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Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel made an indelible impression on me with their “At the Movies” debates. They loved movies, and they relished arguing their merits.
Their passion for the art form was contagious. Movies weren’t something to be seen and forgotten. They could be analyzed and argued and criticized and celebrated.
I took what Siskel and Ebert had to say to heart: if they both hated a movie, I wasn’t going to see it. If they split their opinions, well, I might give it a try. If they both loved it, I was all in.
When Siskel died of brain cancer in 1999, the dynamic forever changed. Ebert didn’t spark quite the same way with the other critics who followed Siskel on their TV show, although I did like Richard Roeper. The chemistry between Siskel and Ebert was unique.
Hearing the “At the Movies” intro music still provokes a Pavlovian reaction in me: of happiness, of anticipation.
I wasn’t blind in my affection for Ebert. I thought the thumbs up/thumbs down conceit was reductive. And I liked seeing Ebert talk movies more than I did reading his reviews. (I was more of a fan of The New York Times’ Janet Maslin and, later, Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum.)
New Yorker critic Pauline Kael had a more high-brow impact, but Ebert influenced the Everyman’s view of cinema. And he helped us expect more from our movies.
Impressive, too, was how he handled fighting his cancer and losing his voice. He told the Associated Press, “You play the cards you’re dealt. What’s your choice? I have no pain, I enjoy life, and why should I complain?”