What Can We Steal From the Work of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel?

Title of Work and its Form: At the Movies, film review program
Author: Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel (Roger Ebert is on Twitter at @ebertchicago.  Siskel, sadly, passed away in 1999.)
Date of Work: 196X – present?
Where the Work Can Be Found:  There is no longer an official portal to store assorted episodes of the programs Mr. Ebert and Mr. Siskel made together or with others.  There is, however, SiskelandEbert.org, a place where you can see many, many episodes.  Mr. Ebert has written many books, most of which are available at Amazon and his reviews and journal are available at his main site.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Creative Identity

Summary:
This is a somewhat out-of-the-ordinary Great Writers Steal essay.  Instead of looking at a single creative work, I intend to discuss what we can steal from Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on the whole.  In a way, I grew up with both men; I remember watching their show on PBS to learn about the movies that were coming out.  I also remember their appearances on The Critic and on many other programs.  For those hypothetical few who have no idea who I’m talking about, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert began as film critics in Chicago and eventually earned their way onto television reviewing films.  The men cared deeply for each other, but fought about movies with equal passion.  Siskel & Ebert became a famous duo because of their engaging discussions and their hook: each film got a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” from each critic.

The Critic and Jay Sherman were also a very important part of my intellectual development.

Criticism is a LOT more than simply telling folks whether or not you liked something or whether they should see the movie or read the book.  Mr. Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize because his work fulfills the much more complicated requirements of CRITICISM.  (Siskel fulfilled these requirements, too; like the rest of us, he just didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize.)  These include, but are not limited to:

  • Provide enough information so the reader knows what the work is about and who is in it and who made it
  • Orient the reader with respect to the work’s place in contemporary culture
  • Elucidate the themes of the work, both the ones intended by its creator and those unintended
  • Offer insight as to what is done well in the work and what is done poorly
  • Compare the work to others in the same genre
  • Evaluate the work with respect to the artist’s intentions, both fulfilled and unfulfilled

I suppose it’s meaningful to have someone you trust tell you whether or not you would like a movie, but what does such a recommendation really mean?  You won’t really understand the work on a deeper level until you involve yourself in the critical conversation surrounding the piece.  The same goes for your own writing.  I get it.  Sometimes, all you want is your significant other to finish your story and give you a hug and tell you that they loved everything about your work.  You won’t understand your stuff on a deep, meaningful level until you experience real criticism.  “Criticism” is not synonymous with “being a jerk” in this case.

Writers in any genre should see Mr. Ebert’s commentary on the Citizen Kane DVD.  It’s simply stunning.  Mr. Ebert has seen the film a thousand times and has spent countless hours thinking about the film and discussing it with others.  When you hear him talk about Kane, you gain insight into a great critical mind and into Welles’ great creative mind at the same time.

Writing is indeed a solitary pursuit; that’s why we create communities.  To improve your writing, you must make sure that you receive different but equally learned perspectives on your work.  Here’s a great example.  Gene Siskel was a smart man and knew more about movies than I’ll ever know.  But check out what he thought of Silence of the Lambs, one of the best movies ever.  Go to 8:38-ish.

That’s right; Mr. Siskel said the following about Silence of the Lambs: “I found it completely lacking in redemptive qualities and I sat there thinking, ‘Why are all these talented people involved in this project?’”  I suppose he makes some interesting criticisms of the film, even though I simply don’t agree.  Mr. Ebert gave Silence a “thumbs up” and later included the film in his “Great Movies” series.  Why not take a look at his original review and his Great Movies essay?

Another primary reason that Siskel and Ebert succeeded (and continue to be important) is that they branded themselves.  Think about the “hooks” present in the original partnership and in Mr. Ebert’s more recent efforts:

  • “Thumbs up”/“thumbs down”
  • The contrast in the physical appearances of Siskel & Ebert
  • Respectful, but passionate arguments
  • The movie balcony set
  • The theme song
  • Interest in a wide range of films and a deep understanding of film history

Mr. Siskel and Mr. Ebert were very smart because their program and other endeavors appeal to film nerds and the general public alike.  We’ve all heard about the “thumbs up” in relation to movies…it’s my understanding that Mr. Ebert owns the trademark.  (Good for him!)  All of these elements created a SISKEL AND EBERT brand that folks couldn’t get anywhere else.  Even though the pair were seemingly all over the place, they never sold out and never jeopardized their reputations as serious film critics.

An additional note: We all face challenges in life.  We are defined, of course, by the way we react to these challenges.  Mr. Ebert has famously had health problems over the past decade.  Various illnesses and surgeries have left Mr. Ebert unable to speak or eat.  I know enough about myself to know that I would not handle such obstacles with the same kind of grace.  We should all take a lesson from Mr. Ebert and be happy (most of the time), no matter our situation.  After all, Mr. Ebert can still write (which he does a lot) and is still surrounded by people who love him a great deal.  When you really think about it, what else matters?

What Should We Steal?

  • Offer and receive CRITICISM, not just REVIEWS.  Yes, it feels great to have a loved one say that they enjoyed your poem or story or short film.  You won’t learn anything until someone respects you enough to offer criticism.
  • Surround yourself with creative peers who sometimes disagree with you.  You don’t want to fall victim to confirmation bias.  Be brave and share your work with friends who have great insight into your work, both good and bad.
  • Brand yourself but don’t sell out.  Make sure people know who you are, but make sure it’s for excellent creative work.

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