Roger and him

Remembering Gene Siskel, 1946-1999.

Published February 24, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

I can pinpoint the exact moment I became a critic. I was 7 years old and my parents took me to see Disney's "The Jungle Book." I remember leaving the theater wondering where it was -- that feeling. Up until then, I stumbled out of every movie I saw, including my favorites, "Cinderella" and "Lady and the Tramp," in a state of euphoria. But "The Jungle Book": What gives? I felt bored, empty, cheated and therefore confused. I was no stranger to not liking, having been previously introduced to the month of August, my stepgrandmother and black-eyed peas. But I was under the impression that movie projectors were perpetual ecstasy machines, that movies were vacations from muggy heat, frumpy relatives and the ickier varieties of legumes. I didn't know what to do with my cinematic disappointment.

Then came a television program called "At the Movies," featuring two guys named Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. I started watching their show when I was about 13 and it was a revelation, an answer. What to do with that empty feeling? Talk about it! Argue! Complain!

I mourn the passing of Gene Siskel on Saturday because he was once a messenger from another life. It's hard to remember now, in the midst of the infotainment age, buried by Entertainment Weekly, talk shows, the Internet and E!, but if you were out in the sticks in the early 1980s, finding out about culture was a slapdash affair. And if "The Jungle Book" had left me hollow inside, that was nothing compared to adolescence in the Reagan reign. But there they were, on TV, two quarreling aliens from a planet called Chicago who made talking about something as seemingly superfluous as cinema into a matter of life and death.

I have city slicker friends who read Pauline Kael in junior high, whose parents knew things about Truffaut, who grew up in the know. But I wouldn't trade coming of age in the wilderness. Because in the wilderness, you trip over things. You buy a record because you like the cover and you get it home and it's someone named Laurie Anderson singing something called "O Superman." You open your 10th grade French textbook and a postcard of Salvador Dali's "Autumn Cannibalism" falls out and scares the hell out of you. You turn on the radio and hear R.E.M. for the very first time. And because you heard Siskel and Ebert talk about some movie called "Blue Velvet," you and your friend rent it (it never played a theater in your hometown) and you get your friend's
mother out of bed and make her drive you home because there's no way you're walking home alone after seeing that.

"At the Movies" and its next incarnation, "Siskel & Ebert & the Movies," was an intensely democratic show. It was a free speech stronghold based on the simple premise of two citizens saying what they think. Also, the rise of Siskel and Ebert coincided with the introduction of home video. Cultural life in the United States was suddenly more egalitarian. You didn't have to live in a metropolis to check out the names dropped by the Chicago guys -- names like
Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch. But the most interesting aspect of the show was its openness: Siskel and Ebert's willingness to talk about everything, think things through. In their world, an art film wasn't necessarily going to beat out a Hollywood movie. Neither man cared whether they were supposed to like or not like something -- an intensely American approach. Because I was a budding snob, they made me question my snobbery, but trust my instincts. If I enjoyed the Molly Ringwald vehicle "The Breakfast Club" more than Jarmusch's arty, black and white "Stranger Than Paradise," maybe "The Breakfast Club" was a better movie. (Though, as everyone knows, "Sixteen Candles" pales compared to "Down by Law.")

Most importantly, in a morally ambiguous world, where the meanest kids at school had all the power, and where their grown-up equivalents were running the country, Siskel and Ebert denounced ambiguity and mediocrity and indecision with one fell swoop: thumbs up or thumbs down. It all came down to that: Did you like it or did you not? Years later, now that up- or down-turned digits are such cultural clichés, it's hard to clue in to how extreme the Siskel and Ebert position remains. And even though the adult in me sniffs at such an absolute, the Beavis and Butt-head in me knows it's true. In movies, as in life, things are cool or things suck, and anything in between is barely worth noticing.

These days, more than half a lifetime since I first saw Siskel and Ebert on the family TV, I live in their hometown. Though I'd stopped watching the show in college, I did read Siskel's bland Chicago Tribune column, "Flicks Picks," which always began with variations on the wildly compelling lead, "Our flick of the week is ..." Though I don't mourn Gene Siskel the writer, I mourn Gene Siskel the voice in the wilderness of long ago, that voice yelling magic words like "Scorsese" and "You're wrong!"

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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