Gene Siskel always relied on common sense in his reviews

by Erik Tanouye | 2/22/99 6:00am

Roger Ebert was always my favorite of the two.

He was more dependable, more consistent and often more intellectual.

And yet, without Gene Siskel, I probably would have considered Ebert snotty and annoying, too concerned with the theory and craft of films, not at all in-tune with actual movie audiences.

Siskel was the human element in the duo's chemistry. Sometimes cranky, often contradictory, he made the "Siskel & Ebert" reviews more than simple exercises in film commentary. He made them the advice of a trusted friend, one with flaws and quirks that made his advice all the more interesting.

Too much unadulterated Ebert is like a John Leonard review - well-written and intelligent, but not very helpful in determining if you should see the work described.

The audience got a taste of that most recently, when Siskel began his leave of absence. Ebert carried on alone for a few weeks, and the balance was gone. Ebert stopped after his first solo review and explained that in that portion of the show, Siskel would normally provide a second opinion.

However, even without the explanation, a first-time viewer would have noticed something lacking. Even with a perfect film critic, a straight-half hour of movie reviews would not make a television show.

What made "Siskel & Ebert" enjoyable each week, whether or not you cared about the movies they were reviewing, was the interplay between the two.

When they agreed, they could be entertainingly brutal towards a poorly made film or smile-inducingly agreeable about great movies.

And when they disagreed, it was most amusing, as they tried to prove each other wrong in their reviews of later films in the same episode, even when the later films bore no relation.

They remembered, too, each other's transgressions. Siskel spent a year reminding the audience that Ebert gave a thumbs up to Burt Reynolds in "Cop and a Half."

Lately, things were a little bit off. After Siskel's initial surgery, the show functioned for a period with just Ebert on screen, while Siskel's disembodied voice was piped in from a hospital room phone against still photos of the critic.

Siskel's reviews began to sound like the reports of a war zone journalist, not only because the television presentation was similar, but because he seemed to have witnessed something that changed him.

He railed against the bleak landscape of cinema in movies like "Your Friends and Neighbors," which Ebert championed. He wanted likable characters instead of exercises in cruelty.

He favored "The Thin Red Line" over "Saving Private Ryan," the humanist visual poetry of Terence Malick over the heavy-handed plotting of Robert Rodat's "Private Ryan" screenplay.

In their last on-air review of a film together, Ebert quoted French New-Wave auteur Jean Luc Goddard in a criticism of the film "Theory of Flight." Then Siskel, who liked the film, countered with an old joke about goats eating reels of film.

Although I preferred Ebert in the combination, if forced to pick just one, I'd rather have spent my half hour each week with Siskel, who would never quote an expert when common sense would suffice.

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