Time was, folks would get into a lather about the simplistic thumbs-up, thumbs-down method of cinematic analysis practiced by film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on their little TV movie-review show. Ebert, movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, and Siskel, who filled the same position at the town’s rival paper, the Chicago Tribune, debuted on PBS in 1978. Under the title Sneak Previews, the duo’s half hour became one of PBS’ highest-rated shows — in no small part because, like that other halcyon PBS hero, chef Julia Child, Ebert and Siskel were unusual but natural TV personalities.
Neither was conventionally handsome (a polite way of saying Ebert often looked as if he had to be shoehorned into his movie-theater seat, while the chrome-domed Siskel resembled an antic accountant), but their genuine Chicago-newspaper competitiveness came through the screen. They had strong opinions and argued them in a far briefer amount of time than a writer would have to set forth an argument in print. The ”two thumbs up” shtick was at once their trademark and their burden, because some of the less intelligent newspaper editors in America mistakenly took Siskel and Ebert’s popularity to be a function of their like-it, don’t-like-it brevity, and commanded their ink-stained wretches to do the same in teeny paragraphs — a fate neither S. nor E. intended.
Some perspective is helpful: In the late ’70s, when the pair started their national broadcast, film criticism — helped along by other iconoclastic critics like Manny Farber and James Agee — had been brought to a pitch of both esteem and popularity by Pauline Kael, whose use of slangy, prickly eloquence to praise daring commercial films such as Taxi Driver, Nashville, and Last Tango in Paris made the movie beat seem like a noble calling. (If thousands of students devoted themselves to investigative journalism because of the example set by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate dispatches, it’s likely that an equal number of film curates pursued periodical-based parishes to spread the movie-love gospel that Kael preached from the high-church pulpit of the New Yorker magazine.)
Ebert (himself heavily influenced by Kael early on, and the only recipient of a Pulitzer Prize who can also boast helping director Russ Meyer further realize his big-bazoom fetishism by penning the script to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) and Siskel (whose hairline bore the tonsure of a monk, even if his prose never read like that of a Kael devotee) took their act into syndication in 1982 and, under various titles, kept the show rolling until Siskel’s untimely death at the age of 53 in 1999.
After some months spent fixing Ebert up on awkward blind dates with various movie critics and opinionated print generalists, he and the producers found him a mate in Ebert’s backyard. Thus Richard Roeper, a youngish columnist and occasional movie critic for the Sun-Times, now occupies Siskel’s seat, and the show is renamed Ebert & Roeper and the Movies.
The format is the same. Ebert says he finds, say, the cheerleader comedy Bring It On to be mere pom-pom fluff, and Roeper says huffily, ”Well, I liked [it]!” His huffs aren’t as tough as Siskel’s were — Roeper’s slender thumb doesn’t carry the authority of a man who, at the very least, had sat through more movies in one year, good and bad, than most of us will see in a lifetime. There’s a lot to be said for having a basis for comparison, and Roeper’s judgments so far — ”There’s nobody else like Danny DeVito,” he enthused recently — don’t fill me with confidence even as consumer guidance. When Richard Roeper tells me that the foreign film Sunshine is ”a movie for grown-ups,” this grown-up doesn’t start scanning the paper for the local art house, if only because I’ve heard that hackneyed phrase used by a thousand hacks about a thousand movies. That’s something that also counts: a varied vocabulary.
Roeper can’t help what he looks like, but I also can’t help thinking that one reason he got this job is that he fits a type that TV producers currently have a hankering for: the hunk with a facility for rattling off chunks of verbiage — a post-boomer who recites his devotion to art but who looks like he spends more time in the gym than in theaters. (The most emblematic example of this is the sweater burster who’s been taking work away from George Clooney’s dad introducing movies on the American Movie Classics channel. I’m sorry, but whenever this guy John Burke starts telling me how crucial John Ford was to cinema history, I snort, ”Ahh, you couldn’t pick out Walter Brennan from Ward Bond in a lineup, ya punk!” Or sometimes I just snort.)
I can understand Ebert’s desire to keep the franchise alive, and — to give Roeper the benefit of the doubt — I’m aware it takes a while to settle into one’s on-screen persona. But let’s get this Roeper lad into movie shape: less knee-jerk positivity and more Negative Space (Manny Farber’s collected movie criticism)! Fewer barbells and more buttered popcorn! C