chicago and got the “Sun-Times” and the “Tribune,” this meant that at an age when most kids were playing with their Legos (a skill I never quite mastered) I was getting acquainted with the critiques of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. Through their writings, I was exposed to the world of cinema and gradually began to become obsessed with it--so much so, in fact, that, according to family legend, I attempted at the age of five to convince my parents to take me to this movie that had received rave reviews from both, a little thing called “Taxi Driver.” (Don’t worry, they didn’t fall for it--they weren’t that permissive.) The only problem was that while I could certainly picture the movies that they were talking about in my mind, my extreme youth (not to mention the presence of a little brother who didn’t like dark places under any circumstances) meant that I couldn’t actually see any of them for myself outside of blockbusters like “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters,” Disney films like “Gus” and “Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo” and the occasional movie that my parents wanted to see (having never seen a Bogart film at this point, I recall being especially baffled by “The Cheap Detective”). Needless to say, when I discovered that Siskel & Ebert had a locally produced television show in which they not only reviewed all the new movies in town but actually showed clips from them, it seemed to me like the single greatest thing ever.

From that moment on, I watched the show with the same kind of enthusiasm that most kids my age reserved for the Saturday morning onslaught of cartoons. Every other week (it didn‘t go weekly until 1979), there would be a new lineup of titles offered for discussion--popular hits, exploitation trash, quirky indies and titles from all over the world--and I ate them all up. Of course, I knew that I probably wouldn’t be getting a chance to actually see a lot of these films for a long time (remember, these were the days before cable and home video) but by seeing clips, I could both get a better idea of what I was missing and become exposed to kinds of filmmaking that I had never heard of--movies like “Gates of Heaven” “The Kirlian Witness,” “Diva” or “My Dinner with Andre.” Sometimes they would do special theme shows that were equally fascinating to this budding cineaste--their “Guilty Pleasures” program exposed me at an early age to the joys of “Emmanuelle,” “Infra-Man” and “Invasion of the Bee Girls,” the episode condemning the then-popular trend in slasher movies had the unexpected effect of opening my eyes to a new subgenre of films that would go on to be a personal favorite. They even did one episode in which they showed the entire process of reviewing a movie from going to the screening to writing it up that pretty much confirmed what I wanted to do when I grew up. (In fact, this show made such an impact on me that to this day, I can still recall the specific movie that they used as the focus--the big-screen adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh’s “The Black Marble.”)

However, once the novelty of seeing clips from movies on television began to fade away, thanks to cable, home video and being able to get out to see more actual movies with my own eyes, the show was still a weekly must-see because it allowed me the chance to see two people talking exclusively about movies with the same kind of passion and enthusiasm that I felt for the subject. As they praised masterpieces like “Raging Bull,” damned trash like “I Spit on Your Grave” (which is actually a slightly better film than they made it out to be) or argued passionately about things that they couldn’t agree upon, they taught me the numerous elements that went into the making of a film and helped me to determine which ones worked and which ones didn’t. In a weird way, they helped me to develop my own personal critical aesthetic (of course, given my occasionally oddball taste, this may not be something that either one would necessarily want to take credit for) and even when I found myself disagreeing with what they had to say (as when Ebert slammed such personal favorites as “Blue Velvet” and "Raising Arizona"), they did so in such a way that I could intellectually understand exactly where they were coming from even if I thought they were off their rockers. While the show may have changed and evolved over the years (I still miss Aroma the Educated Skunk signaling the Stinker of the Week, usually some cheerfully lurid nonsense like “The Children” or “Blood Beach” that had me drooling with anticipation), it was the notion of these two individuals talking about film at length and without any sort of extraneous fluff that was at its heart and that is why it lasted as long as it did. Over the years, many people would try to imitate the basic concept of the show with their own review programs (I personally was somewhat involved with two such attempts myself--I like to claim that I shot the same number of pilots as Sam Byck and with just as much success) but none of them ever worked out to any great degree because while it was easy enough to replicate the outer trappings, it was the personal enthusiasm, intelligence and chemistry that Siskel & Ebert shared that made it work and that, as the various wannabes soon found out, was pretty much impossible to recreate.

I have to admit that once I began doing film criticism of my own on a regular basis, I began watching the show less and less (mostly because I didn’t want to see advance reviews of films that I hadn’t yet gotten around to covering myself), especially after the passing of Siskel in 1999, and after Ebert’s health issues caused him to leave it as well in 2006, I pretty much gave it up for good--though I have nothing against Richard Roeper (who I think was actually better on the show than he is usually given credit for), it just wasn’t the same watching him and a rotating panel of guest critics trying to recreate the Siskel & Ebert magic (though I must also admit that Michael Philips, who would eventually become the semi-permanent replacement, was also pretty good on the program). And yet, when I heard that the show, which began its journey in 1975 as a monthly program entitled “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You,” was finally coming to an end this weekend after 33 years, it was a bit of news that struck me hard as yet another thing that helped transform me into the person that I am today was falling by the wayside. That said, it was a hell of a run and while others may continue to attempt to copy what it did, the fact of the matter is that it was a one-of-a-kind thing and while I am sad to see it go, I am still glad that it was around for as long as it was and that it helped inspire countless numbers of people to open their eyes to the limitless possibilities of the cinema, not to mention “Invasion of the Bee Girls.”

For that, all I can do is say “Thanks.”

David Cornelius
I wouldn’t be a movie critic if it weren’t for Siskel and Ebert. It’s that simple.

I followed these two back when their show was called “Sneak Previews.” I was too young to have seen pretty much any of the movies they reviewed, but it didn’t matter. By that point I knew I liked movies enough to also like spending a half hour each week watching other people talk about them. I wanted to do what they did. Still do.

When the bald guy and the fat guy with bad hair left the show, I left with them. Even as a kid, I could smell a crummy imitation, and that’s all anyone who wasn’t Siskel or Ebert were. Whenever their show changed names, I went right along with them.I grew up with these guys, loved it when they argued, sure, but loved it more when they explained - in a language that was both down-to-earth and endlessly knowledgeable - why a movie did or didn’t work.. They showed you could be a critic without being a snob; to them, the critic’s role was that of teacher, friend, everyman expert. I’ve spent my professional life trying to live up to that example.

When Gene Siskel died, I wept for who knows how long. I still have the tribute episode on tape somewhere. When Richard Roeper came on board, I was wary (who wasn’t?), but over time, he began to feel like the right fit. Then Roger got sick. Left the show. Then they both got the boot.

The final Ebert-and-Roeper era “At the Movies” airs this weekend. Next week, we’ll get two new guys and a “hip” revamp. The name might be the same, but I can still smell a crummy imitation. And wherever Ebert and Roeper end up going, I’ll go right along with them.

Uri Lessing
Watching Siskel and Ebert argue was like watching two maniacs co-drive a car on a treacherous mountain road. The pair somehow managed to stay on the crumbling path of civility, but you knew that they were just one word, one gesture, one dirty look away from plummeting to certain disaster. Check out the tension as these two discuss a nothing movie, "Benji the Hunted." I remember this clip well, because Ebert had previously in the show panned "Full Metal Jacket" and Siskel berated Ebert for recommending Benji over Kubrick. Will anyone debate film so passionately again?

Erik Childress
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago there were only three film critics to my immediate access. One was Dann Gire from the Daily Herald, the delivery paper of choice for my household. The others were Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Without access to a newspaper stand on my route to school a few blocks away so I could “Read” or “Trust” this pair, I could still tune them in at 6:30 pm every Saturday night on CBS to hear them talk about movies I wanted to see and titles I’d never heard of before. With our ingrained mental state to choose one over the other, I always felt a kinship with Roger because he always seemed to be more in tune with the “fun” movies. You know, the summer fare that a kid of nine or ten looked forward to. Gene never gave off the sense of snotty. I just felt he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. How could you not like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? And sorry, but Peggy Sue Got Married doesn’t hold a candle to Back to the Future.

That was part of the fun though. And I was still in grade school. I may have caught a few Hitchcock marathons on the glory that was cable but I still hadn’t seen Lawrence of Arabia or Raging Bull and at the video store I couldn’t be bothered with the Foreign section because I was too busy re-renting Tron. I tuned in every week though, less for the discovery aspect, and more to just hear the two of them banter. How great. New words I’d have to look up. Silently trying to egg on one over the other when I disagreed with their opinion and waiting for the horse I backed at that time to get in the final word before I switched sides for the next discussion. That’s what it was, a discussion. We can reduce it to the worn-out queries over how much they initially disliked each other or how much fun it was to see them argue. Fact is, it was a debate. And when you heard that they were reviewing four movies instead of five or six that week, chances are you were going to get more of it. Sometimes a double segment for one movie they loved with each of them getting a chance to introduce the particular elements they wanted to share with movie lovers everywhere. How exciting, at the time, it was to see them reviewing a movie a week early. That meant they liked it and couldn’t wait to tell us about it, right? Imagine my shock one October week in 1995 when Roger raved about this cool-looking film called Strange Days a week before it opened only to see Gene go negative on it. Another one Gene missed the boat on.

Remember the year when the film each called the worst of that year was actually liked by the other? I do. Siskel liked Carnosaur and Ebert liked Cop and a Half. How about the shows that Gene did from his hospital bed in Spring of ’98? Nothing could tear him away from the show, not even the brain surgery that I’m sure millions of passionate viewers probably suggested he needed from time to time based on his pans and recommendations. He actually had to endure Godzilla and that petty smackdown that Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin included (in the form of a chubby mayor and his balding assistant) for the duo going thumbs down on Independence Day. It was the first moment I ever audibly booed in a movie theater. We won’t need Spock placing his hand on our face though because we will always remember moments like these and relive them on the At the Movies site and through various uploads on YouTube. I particularly appreciate this one

The theme song. Sneaking up to the balcony. And, of course, the thumbs. Access became more viable over the years to the written work of Siskel & Ebert. My grandmother got the Tribune and used to save the Friday movie sections for me (despite being passed over twice for their Teen Movie Critic contest) and my dad always had a Sun-Times with him when picking me up from high school at Driscoll Catholic. When Gene passed in 1999, there was Roger telling us how much his partner was looking forward to the next Star Wars film. Guest hosts came and went and a replacement was eventually chosen in Richard Roeper. Even with a change to the show’s title (Ebert finally getting top billing after an initial agreement to switch off year-to-year) I continued to watch every week. How could I not? The tracks had been laid and the engine was still running.

When I began writing reviews professionally in 2000, suddenly I was sharing screening room space with two of the three critics I grew up with and I’m still learning. Whether or not I’ll ever be able to inspire any young movie lovers out there the way these guys did, I don’t know. Nor do I know how the new incarnation of the show will feel or last. I can’t imagine anyone ever being inspired by Ben Lyons to do anything but eat a twelve gauge. I’m sure somewhere in my subconscious that my dedication to my Criticwatch feature grew less out of a desire to expose quote whores and nepotism recipients but more to preserve the legacy of film criticism that began, for me at least, every Saturday at 6:30 PM in Chicago. It’s important to remember the history and the standards that Gene & Roger created for a new generation of movie critics. But it’s even more important never to forget.

(The opening photo and many others can be seen at the Don Bono Gallery online.)

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originally posted: 08/16/08 07:33:00
last updated: 04/05/13 10:14:40
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