Film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel wanted to knock each other’s block off frequently on their TV show, as shown in the provocative documentary Life Itself, that’s just been released.
But their unique chemistry will always be missed, I think, because they brought to the screen two very different (and often opposing) approaches to the art of reviewing.
Ebert was the objective critic who emphasized reason over personal opinion. He never gave thumbs-up to a movie without offering evidence — images, themes, plot, dialogue, etc. — to support his argument.
Siskel was the subjective one. He used the “I” voice a great deal, as if to say that personalizing a movie was the only way to view it critically. Siskel saw himself as a kind of Everyman who didn’t need to prove his point — after all, if he liked something, it had to be good.
So Siskel might say, “I was impressed by the director’s decision to … ” or “I laughed out loud in the scene where … ” or “I hated it when she ….”
Whereas Ebert might say, “the suspense builds when he …. ” or “she’s in love because … ” or “a strong foundation is laid early when ….”
Of the dozens of great examples you can find on YouTube, a favorite of mine is the navy courtroom drama, A Few Good Men, Ebert turned thumbs-down on the film because, he said, “the script fatally undermines the key scene in the whole movie.” His evidence: Tom Cruise’s character tells us exactly how he’s going to trap the bad guy (played by Jack Nicholson) before Nicholson takes the stand.
“Now why would a screenplay give away a surprise like that?” Ebert asked. “Why didn’t they figure we were smart enough to see the courtroom scene and figure out for ourselves what it was Cruise was trying to do, and then see if Nicholson falls for it or not?”
Siskel conceded that A Few Good Men was “a predictable movie” but gave it thumbs-up anyway. “The screenplay was surprising for what it didn’t do,” which he found delightful: This movie brought together two gorgeous Hollywood actors, Tom Cruise and Demi Moore, whose characters don’t fall in love or end up in bed. Watching Ebert try to hide his revulsion over what he saw as indulgent and foolish on Siskel’s part is half the fun.
Sometimes Ebert got so personally offended by a movie that he sounded more subjective than Siskel. This was the case with Blue Velvet, a controversial film that was called “a masterpiece” by some and “sick and depraved” by others.
Siskel took his Everyman approach to the film by saying he was thrilled by the movie’s sexually kinky, often perverted theme. “I sat there and this (movie) did for me … what Psycho did when I was a lot younger, which is, ‘eyes open and oh, my god, we’re really getting in over our heads.’ And that’s an experience which is challenging, shocking, but mesmerizing. And I liked the picture.”
Ebert blasted Blue Velvet for being “cruelly unfair to its actors.” He criticized director David Lynch for “asking [the star] Isabel Rossellini to be undressed and humiliated on the screen as few actresses ever have been, certainly in non porno roles.”
Siskel scoffed at this, saying that Isabel Rossellini was a big girl who could get over any embarrassment she felt from the movie, just as Janet Leigh had after the shower scene in Psycho.
Ebert believed that at the very least, the director was inconsistent. By the end, “[Lynch] tries to take the edge off [Rosselini’s] shocking scenes by turning the whole thing into some kind of a joke. Well, either this material is funny, in which case you don’t take advantage of your stars, or it isn’t funny, in which case it shouldn’t have so much campy and adolescent dialog along with the really powerful sexual scenes.”
In a dismissive tone that makes you realize why he could irritate Ebert so easily, Siskel intimated that a critic’s job is to review the movie, not worry about the actors’ or viewers’ reactions.
“We can’t divorce our reactions,” Ebert said hotly. “It’s not how Isabel Rosselini reacts to the fact she’s standing there nude and humiliated on the lawn of the police captain’s house with lots of people watching. It’s how I react, and that’s painful to me to see a woman treated like that, and I want to know that if I’m feeling that pain, it’s for a reason the movie has, other than simply to cause pain to her” (my italics).
Wow. It’s tempting at this point to think of Roger Ebert as a budding feminist rather than an objective critic, but then, his use of the “I” voice refers less to himself or the audience and more to the integrity of the movie. To Ebert’s mind, every viewer has the right to demand that a film tell us which way it’s going to go — from cheap manipulation to creative vision — especially when the emotions we feel because of that movie are painful. If the director is going to equivocate around and debase his actors for no artistic reason, everyone should be infuriated.
Ebert wrote more than 20 books in his lifetime, but I think he’ll be remembered as a true film scholar with a genius for critical conversation. Siskel had a gift for talking about the movies, too, but he never reached as high or took as many risks as Ebert did. It was only when the two were sniping and griping at each other that they hit a nerve between art and commerce, and then we all got to pitch in.