Annie Berke: "When the Movies Mattered" (2024)

In 1999, when I was in ninth grade, I started writing movie reviews for my high school newspaper. I remember the uneasy mixture of pride and anxiety I felt when I saw, on the front page, the teaser for my first column: “Annie Berke’s Summer Movie Round-Up.” I worried someone would give me grief for the headline, but no one did, maybe because so few people read it. If they had, they would have seen how I praised The Mummy, a delightful romp for those who love action, giant bugs, and Rachel Weisz’s razor-thin eyebrows, and how I had less-fine words for The Talented Mr. Ripley, a film I found pretty but inscrutable.

All that I didn’t know about movies back then could fill numerous film studies syllabi now, including the ones I have written myself. But I did know one thing: movies were important. I imbibed this message from my parents’ shelves of VHS tapes, the TCM lineup in TV Guide, and the full-page movie ads that filled the arts section of the newspaper on Fridays. And I also learned it from two newspaper film critics turned unlikely TV stars: Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, whose story Matt Singer tells in Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel and Ebert Changed Movies Forever.

These days, Siskel and Ebert are best remembered for the thumbs up/thumbs down rating system they created (not least of all because they trademarked the phrase “two thumbs up” in 1986). But as Singer shows, their true legacy was pioneering a new kind of film criticism, staging accessible debates around aesthetic judgment, asserting unapologetically that art can and should matter to everyone. Together, Siskel and Ebert shaped a film culture in which people not only saw the same movies as their friends and neighbors but wanted to discuss what they had seen.

Even now, the Gene Siskel test holds weight: Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?

A certain generation of film writers, critics, and educators learned how to have these kinds of conversations from Siskel and Ebert, as well as from lightly cinephilic publications like Premiere Magazine (now defunct) and Entertainment Weekly (now online-only), which managed to produce loving, penetrating criticism under the auspices of corporate media. As Singer writes of the 1990s, “While the audience for ‘serious film criticism’ was still present, a far broader segment of the population was reading and watching movie talk more than ever.” So, it wasn’t just me—the movies really did matter more when I was a kid.

But the 1990s were a long time ago, or so I’m told. And today, as the profession of film criticism withers under the dual pressures of layoffs at magazines and newspapers and the rise of AI-generated authorship, the question has become: Is looking back at what Siskel and Ebert accomplished just a nostalgia trip, or does their work offer a possible way forward for criticism and perhaps even for moviegoing. Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Open palm, so-so gesture?

Opposable Thumbs has the arc of a classic Hollywood love story—or, perhaps, a buddy film. Siskel and Ebert began as competitors, working as film critics at the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago-Sun Times, respectively. But, just as much as they were bound to be rivals, they were also fated to be friends. They were, after all, two white, Midwestern men of a certain generation who loved pranks, harbored schoolboy crushes on actresses, and cherished their 1960s and ’70s touchstones like personal talismans.

More importantly, Siskel and Ebert were shaped by and, in turn, helped shape what many consider to be the golden age of film criticism, from the 1960s through the 1970s. Siskel, whose love of cinema was sparked by the 1964 Japanese art film Woman in the Dunes, came to criticism through journalism. He thought of himself as a reporter on “the national dream beat,” Singer writes, and believed that “movies were always about the macro.” In that sense, his approach fit comfortably with the ideology-focused critics and scholars of the 1970s, including Robert Sklar (Movie-Made America) and Molly Haskell (From Reverence to Rape).

Ebert, a self-taught cinephile, got his film education in Chicago’s revival movie houses. His textbooks, Singer writes, were Esquire critic Dwight Macdonald’s On Movies (1969), Andrew Sarris’s Interviews with Film Directors (1967), and Robert Warshow’s The Immediate Experience (1965), which included the legendary line, “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.”

Siskel and Ebert’s show, first called Opening Soon . . . at a Theater Near You, debuted in 1976 on Chicago’s public TV station WTTW, under the careful guidance of producer Thea Flaum. The test pilot, filmed a year earlier, had been awkward and stilted, the hosts inexperienced and disconnected from one another. But Flaum’s faith in the project, and her ability to convince Siskel and Ebert of its value, helped them gain not only local acclaim for the men but also, eventually, fame and fortune. The show became, Singer writes, the highest-rated half-hour show on all of PBS and then, under various names (including Sneak Previews and At the Movies), entered the syndication market, first as a public television series, then with Tribune Broadcasting in 1982, and finally with Buena Vista Entertainment (a Disney subsidiary) in 1986.

That is not to say the men’s initial transition from print journalists to TV personalities was a smooth one. Siskel and Ebert could be peaco*ckish and prickly on set, and Singer describes the pair as “difficult, iconoclastic, and perhaps even dysfunctional,” particularly at the beginning. But as their shared star ascended, a begrudging friendship and respect grew between them. The competitive tension remained on-screen, generating entertainment for audiences, while, in private, their rapport mellowed into something more teasing and fraternal.

Their disagreements were rooted in their differing critical approaches. As Singer puts it, “Gene loved to pit movies against each other to see which was the best; to see how a new favorite compared with the established classics in its genre.” Ebert, by contrast, thought doing a genre well was enough to merit praise.

What both critics shared, though, was an ability to pivot from assessing a single film or individual performance to placing it in the larger context of cinema history and analysis. That skill took the show from time capsule to timelessness. Even now, the Gene Siskel test holds weight: Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?

Siskel and Ebert also succeeded because they treated film criticism on TV as its own form. There had been TV film critics before them—most notably the Today show’s Judith Crist (who was so famously harsh that the director Otto Preminger dubbed her “Judas Crist”) and her dorky-dad successor, Gene Shalit. But Siskel and Ebert took the form to a new level. They learned to adapt their writing to the demands of television, crafting copy that was quick and to the point. By the 1980s, as they were segueing out of public television and into a broader, mainstream platform complete with commercial breaks, a typical review on the show would be only twenty sentences. Under those circ*mstances, it is a near-miracle that they still made time for banter alongside their distinct arguments about what film and film criticism should be.

Siskel and Ebert did more than write pithy copy. As Singer shows, they used the medium of television to do things that could not be done in print. In the 1970s, when studios were tightfisted about showing clips or images from outside the press kit, the two men successfully campaigned to show the precise moments and sequences that supported their arguments. In 1986, they aired an episode called “Colorizing: Hollywood’s New Vandalism,” in which they executed an effective hit job on the latest trend among Hollywood studios: taking black-and-white films from the archive and colorizing them. Siskel and Ebert made their case by showing the colorizations and heckling them mercilessly.

A few years later, they produced another special episode in which they critiqued studios for their practice of cropping images from old movies to suit theaters’ new screen dimensions. Singer describes how they showed the disastrous impact of what Disney had done to the animated classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs “by superimposing black bars over the top and bottom of a close-up of Ebert’s face.” Ebert then, Singer reports, said simply, “‘Shame on Disney!’ (the company sending him a paycheck every two weeks) for butchering their own masterpiece.”

As television personalities, Siskel and Ebert’s lexicon could never be as cool and literary as prose designed to be read, but, as Singer explains, these men saw their jobs a little differently from hipper critics like Andrew Sarris and The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael. For Siskel, to be a film critic was to be a journalist reporting on a fire—“only the fire,” Siskel explained, “is my reaction to the movie. And I jump off into that approach.” For Ebert, a critic was a teacher. “What we’re trying to do,” he would say, “is share everything we found out about the movies with people who are interested in that.” They provided an accessible, surprisingly rigorous film education to those watching.

I’m sure it was great fun to hang with Pauline Kael on Central Park West and let her pour poison in your ear. But At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert was a party that anyone could attend.

Reading Singer’s book made me wistful, in part for being fourteen, when I felt knowledgeable because I’d worked my way through the romantic comedy shelf at my town’s Blockbuster. But what it really made me miss was the kind of public conversation that came with everyone seeing the same movies and holding referendums on them, a conversation over culture that was built on spirited debate and conducted in better (if not good) faith. Nostalgia is dangerous; I have not forgotten the culture wars of my youth, the Tipper Goreof it all. But while moralistic chatter around arts and entertainment is nothing new, there was a time when the internet wasn’t there to amplify it. It felt, to me at least, less loud. In an analog age, it was just one of many distinct frequencies to tune into.

Siskel and Ebert did more than write pithy copy. They used the medium of television to do things that could not be done in print.

More than that, Opposable Thumbs made me reflect on when the movies were a way to dissolve into the darkness with other people, instead of being just pieces of “content” to be consumed in stolen pockets of time. My own experiences aside, it was a time when studios and networks jockeyed for audiences’ hearts, minds, and thumbs, but not yet, not totally, for their monetized attention.

The subtitle of Singer’s book is How Siskel and Ebert Changed Movies Forever, but what these men really changed was how the public talked about movies. So it says something important that their brand of mainstream, popular cinematic conversation is not something media conglomerates (including those that own Hollywood studios) feel compelled to finance any more.

Of course, there are still great culture writers for the readers who seek them out. Angelica Jade Bastién, Phillip Maciak, and others carry on the vital tradition of film and television criticism. Meanwhile, videographic criticism—from YouTube to Vimeo, spotlit by the British Film Institute, even—brings together scholars and fans as they forge arguments using clips and audiovisual argumentation, a mode that nods to Siskel and Ebert’s enduring legacy. In some ways, there are more platforms than ever—Substacks, newsletters, podcasts, even old-school websites like Letterboxd—for great thinking and writing on film, suggesting that today there might be more Siskels and Eberts, as it were, than thirty years ago. But even as there remains demand for criticism in all its forms, the commercial support for it grows feebler by the day, with outlets closing and dubious management practices that champion ChatGPT flourishing. And the ability to make a living from savvy, informed takes on the culture is rapidly shrinking.

In 2008, Roger Ebert published the aptly titled essay, “‘Critic’ Is a Four Letter Word” on his website. He concludes: “If [our show] had any utility at all, it was in exposing viewers, many of them still children, to the notion that it was permitted to have opinions, and expected that you should explain them.” There are many writers today, including those at, who are keeping Ebert’s legacy alive. But the continued devaluation—literally—of stylish analysis and of the idea that movie criticism is something worth cultivating and actively bankrolling, threatens not only critics, but the moving images that inspire our boredom, ire, and devotion.

Annie Berke: "When the Movies Mattered" (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Van Hayes

Last Updated:

Views: 6437

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (46 voted)

Reviews: 93% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Van Hayes

Birthday: 1994-06-07

Address: 2004 Kling Rapid, New Destiny, MT 64658-2367

Phone: +512425013758

Job: National Farming Director

Hobby: Reading, Polo, Genealogy, amateur radio, Scouting, Stand-up comedy, Cryptography

Introduction: My name is Van Hayes, I am a thankful, friendly, smiling, calm, powerful, fine, enthusiastic person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.