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Two Thumbs Up: How Siskel and Ebert Inspired a Generation of Film Critics

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by Matt Singer
January 24, 2013 11:35 AM
20 Comments
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"Siskel and Ebert."

Seems like every week film criticism dies a new death. The latest murder suspects, according to Anghus Houvouras at Flickering Myth, are Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, whose iconic syndicated television series, he says, both "helped popularize film criticism" and directly contributed to its "deterioration as an art form."

Houvouras goes on to lay the blame for a lot of stuff at Siskel and Ebert's feet -- and their thumbs. Those four little digits, he says, and the ratings system they popularized ruined modern film discourse. "The information age," he writes, "has reduced everything to simple, definable value. And the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel." Siskel and Ebert's Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down ratings, he adds, did more than give a handy hook to their reviews: it destroyed an entire generation of critics:

"The real impact of this wasn't felt until well after Siskel passed away and the show faded from pop culture mainstay to a forgettable, oft repackaged mess. It was those influenced by Siskel and Ebert who stepped up and became the modern day film critics. The ones who launched websites, or in the early days took to BBS boards. These were the film critics of tomorrow. Average Joes who didn't learn about film in a classroom but from a video store. Analysts who dictated from a place of common sense and shed the traditional trappings of actual film criticism in favor of stripped down, frills fee approach. A generation of film and entertainment writers inspired by the fast food film criticism of 'Siskel & Ebert.'"

Yes, Houvouras also compares "Siskel & Ebert" to a McDonald's hamburger, "the reduction of food to its simplest state:"

"It has all the pieces: meat (supposedly), a bun, and some rudimentary fixings slapped together in a paper wrapper and mass produced for high quantity consumption. Siskel and Ebert reduced criticism to the same state. Simple, easy to understand, and palatable for the masses."

Which brings us to today, where, according to Houvouras:

"Once again there was a need for simplification. To cut through the clutter and place everything into a convenient easy package. Thus was born sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic and a popularization of the simple metric which has become commonplace on the sites and apps used by people to find films. Websites like Fandango, Moviefone, and Flixster."

So to recap: Siskel and Ebert's thumbs inspired people to take up film criticism, and they in turn had no respect for "the traditional trappings of actual criticism" and so they went to video stores rather than schools to learn about movies, and then they started Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic and ruined criticism forever.

This sort of argument infuriates me, and, admitedly, part of the reason is personal -- Houvouras' article isn't so much an attack on Siskel and Ebert (who he admits he used to watch) as an attack on me and any other "modern day film critics" who were inspired to get into this field because they watched and loved the show. In fairness, Houvouras isn't entirely inaccurate in his characterization of "Siskel & Ebert" as a television show. It was criticism for the masses, and it did spur people to consider film studies as a career path. It certainly spurred me.

But did it really inspire people to abandon "the traditional trappings of actual criticism?" (Also: what are "the traditional trappings of actual criticism?") Houvouras seems to think you can't learn about film in a video store (no one tell this to Quentin Tarantino) and implies film critics must be taught in a classroom. But Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris and most of the great writers who I presume were the practitioners of the "traditional trappings" were never taught in the classroom -- they learned by going to the movie theater or watching the late show on television. Modern film studies programs didn't exist at the college level until the late 1960s and early 1970s, where enrollment was no doubt fueled by the popularity of Sarris and Kael -- and later, Siskel and Ebert. There are a lot of amateur film critics on the Internet. But thanks to programs at NYU, USC, UCLA, Columbia, Yale, University of Chicago, University of Iowa, and many, many morethere are also more trained film critics now than there ever were in the past.

Comparing "Siskel & Ebert" to McDonald's isn't wildly off base, but I see it differently. I look at the show more like cigarettes: the gateway drug to the heroin that is the wider world of film criticism. First I got hooked on "Siskel & Ebert," then I got into the stronger stuff. Certainly, "Siskel & Ebert" wasn't the most profound form of film criticism, but without it, it's very possible I (and a lot of people) would have never discovered Sarris and Kael and Bazin and Agee and Farber and Hoberman and all the rest.

It's also worth noting that while your average review on "Siskel & Ebert" was never all that in-depth -- five or six minutes in the early days, as little as three or four in the later years -- the show often put aside its traditional clips and crosstalk format for half-hour specials on specific topics from the world of cinema. Siskel and Ebert were the first people to explain to me why colorization of black and white movies was bad, and what you were missing when you watched pan-and-scan videos. They devoted episodes to filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Spike Lee and took on controversial topics like the MPAA ratings system. There was a lot more to "Siskel & Ebert" than two sets of thumbs.

But even if there hadn't been, can we really blame them for every single development in film criticism (and, apparently, most of Internet communication) that's happened in their wake? Did Siskel and Ebert invent the idea of one person telling another whether they should see a film or not? Critics serve many functions; consumer guide is one of them. True, "thumbs up" is a crude, blunt way of recommending a film. But is it such a horrible concept if it encourages people to seek out movies they would otherwise avoid? How many independent or foreign films succeeded at the box office because of "Two Thumbs Up?" Siskel and Ebert may have been the McDonald's of film criticism, but if you were really paying attention to what they were talking about and took their recommendations seriously, they would have introduced you to some very adventurous cinema -- the filmic equivalent of a molecular gastronomic feast.

I feel the same way about Twitter, which Houvouras dismisses as "the reduction of complex thought into 140 characters" where "film criticism continues to die one tweet at a time." Again, Twitter -- like the Internet, like anything -- is what you make of it. It puts limits on length but not on reach, and in its first few years of existence it has mobilized critics to champion films that might have gotten lost in the shuffle without it. A few months ago, critic David Ehrlich began tweeting up a storm in support of a tiny film he loved called "Girl Walk // All Day." After he wouldn't shut up about it, I watched it myself -- for free, legally, on the film's website (the Internet, it seems, is not entirely devoid of redeeming value for cinephiles). I loved it, and began recommending it myself. It wound up on my top ten list, and I encouraged the listeners of my Filmspotting: SVU podcast to watch it themselves. In the days that followed, I received countless thank you notes from appreciative listeners who fell madly in love with a movie they never would have heard about if not for Twitter.

You can blame Siskel and Ebert for Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic if you want -- although Metacritic's numerical rating system doesn't actually reflect the insidious "binary theory" that the two Chicago critics supposedly invented, but whatever. Even if they did, has that killed film criticism? As a guy who reads criticism all day every day as a job, I find that hard to believe. The recession has hurt film criticism, the collapse of traditional print media has hurt film criticism, the urge to write about and judge movies before they've even come out has hurt film criticism, audiences' and journalists' endless fascination with box office numbers as some kind of reflection of a movie's quality has hurt film criticism, but none of these things have killed it. There are more places to read criticism -- smart, in-depth criticism that bears little to no visible "Siskel & Ebert" influence -- right now than there ever was in any mythological, idealized past.

Houvouras is far from the first person to blame "Siskel & Ebert" for the death of film criticism. He's not even the first to compare them to McDonald's; Richard Corliss did both in a Film Comment essay entitled "All Thumbs" back in 1990. Back then -- back when Sarris and Kael were still on the beat, back when every newspaper in the country still had its own film critic (back when there still were newspapers in this country) -- Corliss wondered if there was a future for film criticism in a world where people want "McNuggets" instead of meals. Ebert wrote an effective response in the next issue of Film Comment, but the best argument I've read against Corliss' piece is the one published 17 years later in Time Magazine called "Thumbs Up For Roger Ebert." Its conclusion:

"No one has done as much as Roger to connect the creators of movies with their consumers. He has immense power, and he's used it for good, as an apostle of cinema. Reading his work, or listening to him parse the shots of some notable film, the movie lover is also engaged with an alert mind constantly discovering things — discovering them to share them. That's what a great teacher does, and what Roger's done as a writer, public personality and friend to film for all these years."

That quote's author: Richard Corliss, of course.

In the years between Corliss' two pieces, and between Corliss' second piece and Houvouras' essay, criticism didn't die. It just changed, like so many other facets of our lives. And by inspiring people to think, talk about, and most importantly to love and care about movies, Siskel and Ebert helped change it for the better. If you think criticism is dead, the problem isn't criticism. The problem is you. You're reading and listening to the wrong people.

Read more of "Two Thumbs Down: How Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert Killed Film Criticism."

20 Comments

  • Tim | January 26, 2013 11:39 AMReply

    >what are "the traditional trappings of
    >actual criticism?"

    Clearly, if one reads the comments on another Roger Ebert blog page, they include "not giving away the ending."

  • Roger Ebert | January 26, 2013 10:50 AMReply

    There's some truth in the article. Gene and I were always trying to get away with a waggling "horizontal thumb," and people say I give way too many three-star reviews. In print, I'm saddled with the ridiculous four-star rating system, which forces me into choosing between 3 (fair) and 2.5 (niot so good). At least with 5 stars there is a true middle, 2.5. Why do I give stars? The paper is committed to them, the competition use them, etc. In the early days we attacked bad movies with Spot the Wonder Dog. Oh, we knew how it looked. "I doubt, Gene would say, "Pauline would work on TV with a trained dog."
    Woody Allen once told me, maybe 20 or more years ago, "None of my movies has ever opened south of the Mason-Dixon Line." Hyperbole, but when our show started in 1976, we had so many responses from people saying, "Thank you for telling me about movies that never even open in my state." We didn't foresee the VCR, which revolutionized how people could access films.
    I think our show had something to do with opening people to the idea of more indie, foreign, documentary, unusual films. There's that story about how "My Dinner with Andre" was scheduled to close after one week in New York. On that Thursday night, we reviewed it and we loved it, and the movie sold out at its 10 p.m. screening and went on to run for more than a year.
    Most of my work has been done in print. I may have the largest number of reviews by a single critic on the web. In 2012 I reviewed more than 300 films. Not all of those reviews were great, but they included a lot of smaller titles. Here in Chicago, I've reviewed as many films as I've been able that open at places like the Music Box, Landmark, the Siskel Center, Facets Cinematheque, etc. My paper doesn't care if I skip them—and sometimes I'm forced to. But God love the Sun-Times, if I write a review they'll run it. Example: The Russian film "Silent Souls" which comes out on DVD today. How many papers gave that 650 words?
    Gene and I defended the show in two ways. (1) We tell people these special films exist. We would review them side by side with blockbusters. (2) We demonstrated that it was okay to have opinions, disagree, and defend them. Too many people passively process films. The thumbs at the very least were propaganda for having an opinion and arguing it. Kids were doing it in grade school.
    Gene told me he took his daughters to a Disney film. One (she is now a poet of some acclaim) said, "Daddy, I didn't like it." Gene told her, "Honey, you've just made me the proudest father in the world."

  • anghus | January 25, 2013 3:41 PMReply

    Matt,

    Good post. I'm never under the impression my insights or opinions are the only valid take on a subject and its hard to argue the points that others have made that Siskel and Ebert did a lot for broadening people's appreciation for film by introducing foreign and independent films to mainstream America.

    And i didn't mean to imply in my original article that you couldn't learn about film from a video store, just that the majority of critics these days are more likely to be schooled in film from a video store rather than a university or experience in the film industry. Wasn't intended as a judgement, just an observation. The response i've gotten to the column has been odd because if you read the article, you won't find a lot of judgements or condemnations. And yet i keep getting people asking me "Why do you hate Roger Ebert?"

    And yes, ive read plenty of Ebert reviews over the years. And the assertion that i'm trying to "take Ebert down" (from the comments section) is ridiculous. I've got nothing against Ebert or Siskel, God rest his soul. I used to eagerly watch the show like everyone else, Sunday nights at 11:30pm after the local news. The column i wrote isn't a hit piece. Just a lot of observations about the genesis of criticism in the wake of the popularization of the format. I can't disagree with Mr. Singer: They inspired a generation of critics. I'm just debating what exactly the product of that inspiration was.

  • JoeS | January 24, 2013 2:54 PMReply

    This is an old argument (as Singer points out). And, let's face it, a version of Rotten Tomatoes would have existed no matter if Siskel & Ebert had ever had a TV show or not.

    More importantly, folks have to realize that before S&E, anybody outside of a big city had very limited exposure to Foreign, Indie and Documentary films. Even if you hated their "thumbs", you were at least exposed to movies that existed outside of the multiplex.

    And, to blame S&E for the dumbing down of film criticism has never read what passes for criticism in most daily newspapers (particularly suburban ones where the so-called "film critic" may have been writing obits or home styling tips the week before). If read Ebert's criticism it certainly holds up against the writings of the vast majority of his contemporaries (and Siskel's archived work is often quite good as well).

  • Joe | January 24, 2013 2:38 PMReply

    edit: I know several people who give serious credence to the numerical scores given BY these aggregating sites as reliable indicators of something approaching "objective" quality, which is the height of absurdity to me.

  • Joe Z. | January 24, 2013 2:32 PMReply

    I love Siskel and Ebert but I definitely agree with what he is arguing against, ie the simplification of film criticism/appreciation/assessment to convenient, quantified variables with sites like Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes, and IMDB. I know several people who give serious credence to the numerical scores given to these aggregating sites as reliable indicators of something approaching "objective" quality, which is the height of absurdity to me. "It's only an 86%, how could it be 'brilliant'?". "It's not an 8, it's clearly a 7.6!". Or even, "it's ranked so low on X site, how good could it be?". Imagine a similar approach given to other art-forms? "Jackson Pollock is over-rated, he never painted anything above a 9.2!". This mentality is the antithesis of how art should be appreciated in my mind, and it definitely makes it harder for riskier, more unconventional, and more polarizing works to achieve broader success and recognition.

  • Pete | January 26, 2013 1:14 PM

    err divisive.

  • Pete | January 26, 2013 1:13 PM

    Point well made. A film that get's half 100 reviews and half 0 reviews would be rated the same as a film that gets all 50 reviews. And a decisive film is quite different than a "meh" film.

    I personally use ratings on sites to find stuff I may have missed, so it plays a part in curating my media viewing experience, but just a part. It's usually to find, not to decide. I also use sites like metacritic after watching a film, to find reviewers who share a similar opinion, as these might be reviewers who share similar tastes and point me to other films I'd like.

    I'd say the only problem I have with "two thumbs up" is it's use in film promotion, especially if that's all that's used. It tells me two people (who I admire) liked the film, and nothing else. As an example, my brother went to "My Dinner With Andre," because of the positive ads, but failed to look into whether he'd want to watch a film with the least amount of action possible. He called it the worst movie he's ever seen. Those three words should have led him to Ebert's 800 word review of the film instead.

  • Gordon | January 24, 2013 2:25 PMReply

    Matt, no need to feed the trolls.

    This troll is just copying a different troll, the infamous Armond White, who went into this "Roger Ebert destroyed film criticism" crap on the /Film podcast a couple of years ago (I'd link to it but your website won't let me). All of these Ebert haters wish they had a body of work as considerable as his. Instead, they're worlds away and trying to take him down. Good luck with that.

  • Rhonda Jaworski | January 24, 2013 12:46 PMReply

    Dreadful article by Mr. Singer, but we've come to expect this kind of glossy, wannabe writing from him. The television show Siskel & Ebert did ruin film criticism. Up to that point, most good and important reviews were printed and read and they were by people who knew films, Kael, Sarris, Crist, etc. Then these two television bozos arrived and propogated their thumbs up/down stupidity on the masses. After Siskel died, the show got even worse when the terrible Richard Roeper showed up with his vanilla commentaries and Grade C ingelligence. He was a bigger wanna be than Singer is today. It's good that the show is off the air. Everyone has an opinion about movies, but not everyone can express those opinions well. Singer certainly can't. He seems to drool over fame and craves attention. Siskel and Ebert democratized movie criticism, which in this case is not a good thing.

  • Pete | January 26, 2013 12:04 PM

    "He seems to drool over fame and craves attention." - insightful film critic critic

    I've seen Matt drool a few times, but it was never over fame. Usually over a turkey sandwich or a good pizza. Maybe you think that because he's interviewed celebrities in his line of work he's somehow a poser looking for an "in?" As for seeking attention, I believe that's one of the goals of writing in media.

  • Anne B. | January 24, 2013 2:05 PM

    This is a grossly misinformed statement. I wish you knew more about Matt Singer's work and education (MA Cinema Studies, NYU), as well as the incisive kind of thinking Ebert is capable of, seemingly effortlessly. As this stands now, you sound not only ignorant, but just plain mean. I'd say the real detriment of internet criticism is that it opens comment threads like this one where insecure people like yourself are inadvertently encouraged to leave glib, often cruel sentiments in a thoughtful story's wake, and with no consequence. Is that the legacy you want to leave behind? Ebert, if nothing else, leaves us with a great sense of his love for the movies. Matt Singer garners as much enthusiasm. And your mean remarks here are what you have left. I wonder how you feel about that.

    All the same, that you are so put-upon to read his criticism, that you, my love, have deigned to read Matt Singer from your lofty perch, I dare say, stop punishing yourself. Just go. Happy trails to you. You do not have to visit his website.

  • Luke | January 24, 2013 1:53 PM

    Really? Stop reading him, then, RHON-DUH!

  • Jim | January 24, 2013 12:44 PMReply

    Great and Spirited post.
    All though Siskel and Ebert weren't perfect. They were always very nasty to the Horror Genre. Especially in the early 80's when it was having a peak time period. I agree with Matt they did do alot of good. If you look at any great critic there are always problems with some of there reviews and theories. Kael didn't like Star Wars or Jaws and her reviews of both aren't really that great. But she's still a great critic. Houvouras isn't looking at Siskel and Ebert in terms of the whole picture. He's boiling them down to simple digestible terms. Much like what McDonalds does with Hamburgers.

  • Mr. Movie | January 24, 2013 12:34 PMReply

    This writer doesn't know the first thing about Siskel and Ebert. I grew up in Chicago reading Siskel and Ebert in their respective newspapers. Ebert was the first film critic to ever win a Pulitzer Prize and I believe only one of two to win it EVER. He is truly one of the great American writers and essayists of the second half of the century. Ebert has cranked out book after book of long, thought, insightful film criticism. Long before Siskel and Ebert, critics used stars, typically on a scale of 1 to 4 or 1 to 5 to measure their reaction to a movie. Thumbs up/Thumbs down merely an extension of that system. It worked, but it was only one way these guys used to do criticism. They were the best and no one will ever come close to matching them.

  • Shawn Levy | January 25, 2013 2:03 AM

    Pulitzers for criticism have, since Ebert's victory, gone to Stephen Hunter, Joe Morgenstern and Wesley Morris, all film critics.

  • Mike McGranaghan | January 24, 2013 12:18 PMReply

    The quote that got me was when the guy said modern-day film criticism has become "simple, easy to understand, and palatable for the masses." By that measure, one can assume he thinks it *should* be complex, difficult to understand, and esoteric/elitist. Given that films are made for consumption by the public, this assertion is ridiculous. To me, the beauty of modern day film criticism is that you can find whatever you want. If you want to read a scholarly, Masters level thesis on a film, you can read a critic who writes that way. If, on the other hand, you want to get a different take on a movie from someone who comes off more like one of your knowledgable film-buff friends, you can read someone who takes that approach. There's nothing inherently wrong with either of them, and we're lucky to have a wide variety of critical styles from which to choose.

  • Mitch | January 26, 2013 1:30 PM

    I appreciate your point here. The wide variety of criticism styles is something to be appreciated. What some will call the "good stuff" i.e. more academic reviews, is still out there, along with a bunch of garbage from individuals without observation or writing skills, along with everything in between. It's just like YouTube; just because everyone has access to some version of production and distribution means, doesn't mean that we stop going to the cinema. And it doesn't mean the "high quality stuff" in film/video doesn't stand out when it comes along. With film criticism, we just have to know where to look to find the reviews that our useful for our purposes. And hope that our media can discern whose opinions are worth publishing. I personally appreciate a critic like Ebert who, while clearly skilled enough to do highly academic readings of a film, takes the time to convey the human reaction to a film and ultimately help me decide if a film will be enjoyable. I can read/write a thesis some other time regarding the director's use of specific camera shots to comment on post-war social and economic gender inequalities.

  • Dan | January 24, 2013 11:44 AMReply

    has*

  • Dan | January 24, 2013 11:44 AMReply

    Great write-up. And had this guy that's complaining ever actually read an Ebert review? Or just watched the show? Because Ebert's written reviews are almost always totally insightful and full of great, detailed writing.

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