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Two Thumbs Up: How Siskel and Ebert Inspired a Generation of Film Critics

Two Thumbs Up: How Siskel and Ebert Inspired a Generation of Film Critics

Seems like every week film criticism dies a new death. The latest murder suspects, according to Anghus Houvouras at Flickering Myth, are Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, whose iconic syndicated television series, he says, both “helped popularize film criticism” and directly contributed to its “deterioration as an art form.”

Houvouras goes on to lay the blame for a lot of stuff at Siskel and Ebert’s feet — and their thumbs. Those four little digits, he says, and the ratings system they popularized ruined modern film discourse. “The information age,” he writes, “has reduced everything to simple, definable value. And the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.” Siskel and Ebert’s Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down ratings, he adds, did more than give a handy hook to their reviews: it destroyed an entire generation of critics:

“The real impact of this wasn’t felt until well after Siskel passed away and the show faded from pop culture mainstay to a forgettable, oft repackaged mess. It was those influenced by Siskel and Ebert who stepped up and became the modern day film critics. The ones who launched websites, or in the early days took to BBS boards. These were the film critics of tomorrow. Average Joes who didn’t learn about film in a classroom but from a video store. Analysts who dictated from a place of common sense and shed the traditional trappings of actual film criticism in favor of stripped down, frills fee approach. A generation of film and entertainment writers inspired by the fast food film criticism of ‘Siskel & Ebert.’

Yes, Houvouras also compares “Siskel & Ebert” to a McDonald’s hamburger, “the reduction of food to its simplest state:”

“It has all the pieces: meat (supposedly), a bun, and some rudimentary fixings slapped together in a paper wrapper and mass produced for high quantity consumption. Siskel and Ebert reduced criticism to the same state. Simple, easy to understand, and palatable for the masses.”

Which brings us to today, where, according to Houvouras:

Once again there was a need for simplification. To cut through the clutter and place everything into a convenient easy package. Thus was born sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic and a popularization of the simple metric which has become commonplace on the sites and apps used by people to find films. Websites like Fandango, Moviefone, and Flixster.”

So to recap: Siskel and Ebert’s thumbs inspired people to take up film criticism, and they in turn had no respect for “the traditional trappings of actual criticism” and so they went to video stores rather than schools to learn about movies, and then they started Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic and ruined criticism forever.

This sort of argument infuriates me, and, admitedly, part of the reason is personal — Houvouras’ article isn’t so much an attack on Siskel and Ebert (who he admits he used to watch) as an attack on me and any other “modern day film critics” who were inspired to get into this field because they watched and loved the show. In fairness, Houvouras isn’t entirely inaccurate in his characterization of “Siskel & Ebert” as a television show. It was criticism for the masses, and it did spur people to consider film studies as a career path. It certainly spurred me.

But did it really inspire people to abandon “the traditional trappings of actual criticism?” (Also: what are “the traditional trappings of actual criticism?”) Houvouras seems to think you can’t learn about film in a video store (no one tell this to Quentin Tarantino) and implies film critics must be taught in a classroom. But Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris and most of the great writers who I presume were the practitioners of the “traditional trappings” were never taught in the classroom — they learned by going to the movie theater or watching the late show on television. Modern film studies programs didn’t exist at the college level until the late 1960s and early 1970s, where enrollment was no doubt fueled by the popularity of Sarris and Kael — and later, Siskel and Ebert. There are a lot of amateur film critics on the Internet. But thanks to programs at NYU, USC, UCLA, Columbia, Yale, University of Chicago, University of Iowa, and many, many morethere are also more trained film critics now than there ever were in the past.

Comparing “Siskel & Ebert” to McDonald’s isn’t wildly off base, but I see it differently. I look at the show more like cigarettes: the gateway drug to the heroin that is the wider world of film criticism. First I got hooked on “Siskel & Ebert,” then I got into the stronger stuff. Certainly, “Siskel & Ebert” wasn’t the most profound form of film criticism, but without it, it’s very possible I (and a lot of people) would have never discovered Sarris and Kael and Bazin and Agee and Farber and Hoberman and all the rest.

It’s also worth noting that while your average review on “Siskel & Ebert” was never all that in-depth — five or six minutes in the early days, as little as three or four in the later years — the show often put aside its traditional clips and crosstalk format for half-hour specials on specific topics from the world of cinema. Siskel and Ebert were the first people to explain to me why colorization of black and white movies was bad, and what you were missing when you watched pan-and-scan videos. They devoted episodes to filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Spike Lee and took on controversial topics like the MPAA ratings system. There was a lot more to “Siskel & Ebert” than two sets of thumbs.

But even if there hadn’t been, can we really blame them for every single development in film criticism (and, apparently, most of Internet communication) that’s happened in their wake? Did Siskel and Ebert invent the idea of one person telling another whether they should see a film or not? Critics serve many functions; consumer guide is one of them. True, “thumbs up” is a crude, blunt way of recommending a film. But is it such a horrible concept if it encourages people to seek out movies they would otherwise avoid? How many independent or foreign films succeeded at the box office because of “Two Thumbs Up?” Siskel and Ebert may have been the McDonald’s of film criticism, but if you were really paying attention to what they were talking about and took their recommendations seriously, they would have introduced you to some very adventurous cinema — the filmic equivalent of a molecular gastronomic feast.

I feel the same way about Twitter, which Houvouras dismisses as “the reduction of complex thought into 140 characters” where “film criticism continues to die one tweet at a time.” Again, Twitter — like the Internet, like anything — is what you make of it. It puts limits on length but not on reach, and in its first few years of existence it has mobilized critics to champion films that might have gotten lost in the shuffle without it. A few months ago, critic David Ehrlich began tweeting up a storm in support of a tiny film he loved called “Girl Walk // All Day.” After he wouldn’t shut up about it, I watched it myself — for free, legally, on the film’s website (the Internet, it seems, is not entirely devoid of redeeming value for cinephiles). I loved it, and began recommending it myself. It wound up on my top ten list, and I encouraged the listeners of my Filmspotting: SVU podcast to watch it themselves. In the days that followed, I received countless thank you notes from appreciative listeners who fell madly in love with a movie they never would have heard about if not for Twitter.

You can blame Siskel and Ebert for Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic if you want — although Metacritic’s numerical rating system doesn’t actually reflect the insidious “binary theory” that the two Chicago critics supposedly invented, but whatever. Even if they did, has that killed film criticism? As a guy who reads criticism all day every day as a job, I find that hard to believe. The recession has hurt film criticism, the collapse of traditional print media has hurt film criticism, the urge to write about and judge movies before they’ve even come out has hurt film criticism, audiences’ and journalists’ endless fascination with box office numbers as some kind of reflection of a movie’s quality has hurt film criticism, but none of these things have killed it. There are more places to read criticism — smart, in-depth criticism that bears little to no visible “Siskel & Ebert” influence — right now than there ever was in any mythological, idealized past.

Houvouras is far from the first person to blame “Siskel & Ebert” for the death of film criticism. He’s not even the first to compare them to McDonald’s; Richard Corliss did both in a Film Comment essay entitled “All Thumbs” back in 1990. Back then — back when Sarris and Kael were still on the beat, back when every newspaper in the country still had its own film critic (back when there still were newspapers in this country) — Corliss wondered if there was a future for film criticism in a world where people want “McNuggets” instead of meals. Ebert wrote an effective response in the next issue of Film Comment, but the best argument I’ve read against Corliss’ piece is the one published 17 years later in Time Magazine called “Thumbs Up For Roger Ebert.” Its conclusion:

“No one has done as much as Roger to connect the creators of movies with their consumers. He has immense power, and he’s used it for good, as an apostle of cinema. Reading his work, or listening to him parse the shots of some notable film, the movie lover is also engaged with an alert mind constantly discovering things — discovering them to share them. That’s what a great teacher does, and what Roger’s done as a writer, public personality and friend to film for all these years.”

That quote’s author: Richard Corliss, of course.

In the years between Corliss’ two pieces, and between Corliss’ second piece and Houvouras’ essay, criticism didn’t die. It just changed, like so many other facets of our lives. And by inspiring people to think, talk about, and most importantly to love and care about movies, Siskel and Ebert helped change it for the better. If you think criticism is dead, the problem isn’t criticism. The problem is you. You’re reading and listening to the wrong people.

Read more of “Two Thumbs Down: How Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert Killed Film Criticism.”

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