Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever

Nov 8, 2023
Dimitris Passas

In today's ever-expanding online sphere of cultural criticism, the aphorism "Everybody is a critic now" rings as a timely and succinct description of the modern era. Matt Singer, the editor of ScreenCrush.com and current chair of the New York Film Critics Circle, offers his perspective on the subject in his latest work, Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever, a book that is brimming with historical awareness as the author takes a trip down memory lane to provide a comprehensive account of the two iconic figures in the field of film criticism and their joint TV project, which set the assessment criteria for the forthcoming generations of movie reviewers around the world. For 24 consecutive years (1975-1999), Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, both working as film critics in two of the most prominent newspapers in Chicago at the time (the Tribune and Sun-Times), locked horns in countless heated debates while debating the latest box office releases. The secret that lurked behind their unique chemistry, which was also the principal reason why the Siskel and Ebert show won over the American viewership, remains largely obscure and what is more striking is the established fact that they originally shared an immensely competitive relationship during their tenure in the newspaper industry. They were both contending for the crown of the most popular movie critic in town, and they tended to turn away their faces whenever they happened to meet in public spaces. Singer provides an extensive account of the show's beginnings and dwells, perhaps too much, on the controversy around the identity of the person who first conceived this new TV broadcast format, with both Siskel and Ebert crediting Thea Falum as the woman who succeeded in an impossible mission; convincing the two adversaries to work together in a newfound venture.

1975 was Ebert's banner year as he became the first film critic ever to win the Pulitzer Prize, a milestone achievement given that since then only 4 of his colleagues (Stephen Hunter, Joe Morgenstern, Mark Finney, and Wesley Morris, joined the elite group of movie experts who have achieved such an honor. It was in that same year that a new TV show aired its pilot, titled Opening Soon … at a Theater Near You, featuring two critics instead of one, which was the standard format until then, arguing in favor or against the new films hitting the theaters each week. Even though the Siskel and Ebert show would change various appellations during the following years (Sneak Previews, At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and finally just Siskel & Ebert), the fundamental recipe of the show remained intact as it was exclusively founded upon the contradicting personalities of the two hosts. Besides, conflict lies at the heart of any drama, and the international audiences are addicted to antipathy and discord as they provide the impetus for all forms of action. The idiosyncratic relationship between the two Chicago film critics earned them the collective nickname "Siskbert" and "placed them in the tradition of classic mismatched Hollywood duos like Laurel and Hardy". Their differences were even reflected in their contrasting physiques, and the majority of the show's fans labeled them "The Bald One" (Siskel) and "The Fat One" (Ebert).

The first airing of the show coincided with a major development in American cinema: during the 1970s, an array of new creators introduced their work to the masses through a "slew of films pushed the boundaries of mainstream cinema with stories full of mature themes, shocking sexuality, and frank depictions of violence and drug use". It was the age in which the blockbuster was born and the thirst for further analysis of the films that have rocked international audiences. The American film critic and academic Judith Crist, perhaps the most significant predecessor of Siskel and Ebert, concisely summarized that era as “the Age of the Critic, when cities across the nation were busily building more stately mansions known as cultural centers and Americans were responding with, ‘You’ve given me my culture, now tell me what to think of it." More than simply hunting for poll-like ratings in the likes of yes/no assessments, the American public relished in the dissection of notable films where each separate aspect of the production found its way into the larger jigsaw puzzle that included themes, style, atmosphere/mood, performances, etc. The titular "opposable thumbs" may refer to the legendary thumbs up or down system that Siskel and Ebert embraced in the mid-1980s , however that was of minor importance as they emphasized their lively dialogue that bore fruit each passing week, astutely instructing and initiating Americans into the secrets of filmmaking and the magic of make-believe business.

In his erudite study on the show that became an international pop culture sensation, Singer relays numerous anecdotes underscoring the simmering tension between Siskel and Ebert, and many of them are so whimsical that they put you in a light mood. The author promptly convinces the reader that there was not a single subject that would make the odd duo toe the same line, while their verbal sparring on-screen was one of the main attractions of the show. In Ebert's words: “If I don’t like a movie and [Gene] does, then I’m not saying that movie is flawed, I’m saying that he’s flawed.” A whole generation of Americans enjoyed witnessing Siskel and Ebert's eternal tug-of-war, which, nevertheless, most often led to the formulation of insightful arguments that enlightened cinema aficionados regarding film history and theory, thus educating the Americans who perceived the concept of cinema exclusively as another form of escapist entertainment Both the show's presenters identified cinema as a profound artistic experience appealing to all the human senses and managed to communicate that axiom to the audience during the course of nearly 25 years dominating the nation's small screen. A multitude of eminent filmmakers owe their popularity to the Siskel and Ebert dyad and the ultimate proof of their immense influence and reach in the world of cinema is the one and only book that they wrote together. The Future of the Movies contained the transcripts of interviews with M. Scorsese, S. Spielberg, and G. Lucas, with the 3 great directors musing on the shifting landscape of filmmaking and probed deep into the ramifications of new styles and techniques while making their predictions regarding the potential ramifications of these innovations.

Matt Singer Opposable Thumbs is mostly concerned with the question about the legacy left by Siskel and Ebert and the book's brazen subtitle (How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever) predicates the author's viewpoint with crystal clarity. The impact that the Siskel & Ebert show had on the subsequent generation of film critics and the future developments in television program formatting cannot, and should not, be overlooked. The onscreen collaboration between the two sworn enemies proved that the rivalry between two journalists working together could result in their improvement as individuals. As Ebert explicitly stated: “Our success is the fact that we are two individuals. If we were a team, the show wouldn’t be any good and we wouldn’t be very good as critics.” Their constant bickering was the meticulously concealed hook that attracted the audience's attention at the beginning but this was only a well-crafted technique to lure the masses in and then steer them into the distinctive aesthetics of a world of wonders. So, it is true that Siskel and Ebert turned criticism into mass entertainment, however this hadn't diminished the value and quality of their work. On the contrary, it led to what Singer calls "democratization of criticism" whose effects are yet to wane. The booming of online criticism created an army of professional, semi-professional, and amateur reviewers seeking a place under the sun, meaning outlets willing to publish their work.

What finally remains is the heritage of Siskel and Ebert's historical collusion that lasted for nearly 25 years : "they taught viewers that the movies, like all great art, is subjective. Beautiful and transformative though films might be, they are nothing without the discussions they inspire." The dyad's candor and love for film added to the overall sense of authenticity that the show exuded. They also employed gimmicks ("Dog of the Week") to entertain and enhance the comic element and special segments ("Buried Treasures) where they made the audiences aware of underrated older films, sometimes foreign, such as Monsieur Hire and Evil Under the Sun. In that way they reconciled genuine spiritual nourishment with playful fun without ever betraying their mission. That's the quintessence of their work both as a team but also as individuals and that's the lesson that all aspirant film critics should keep close to their hearts.

Singer had to re-watch two decades of the Siskel and Ebert show in order to complete this thorough study on how film criticism has become an inextricable part of American pop culture. Even though Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever is not flawless and loses some points by succumbing to verbosity in part, it remains a highly topical text in our era where "Everyone is a critic" as it traces the roots of movie reviewing by drawing a laudatory portrait of the field's pioneers. Even if some times Singer's book blurs the borderline between biography and hagiography, it's still worthy of your time and it will appeal to both movie-buffs and those who share an academic interest in film studies. But, above all, this is a book dedicated to all us, freelance or not, online writers and reviewers that includes several lessons to be learned.

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