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The Semiotics of ‘Siskel & Ebert’

The Semiotics of 'Siskel & Ebert'

In a fascinating essay that’s part personal reminiscence and part theoretical deconstruction, the A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky delves into the history of Siskel and Ebert’s “At the Movies,”  including his role as one of the show’s final co-hosts. Vishnevestky was only 24 when he was picked by Ebert and his wife, Chaz, to occupy the seat across the aisle from the Associated Press’ Christy Lemire on “Ebert Presents at the Movies.”

Vishnevetshy was, he admits, “alternately manic and smug” at first, and he takes his share of the blame for “Ebert Presents'” eventual failure. (The headline “I Killed ‘At the Movies'” is a bit much.) But in examining why the show succeeded for so long, even surviving the death of Roger Ebert’s indispensable sparring partner, Gene Siskel, and his replacement with the comparatively lightweight Richard Roeper, Vishnevetsky digs deep into the semiotics of television itself. TV producers, he says, “talk a lot of theory — mostly semantics and pragmatics — though they couch it in the soft, slippery language of viewer feelings…. The whole business of readability, which treats the show as text, smacks of unwitting academia.”

Vishnevestky is not the first to parse “Siskel & Ebert” as a sitcom about two guys in a movie theater. But he enlarges that observation with his behind-the-scenes insights, examining how every detail, from the set to the iconic “Thumbs Up” rating system, was designed to establish and sustain that frame.

The balcony set (ours was in the original “Sneak Previews” studio, WTTW) is much smaller than it looks, designed around the old principle of forced perspective…. The wide shot of the screen is recorded separately, since the cameras usually sit in the space where the lower level of the theater (actually a digital matte) is supposed to go.

The director is Don DuPree, a seemingly ageless Southerner with a taste for bespoke shirts and chunky wristwatches; he has been directing these shows since the early ’90s. Despite having overseen hundreds of episodes of “Siskel & Ebert” and “Ebert & Roeper,” Don is not a movie buff, which makes him the team’s ultimate authority on what is and isn’t engaging. Crosstalks — the unscripted back-and-forths which are the core of the show — are judged on their ability to pique non-moviegoer Don’s interest. He works from the control room, along with Chaz Ebert, who effectively runs the show.

Everything, in other words, is designed to sustain the narrative frame, and to reinforce the show’s relationship to its viewers — everything except the reality of hosting the show, a fragmented process full of teleprompter reads, booming intercoms, and white-hot lights. One inevitably develops an appreciation for Siskel, Ebert, and Roeper as actors, able to remain in-character despite flubs and technical snafus, and to read the teleprompter and then improvise an argument in the same voice.

What eventually killed the show, Vishnevetsky suggests, is not (just) his performance as a host — which, to be fair, wasn’t really wasn’t all that bad — but the transition from a culture where critics served as cultural guides and one where they’re islands in a rushing tide of opinion and commentary:

The theory goes that, in order to hook a TV viewer, they must be convinced that they’re in on the show. You continually summarize and re-cap. The secret to hooking an online reader is to make them think that they’re being left out of some larger phenomenon, and the only way to rectify this is to click right here, right now.

The two media work off social anxiety; TV cools it, and the click cycle stokes it.

I’m not sure I entirely buy this — explainer posts and aggregation sites, for one, soothe FOMO anxieties rather than heightening them — but it’s true that Ebert was the last critic to wield that kind of paternalistic influence, a writer of whom they could feel that if they’d heard his views on a movie, they knew what they needed to know. Maybe Vishnevestky was, as he says, the wrong man for the job, but when the job’s unofficial title is Be Roger Ebert, it’s pretty tough to nail the particulars.

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