The Poppies of Terra #17 - Of Thumbs Opposable But Unopposed
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert are undoubtedly the most famous reviewing act in film history. They were notable critics individually before joining forces, somewhat reluctantly at first, for a small show called Opening Soon at a Theater Near You, which aired on the local Chicago PBS station WTTW in 1975. They continued reviewing films together in evolving, and ever more popular, incarnations of that original show, culminating in Siskel & Ebert & the Movies, which was produced by Disney and ran from 1986 through 1999, when Siskel died from a brain tumor. Ebert soldiered on with a number of co-hosts until cancellation in 2010, after which the self-funded Ebert Presents: At the Movies ran for a single season, and Ebert himself finally succumbed to cancer in 2013. Siskel and Ebert hosted a combined total of some 900 episodes of all versions of their production, a remarkable feat.
When I call Siskel and Ebert a “reviewing act,” I don’t mean that they were performing, but rather that their unique dynamic, stemming from extremely different personalities with wildly different aesthetic tastes, led to irreproducible chemistry–often of the pyrotechnic variety–and thoroughly stimulating movie talk. These two gents discussed movies as though the existence of cinema itself, or maybe even their own lives, were at stake. And now, the full story of Siskel and Ebert’s separate starts, joint odyssey, and lasting legacy, has been told, with warmth, verve, and humor, by Matt Singer, a critic in his own right, in Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever. Anyone interested in the history of cinema and its reception will find something to enjoy in it.
Beyond providing a badly needed dual biography of two intelligent and articulate expounders on what makes a movie great, or more often, disappointing, the book functions as a micro-history of film reviewing itself, with first-row tickets–or, maybe we should say balcony tickets–to the evolution of an art form that grew up right alongside the art form upon which it commented. As Singer notes, “Most historians credit a man named Frank E. Woods as the world’s first true film critic,” with the first film review, written by Woods, appearing in the New York Times on April 23, 1896. Singer walks us through changes in reviewing and criticism following those early forays, touching on the work of folks like Judith Crist–who famously described Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s extravagantly costly Cleopatra (1963) as “a monumental mouse,”–the influential and often acerbic Pauline Kael, and the more light-hearted Gene Shalit, who “once joked that he was ‘the forerunner of everybody ugly on television’” and provided this brilliant take on the 1987 bomb Ishtar: “Ishtar isht horrible.”
Neither Siskel or Ebert set out to become a film critic. Ebert had no formal training in film, but as Singer tells us, “His syllabus consisted of the old movies he would watch between press screenings at Chicago revival houses [...] His professors were the directors he interviewed for the Sun-Times, who he peppered with questions about technique and form. His textbooks were Esquire critic Dwight Macdonald’s On Movies, Andrew Sarris’s Interviews with Film Directors, and Robert Warshow’s book The Immediate Experience, which contained a line that leaped off the page at him: ‘A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.’” As a boy Ebert, who would later reflect on the great serendipities of his life, was gifted “a box full of old issues of Astounding Science Fiction, a periodical that published influential sci-fi authors like Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov.” Ebert’s interest in film and genre developed roughly at the same time, and “for a while, Ebert even published his own fanzine, titled Stymie.” I think that Ebert’s approach to the overall experience of watching a film–the reviewer must figure out the movie’s reality, or lack thereof, the lines of force it moves along–reflects these early ventures into imaginary worlds of a purely literary bent.
In a perhaps unlikely turn, one of the first films that made a real impact on Siskel, who graduated from Yale with a philosophy degree in 1967, was Saturday Night Fever (1977). He became somewhat obsessed with the movie, so that “by the time Siskel bumped into the film’s director, John Badham, at a dinner in Washington, DC, he had seen Saturday Night Fever seventeen times and possibly knew it better than Badham himself. The director later recalled that when they crossed paths at the dinner, Siskel immediately launched into a lecture about every minor gaffe and continuity error in the film, even pointing out mistakes Badham hadn’t realized were visible on-screen.” In fact, Siskel would later buy one of Travolta’s suits from the movie at a charity auction, paying $2,000 for it in 1978, and selling it off in 1995, after Travolta’s resurgence in popularity, for $145,500. Of Siskel’s process, we learn that he focused on how well films executed against their intended goals, and that as a result “he found he had to think along two parallel tracks simultaneously: one watching the movie, the other watching himself as he watched the movie, trying to understand his own reactions.”
The personalities of Siskel and Ebert are writ large all over Singer’s account, but it’s the relating of their greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts-whole that delivers many of the book’s highlights. Singer deftly recounts how they developed their rapport and perfected their “lively, unrehearsed ‘crosstalks,’” resulting from their having deliberately “avoided hearing each other’s opinions until they showed up at WTTW for a taping. With no rehearsals beforehand, who you saw on-screen were their genuine reactions to each other.” Singer underscores their magic as guests on nationally televised talk shows–this discussion with Bob Costas on movie candy is a tasty little treat–, and how they almost hosted their own show. Despite their constant rivalry, drama and antics behind the scenes, they came to truly appreciate and respect one another. “Siskel & Ebert wasn’t just a show that starred rivals,” Singer writes. “It was a showcase for the way rivalries could make both sides better than they were without each other. And in making each other better, they made their viewers better filmgoers and debaters as well.”
Their impact on film reviewing, and on movie history itself, is undeniable, and Singer provides plenty of dramatic examples of both. His narrative is rounded out by interesting observations from critics like A. O. Scott, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Ben Mankiewicz, Richard Roeper and Christy Lemire, all of whom worked firsthand with Ebert after Siskel’s passing. At a critical time, Siskel and Ebert’s defense of black-and-white movies, and their well-voiced pushback against colorization, helped preserve many classics in their original, and enduring, form. They saved the career of Errol Morris; rescued My Dinner with Andre (1981) from oblivion and turned it into a hit; and ceaselessly championed the documentary Hoop Dreams (1994), whose director, Steve James, would twenty years later direct Life Itself (2014), the moving documentary on Ebert based on his own memoir. The final film Siskel and Ebert reviewed together on-screen was Theory of Flight (1998). In a quarter-century of discussing and debating the merits of movies, the only time one of them got the other to change their famous thumbs up/thumbs down vote was for Broken Arrow (1996).
Besides being able to prognosticate successful acting careers, Siskel and Ebert’s forward-looking ideas on movies and their methods of consumption were prescient. Singer’s book provides a lovely appendix detailing twenty-five “Buried Treasures,” pictures that Siskel and Ebert championed but which for a variety of reasons never caught on with wider audiences. I’ve only seen three of them–someone’s got homework. Though the information can be found online, an additional appendix including a complete listing of every movie covered in every episode would have been welcome.
Singer’s material is clearly organized, his knowledge is evident, and his considered take on many episodes–real, and taped–of Siskel and Ebert’s lives reflects thoughtfulness and a deep sympathy for his subjects. I wish it were possible to own every episode of At The Movies in a box set, but, foregoing that, at least we can thank dedicated fans who keep the dynamic duo of movie reviewing alive on YouTube by uploading old recordings and creating virtual archives.
The best way to pay tribute to Siskel and Ebert’s work is to engage with cinema, to continue to wrestle not only with the questions it asks but, as they often did, the means of questioning itself. While the odds were good that on any specific title their thumbs might be pointing in different directions, it was the why that mattered, and in that deeper undertaking their thumbs were always unopposed.