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Seitz: Roger Ebert on TV Was the Gateway Drug for New Film Obsessives

I grew up in Kansas City and Dallas in the seventies and eighties. To put it mildly, these were not film towns. They had precious few art-house theaters. Roger Ebert’s review show with Gene Siskel, which ran on PBS and then in syndication under various titles, was my gateway into cinematic worlds I might not have otherwise explored, and that road led to my becoming a film and TV critic. Siskel and Ebert had as much to do with stoking my interest in films and film criticism as anyone I knew personally. Maybe more.

The duo became quite powerful fairly early in their show’s run — when it was on PBS in the late-seventies and called Coming to a Theater Near You and then Sneak Previews — and they consistently used their power for good. Their tastes were catholic-with-a-small-c, and in any given episode of a show, their selection of film titles was as democratic, as fundamentally disinterested in budget or distribution clout, as the film section at the Chicago Reader, where the great Jonathan Rosenbaum would think nothing of pairing the latest special-effects blockbuster with an undistributed documentary if he thought he could draw a connection between them.

I’m pretty sure Chan Is Missing and Crumb and Return of the Secaucus Seven, to name just three small movies they championed during the heyday of Lucas and Spielberg, wouldn’t have come to Dallas without all of the free PR the two critics gave them. I’m sure I’m the only person in my seventh-grade class who saw My Dinner with Andre twice in a theater; I saw it because Roger and Gene were madly in love with it and mentioned it on the air every chance they got. They loved good science-fiction films and action pictures, cartoons and romantic comedies, but if you watched them long enough, you figured out that nothing excited them more than falling in love with a movie most people hadn’t heard of yet. After a few years of watching them, I was conditioned to be as excited about the local openings of Stranger Than Paradise, She’s Gotta Have It, Sid and Nancy, and Best Boy as I was by Return of the Jedi or The Untouchables. When I learned during a 1989 broadcast that Jarmusch had a new movie out and that it was called Mystery Train and was set entirely in a Memphis hotel, I actually felt my heart start racing. They treated cultural vegetables like candy.  

Siskel and Ebert used their TV shows as bully pulpits and laboratories for televisual criticism. They aired what we now recognize as forerunners of the modern video essay — self-contained short pieces that illuminated, praised, or condemned films or film artists, using bits of a director’s own movies as evidence for the prosecution or the defense. Sometimes these segments bit off more than they could chew or made hash of their own arguments. Their 1980 special on the treatment of women in horror films, to name but one example, missed a lot of obvious points, and parts of it seemed more reactionary than the films it criticized. But if you think about the fact that Ebert and Siskel, two straight white guys, were essentially attempting a half-hour televised work of feminist cultural criticism, even that special seems kind of amazing in retrospect. No modern film review show would run anything like it. It’s just not done now, and it wasn’t done then, either, really, except by Siskel and Ebert. The duos who inherited the shows they left behind (Rex Reed and Bill Harris, Jeffrey Lyons and Neil Gabler) didn’t delve beyond the week’s releases, but Siskel and Ebert aired specials on movie violence, ratings, the aesthetic properties of certain genres, and the careers of notable young filmmakers. (Spike Lee was one of Roger’s pet projects.)

There were some who sniffed at Siskel and Ebert’s show, sneering that they were dumbing down film criticism by bringing it to television; they supported their case against Ebert by disparaging his more vernacular approach to his written reviews. This criticism made me angry; it conflated a popular touch with an absence of substance. “Because Ebert had reviewed films on TV as well as written about them for the papers, because most of his reviews had a conversational tone, and perhaps because he had been around for so long, there were sophisticates who didn’t take Ebert as seriously as they did some of the critics for New York–based papers and magazines,” writes Jonathan Foreman in National Review Online. “This was a misjudgment — a jejune error of the kind that Ebert himself would never make.” Luckily, all we had to do to see through the “sophisticates” was to read and watch the work with an open mind.

Consider their aforementioned specials on directors, movie ratings, film violence. That’s not “dumbing down”; it’s Trojan horse criticism that uses a constricting commercial format — a half-hour clip show starring a couple of bickerers in chairs — to smuggle in aesthetic arguments, thought experiments, and history lessons. (Check out this 1984 special on the career of Steven Spielberg up to that point, in which they compare the mine car chase in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to Buster Keaton’s The General.) 

I still think about Siskel and Ebert’s two fantasy nominees from their annual coverage of the Oscars — one from 1982, another from 1994 — because they remind me of how calcified critical thinking still is. In 1982, they argued that Christopher Reeve deserved a Best Actor nomination for Superman II, a dual performance that convinced mainly through intonation and body language. In 1994, they argued that Keanu Reeves deserved a Best Actor nomination for his work in Speed because it was a perfect example of almost purely physical acting. That the media and the film industry rarely praised such work seemed to irk Roger and Gene; they saw it as one more example of unexamined assumptions leading to critical laziness.

They were criticized for the thumbs-up/thumbs-down gimmick, for playing up their differences onscreen to make the shows more exciting, and for generally being a blight on some imagined idea of what criticism or cinephilia were supposed to be, but unless you were already steeped in that culture and felt that you didn’t have much to learn — and that even if you did, Siskel and Ebert had nothing to teach you — that complaint didn’t make any sense. Simply put, Siskel and Ebert’s show, and Ebert individually, did more to enrich film culture in the United States than any individual publication, film critic, or university. Roger Ebert is gone, but the curiosity he stoked has already outlived him.

Photo: Courtesy of ABC/Disney