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The Lasting Impact of Siskel and Ebert

In this excerpt from The Ringer’s narrative podcast series ‘Gene and Roger,’ Brian Raftery examines how Siskel’s and Ebert’s legacies continue to live on in all forms of media

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Roger Ebert spent his last years doing what he loved: watching movies. He wrote more than 300 reviews in 2012. And he rewatched old films, too, sometimes inviting friends and loved ones to sit with him. He’d always shared his favorite movies with others—movies that meant a lot to him, even if people didn’t always see what Roger saw in them.

“We had a house out on the lake in Michigan, our summer cottage, and we used to invite people out to spend the weekend and watch movies with us,” Chaz Ebert, Roger’s widow, said. “And one night—sometimes people want to just watch something funny—but Roger would say, ‘Nope. I’m the film critic. I get to choose the movie.’ And he made us all watch Joe Versus the Volcano.”

In case you missed it, Joe Versus the Volcano stars Tom Hanks as Joe, a factory drone who’s told he only has a few months to live. So he quits his job and decides to make good use of his remaining time.

When Joe Versus the Volcano was released in 1990, Roger was one of the few major critics to give it a glowing review. A lot of people just didn’t get it. Like Chaz, who couldn’t even make it through her first viewing. But seeing it through Roger’s eyes changed that.

“Some of the themes of the movie really became so clear to me that I didn’t see before,” Chaz said, “about humanity, and people helping, and about what you carry with you. … How do you connect with people who are so different than you? All of these things, I saw. And I said, ‘Oh my God. Of course, somebody like Roger would have seen that,’ when some of us were looking at it and thought, ‘That’s just a weird movie.’

“It was only toward the end, really, after he was sick that I realized how much that movie meant to him.”

On April 2, 2013, Roger wrote a post on his website, announcing he was taking what he called “a leave of presence.” He wasn’t going to stop reviewing movies, he said. He was just going to slow down a bit.

Roger died two days later, at the age of 70. His death inspired eulogies from several directors including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Spike Lee. But that’s just a small sample of the filmmakers whose work Gene Siskel and Roger talked about, and raved about, during their decades together. For millions of people, Siskel and Ebert was their introduction to Errol Morris, Carl Franklin, Mira Nair, John Sayles, Steve James, John Singleton—and so many more writers and directors from the ’70s through the ’90s.

But Gene and Roger’s influence goes beyond those years. There’s now a whole generation of filmmakers who learned about movies, and moviemakers, from Siskel and Ebert. Filmmakers like Justin Lin.

“As a kid, I was sitting there, and even if I didn’t quite understand it,” Lin said. “I was being open to other pieces of work, other filmmakers … I do think that it was very helpful for me, in a way, just being interested in film. In that half-hour I got to spend with them, there would be times I’d get excited, because they’re reviewing Bachelor Party or something. But then, right next to Bachelor Party is a Scorsese movie. And, to me, that’s what I feel like is missing a lot now. Because now, it’s like you’re only getting fed what people think you want, or what you want.”

That may be why old clips from Gene and Roger’s shows keep resurfacing online, decades after they aired. They’re a reminder of a time when movies dominated the culture—and our lives. A handful of new films would arrive every weekend, seemingly at random, each one full of promise. And for nearly 25 years, Gene and Roger would let us know if they were worthy of our time.

And for all the critics, podcasters, and writers they influenced, there’s still nobody out there as forceful, as thoughtful, or as funny as Gene and Roger were together. They had a history that went back decades—a history that was the source of both their tension and their camaraderie. It’s what made exchanges like this possible:

“If this movie had a theme song, it would be ‘Dumbbells keep falling on my head,’” Gene said during a review of the third Home Alone. “The story makes no sense. I feel sorry for every family that’s going to be suckered into seeing Home Alone 3.”

“Now this is going to astound you, but I’m giving this a thumbs-up,” Roger said.

“It does astound me,” Gene said. “Are you OK?”

“Better than you were the day you liked Starship Troopers,” Roger retorted.

Half a million people watched that video earlier this year. It wasn’t because they loved Home Alone 3. It’s because, for those of us who grew up with Gene and Roger, those old reviews remind us of our own peak moviegoing years—and of the two critics who helped guide us through them. And for those who weren’t around during the Siskel and Ebert era, those clips give them something to discover, learn from … and argue about. Here’s Kate Siskel, Gene’s daughter.

“I like it a lot when these things pop back up,” Kate said. “Because, for the first chapter of my life, that’s what I knew, which was: They were doing this thing, and people were reacting to it. And so it feels kind of restorative, in a way, to have that somehow be able to continue after they’re both gone. … Also, I think it’s exposing potentially some new folks to them or to the show, who didn’t see it in real time.

“I also like to read some of the Twitter comments. And I think some of them are funny to me, even the ones that are critical. ... It feels OK to me, in some ways, because there’s two of them. So it doesn’t feel like everyone’s just taking a fling at my dad. Some people are like, ‘I’m an Ebert’ or ‘I’m a Siskel’ or ‘Siskel is pretentious.’ ‘Ebert’s pretentious.’”

A few years before Roger’s death, he published a lengthy tribute to his former partner. “Gene Siskel and I were like tuning forks,” Roger wrote. “Strike one, and the other would pick up the same frequency.”

“And it’s true,” Chaz Ebert said. “You saw it. When they were together, the air in the room changed. It just felt like even the vibrations in the room were higher when they were really joyful together.”