A big part of my initiation into movie geekdom, along with growing up during the prime of the Lucas-Spielberg era and the rise of cable and VHS, was watching which direction these two nerdy guys from Chicago would point their thumbs.
Every Saturday night at 7, I’d twist the antenna on our pre-cable television trying to get a clear picture from the faint signal of our local PBS station so I could watch Sneak Previews. As bright and articulate as Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were, I tuned in not for enlightenment, but for validation. I wanted them to like what I liked so I could feel it was worth liking. I hung on every word, with a deep sense of satisfaction if they agreed with me, or with a growing sense of dread if they didn’t. Many a show ended with me dismissing them altogether for telling me this particular movie I liked was bad, but, even though I didn’t know it at the time, they were teaching me to look at movies as more than just these cool things that killed two hours of time.
I always felt more of a kinship with Ebert. He seemed to be the heart to Siskel’s brain, willing to embrace some trashy B-movie if it worked on a B-movie level. He was also much more of the genre geek; I rejoiced when he actually ranked The Empire Strikes Back in his top ten for 1980. And it probably didn’t hurt the connection that, for a good part of my awkward adolescence, I bore a distressing resemblance to Ebert, from the glasses to the dorky haircut to the pudgy middle. He was me with more erudition and better lighting.
Eventually Sneak Previews became At the Movies, and then Siskel & Ebert, and I followed along, still hoping they’d like what I liked, but now paying more attention to the whys and hows behind the thumbs up or down. They helped me understand why I enjoyed certain films, and taught me to be a little more open-minded when their opinion differed with mine. Basically, I was learning about critical thinking, dressed up as a weekly walk through the movie lobby.
I lost track of the show when Gene Siskel died. His chemistry with Ebert was such a big part of the show’s appeal, but Siskel also tended to balance out Ebert’s geeky enthusiasm with his more cerebral tone. The eventual string of replacements just didn’t have the same feel, and I lost touch with Ebert for a time as I went off to college and really started developing my own critical voice.
I eventually found my way back to him thanks to the internet, able to keep up with him on a semi-daily basis. And while I would never flatter myself to say I now viewed us as equals, I definitely understood and appreciated what he was saying a whole lot more. That he could also write compellingly about topics other than movies shouldn’t have been a surprise, but I remember becoming completely absorbed as he wrote about the health issues that eventually cost him the ability to speak. That was when Ebert went from being an influence to being a hero. He may have lost one particular medium for his words, but they never stopped coming.
Until today. Barely twenty-four hours after announcing he was taking a “leave of presence” due to a re-occurrence of his cancer, Ebert died at the age of 70. His passing was a sudden as Siskel’s, if perhaps a little less surprising in light of his declining health. But it’s an incredibly humbling thought to realize that in the last year, Ebert wrote more film reviews than in any other year of his career, all while most likely knowing his body was failing him. Maybe it was a frantic push to get as many words out as possible before the end he knew was coming. But it definitely makes me think of the days when I would say I was too tired or unmotivated to write anything with more than a little guilt.
There’s an entire generation of film writers and fans who owe both Siskel and Ebert a huge debt of gratitude. They were The Beatles of film criticism, the superstars who forever changed how movie reviews were viewed. Some blame them for the dumbing down of film criticism, but they always had more thought behind their reviews than just whether to vote thumbs up or down. It was the string of pale imitators that followed who turned the critical mass into bite-sized capsules of letter grades and stars.
So thank you, Roger Ebert. Thanks for putting The Empire Strikes Back in your top ten. Thanks for making a nerdy little pre-teen who kind of looked like you feel a little better about himself. Thanks for making me think about what I liked beyond just liking it. And thanks for the hundreds of thousands of words you left behind that mean you’ll never be truly gone. I hope Gene saved you an aisle seat.