“Siskel & Ebert” was my first taste of film criticism. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. Growing up amidst the strip malls and multiplexes of the Northern California suburbs, I used to watch the show with my dad, before I started swiping the arts section of the newspaper every morning. I loved it with they argued, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, because even when it was heated it was obviously an earnest conversation between two people who knew and respected each other’s taste, and because the accord or disagreement always came as a reveal. Ebert doesn’t like “Die Hard,” finds it too poorly written to hold his interest, then the camera cuts to Siskel, who proclaims he was interested and was drawn in by the two main performances.
That turn — will it be two thumbs up, two down, a split vote — was really the only point of drama in a show that defied all conventions of television. Ebert, who passed away yesterday, and Siskel, who died 1999, didn’t resemble your typical groomed and glamorous small screen hosts. They looked like a pair of real people, actual working journalists who when not on the show spent their time writing reviews. And they devoted the runtime of their show to talking, first to the camera and then to each other about what they’d watched that week, real discussions that weren’t about playing to the audience. They weren’t actors, they weren’t comedians. Sometimes over clips from the movie in question, but rarely offering more in terms of visual interest than the hosts themselves and the enjoyment they took in these discussions. “Siskel & Ebert” and its other incarnations was an unlikely, if incredibly influential, TV program.
Film criticism has never sat easily on screen — it exists more comfortably on the page, on panels, or in an audio form to accomodate a back and forth between different viewpoints. It’s only the relatively new realms of video essays or efforts from YouTube critic personalities that actually make use of their visual component, that cut in and comment directly on footage or that use the video platform as one for performance. It’s why, I think, other attempts to bring movie review shows to the air have had such a difficult time — they’re about the things we watch, but there’s nothing about them that demands watching themselves, and in that sense they don’t make for inherently good TV.
And yet “Siskel & Ebert” and the later incarnations Ebert carried on himself with other hosts worked. They put criticism front and center for half-hour chunks of air time, and felt no need to swaddle it around a celebrity interview — the movies should be enough, and they were. Watching two people talk and sometimes argue about films was fascinating. And making use of national platform they had, Ebert and Siskel delivered a dose a cinephilia to a wider audience than any newspaper those days could reach, one that included yours truly.
TV has grown as a platform, but its also changed, become more competitive and focused in terms of numbers and demographics, and with it any possible perch for a review show has become even more precarious. Even Ebert’s attempt to launch the syndicated “Ebert Presents: At the Movies” with hosts Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky in 2011 was only able to last for a year. And with Ebert, sadly, gone, it’s likely that so are plans of bringing it back via the Kickstarter campaign he wrote of hoping to launch in his final post.
Maybe the era of widely watched film criticism on national television has passed along with Ebert. But maybe there was never an era to begin with, and Ebert and Siskel and the voices who joined them were a wonderful anomaly, something we were lucky to have, a pair of people who were witty and intelligent and passionate enough to hold an audience. Just two guys on TV, talking movies — what a joy.