A Tribute to Gene Siskel (1946-1999)
By Jamahl Epsicokhan
February 21, 1999
Chicago-area and nationally renowned film critic Gene Siskel died Saturday at the age of 53. He had been battling complications arising from a surgical procedure that had removed a growth from his brain last May.
Along with partner Roger Ebert, Siskel helped bring film criticism to mainstream America. One can find the fascinating stories of the Siskel and Ebert bitter-rivalry-turned-friendship elsewhere (particularly articles in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, the newspapers where the duo began and continued their rivalry), but I'd like to take a moment to explain my personal feelings about Siskel and Ebert's role in film criticism.
Siskel and Ebert's success is based on the concept of bringing straightforward, approachable criticism in the form of argument and personal insight. What I liked best about the TV show "Siskel & Ebert" was that it wasn't pretentious; the critics told you exactly what they felt in a concise, practical way. They gave viewers a reason to go see a movie or to stay home. They both offered consistent voices that a moviegoer could generally trust on a subject or genre. Even disagreeing was half the fun; these two guys knew a lot about movies, but as their differences in view often proved, there are many ways of looking at a film.
These two had an entertaining chemistry. Watching them was fun just as much as it was informative. Siskel and Ebert's relationship on the show was interesting to watch—two people who poked fun at and even insulted each other, yet we all knew it was for the sake of argument. It wasn't mean-spirited (although there was animosity in the beginning), and we all came to learn these were two guys who were colleagues and friends as much as they were competitors.
But even though their critical method was approachable and straightforward, it wasn't lightweight. Their analyses provided depth and insight, and great humor where appropriate. Siskel and Ebert thought about film, considered a work's arguments and emotions, and told you why they agreed or disagreed with a sentiment.
Even if their TV work was the ultimate avenue of mainstream critical exposure, I've always preferred reviews in written form—which is precisely why I took up writing reviews myself. There's something compelling and fun about taking a point of view, discussing it, and defending it—inviting both argument and agreement. Siskel was an accomplished writer and a journalist, and the road to "Siskel & Ebert" started with the written word, where the arguments were equally insightful and usually more detailed and all-around useful.
In the print reviews, I personally was more loyal a fan and reader of Roger Ebert than of Siskel, but the two comprised a team where I'm sure each greatly affected the other. For me, Siskel and Ebert are in some ways mentors. They achieved great success based on their writing, effort, observation, and their informed perspective of film and society. And they said things that made sense. Their arguments were usually fair and rooted in real, relevant problems and issues of today. Their reviews commented on the art of filmmaking, but they also commented on the world we live in.
Ebert had quite an effect on me in high school, and is in no small way one of the reasons I've become an aspiring writer: In high school, the first thing I can remember writing just for sheer enjoyment was a movie review. From high school through college I found related interests in working for newspapers and in persuasive writing. I considered myself an amateur—if infrequent—movie critic, which eventually evolved into my more prolific reviews of Star Trek. One could accurately say that I started writing my Star Trek reviews partly because of Siskel and Ebert. I wanted to do what they did. There's a good possibility that without Siskel and Ebert, I'd never have come to write these reviews, which have become a larger part of my life than I ever thought they would when I started.
Siskel's death is a great loss in the critical arena. It's saddening to think that never again will we see the banter or chemistry of Siskel and Ebert. I'm glad that Ebert is still here to entertain and enlighten us with his reviews. But I'll miss Gene Siskel's opinions and columns ... and I'll very much miss the Siskel and Ebert bantering duo ... or team, rivalry, or whatever else you wish to call it.