The Video Store Days #10: Siskel & Ebert

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert played a huge part in my life and my appreciation of film. Today, I am taking a look back at my time with the show and how they impacted my life.

When I was a kid, my love for films started to grow at a pace faster than I, or my parents, ever thought it would. Films and I were becoming quite fond of each other and my parents wanted to nurture this bond, so my father introduced me to SISKEL & EBERT.

For those who don’t know: SISKEL & EBERT was a television show where Gene Siskel, movie reviewer for the Chicago Tribune, and Roger Ebert, movie reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times, reviewed that week’s new theatrical releases. The show started on PBS (channel 11 in Chicago) before moving to ABC (channel 7 in Chicago) after the show was purchased by Disney (who buy everything). The show ran for 30 minutes and would cover 5-6 new films every week.

This show was perfect for me as I need something to channel my love for film and what could be better than two movie reviewers?

So, every Saturday night at 6:30pm, my father and I would sit down and watch SISKEL & EBERT. We would be on the lookout for films that we could watch together and films that we could watch separately. We would watch as these two guys would argue about the merits of the films that they disagreed on and champion the films that they loved. A “thumbs up” from SISKEL & EBERT translated to a film getting more exposure. There are a lot of films out there that people would not have heard about had it not been for the show. The “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” was actually trademarked by the show so no one else could use them.

My father would also buy me the Chicago Sun-Times every Friday so that I could read the latest Roger Ebert reviews and would leave me the Arts and Entertainment section from his Chicago Tribune (still subscribes to this day) so that I could read the latest Gene Siskel reviews.

My take on the two: I never really liked Gene Siskel. I thought that he took the movie reviewer job at the Tribune because it was something easy to do. His real passion was always sports and this is very evident during the two “threepeats” that the Chicago Bulls pulled off during the 90’s. Siskel was all over the air whenever the Bulls played and he loved being around the Bulls and basketball. I always viewed Siskel as a bully, someone who would “dox” filmmakers for making films that he did agree with. He “doxed” Betsy Palmer for being in the first FRIDAY THE 13TH film, giving out an old address, but doing it all the same. There was no reason for doing this other than having a hatred of slasher films and everyone involved with them. This happened during the entire “slasher boom” of the early 80’s. His hatred for films he disliked was something that always stuck with me. How could someone have this much hate for something that ultimately doesn’t matter in the long run? I try to this day to not have this much anger whenever I dislike a film. Sure, there are films that have no redeeming values whatsoever, but I am not going to try and find out where the filmmakers live to shame them for making a film that I didn’t like. That is just shameful.

Now, I know that there are people out there who will say that Siskel was a film lover, and I am not really doubting that. I am just saying that his real love was sports while films paid the bills.

As the years went on, I started to drift away from Siskel and focusing on Ebert more. Ebert definitely loved film and even wrote on (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS). Ebert was the one who helped hone my love of film. Reading his reviews, you could tell whether he liked a film or not, even without looking at the star rating. He hated films for sure, (his hatred of the FRIDAY THE 13TH series, and slasher films in general, was pretty legendary), but he also loved a lot of films and championed the ones that found a special place in his heart. I watched a ton of films that he would go on and on about, everything from JFK to ANGUS. Oh man, ANGUS. I will be talking about that film in a future The Video Store Days. I can’t say that I liked every film he recommended but I found more of an appreciation of film because of Ebert. Ebert was the one that turned me on to STRANGE DAYS which I talked about last week.

I met Ebert once. I had gotten advanced tickets for the CLASH OF THE TITANS remake from 2010. The screening was in downtown Chicago and I and my brother went down for that. While we were waiting outside the screening room, I decided to go out for a smoke. As I was entering the lobby, I saw Ebert. He was with a girl who was carrying some things for him. I stopped him and told him how much his love of film and his writings meant to me. He seemed genuinely pleased that he made someone happy. I shook his hand and asked if I could get a picture. This was after his surgeries that had gone wrong and parts of his jaw were removed. As soon as I said it, I knew that I was wrong and went to apologize. The girl he was with pulled me to the side and explained that he doesn’t do pictures anymore. I turned to him and apologized profusely. I felt so bad that I didn’t realize that he didn’t do pictures anymore. The girl told me it was ok and Ebert patted me on the shoulder. I could tell that he really wanted to but couldn’t. I said thank you as he walked away while giving me two thumbs up.

So, what does any of this have to do with The Video Store Days? Well, most of the films that Siskel and Ebert reviewed, I had to wait to come to home video to watch. There were the ones that I could go to the theater to see, but a majority of the films I saw on home video. In fact, if a film was reviewed positively by the duo, the line “Two Thumbs Up” would often grace the front of the video box. I watched a lot of films on VHS and that is due to Siskel and Ebert. I will go on to YouTube and watch a few episodes of their show every once in a while. It is a nice time capsule to when things were a bit easier and not everyone had a “love for film”. I can recommend going and finding some of the episodes.

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