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Posts Tagged ‘Gene Siskel’

I was profoundly moved by this incredible profile of film critic Roger Ebert, written by journalist Chris Jones for the latest issue of Esquire magazine. Ebert, you may know, can no longer eat, drink, or speak, due to a series of surgeries to combat cancer of the thyroid, salivary gland, and jaw. He communicates primarily through his writing and a computerized voice program. Yet, he is more full of joy and in tune with life than he’s ever been. As Jones observes about Ebert:

There has been no death-row conversion. He has not found God. He has been beaten in some ways. But his other senses have picked up since he lost his sense of taste. He has tuned better into life. Some things aren’t as important as they once were; some things are more important than ever. He has built for himself a new kind of universe. Roger Ebert is no mystic, but he knows things we don’t know.

Then Jones quotes this reflection from Ebert himself:

I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

Ebert, the article says, is slowly dying. And he knows it. Yet the way he’s currently facing life certainly offers lessons on living for all of us.

I was reminded of a post that I wrote almost one year ago reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the death of Gene Siskel, Ebert’s famous partner in film criticism, and the wonderful though often combative friendship that they shared. Jones’s profile references Ebert’s poignant tribute to his late friend, and reading Jones’s article caused me to go back and re-read Ebert’s piece, too. It was time well spent.

I don’t always know exactly what to do after reading stories as heartrending as Jones’s profile of Ebert, or Ebert’s own written memories of Siskel. But I do appreciate Mr. Ebert’s insight: “We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”

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Growing up in Rockford, Illinois, back in the early ’80s I remember watching Sneak Previews on the Chicago public television station, WTTW, Channel 11. This was the very first incarnation of the movie review show that would eventually launch its hosts, film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, into pop-culture superstardom. In my opinion, they are the greatest American film critics–and I don’t just say that because they’re Chicago guys, though it was cool to know they were based here.

I still have fond memories of those early Sneak Previews shows. In fact, I can remember how excited I was to see Siskel and Ebert’s reviews of what would become some of my favorite childhood movies–Superman II, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Clash of the Titans.

Sneak Previews eventually went into commercial syndication as At the Movies and finally Siskel & Ebert & the Movies. I loved those two guys together. Siskel was a Yale graduate and didn’t stomach foolishness that easily; Ebert was often the one with more populist tastes. But they both had very high standards. I loved the way they’d argue about movies. Sometimes it looked like the taller Siskel wanted to strangle his rotund partner, but then in the very next segment they would fall all over each other in agreement. I loved their passion for the movies and celebration of good art. I loved their “two thumbs up” (or “two thumbs down,” when a movie deserved it). But mostly, I loved watching their friendship evolve. Even as they bickered and mixed it up, you could tell these two guys genuinely cared for each other.

In a way, their relationship reminds me of what real reconciliation is about. The goal isn’t to always agree or pretend to get along in a superficial way. It’s about deep, passionate, and honest relationship. One where we might lay into each other sometimes, but by the end of the episode it’s clear that we love each other and that we’ll be back in the same aisle seats next week.

Well, today is the tenth anniversary of Gene Siskel’s untimely death, and his surviving partner Roger Ebert (who has been facing serious health challenges of his own lately) has written one of the most poignant, loving, and profound tributes to a friend that I’ve ever read. He opens with this:

Gene Siskel and I were like tuning forks. Strike one, and the other would pick up the same frequency. When we were in a group together, we were always intensely aware of one another. Sometimes this took the form of camaraderie, sometimes shared opinions, sometimes hostility. But we were aware. If something happened that we both thought was funny but weren’t supposed to, God help us if one caught the other’s eye. We almost always thought the same things were funny. That may be the best sign of intellectual communion.

Gene died ten years ago on February 20, 1999. He is in my mind almost every day. I don’t want to rehearse the old stories about how we had a love/hate relationship, and how we dealt with television, and how we were both so scared the first time we went on Johnny Carson that, backstage, we couldn’t think of the name of a single movie, although that story is absolutely true. Those stories have been told. I want to write about our friendship.

From there, Ebert shares an eloquent flood of memories, both funny and sad. Even if you weren’t fans of this pair, you might want to have some tissue handy. I encourage you to read the piece and think about the depth of the friendships in your own life. And as you do, please say a prayer for Mr. Ebert.

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