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Mixed Thumbs For 'Siskbert'

January 05, 1986|NEIL TESSER | Tesser, a writer and jazz disc jockey in Chicago, has critiqued the media for the Chicago Reader for seven years. During that time he created the ongoing "SiskelWatch" to chart (not kindly) Gene Siskel's supposed errors--and learned to read other critics. and

They may be Siskel and Ebert to the rest of the world, but they've become Siskbert to many Chicagoans. The term reflects their symbiotic relationship--the feeling here is that neither would be as successful on his own as they are in tandem.

Siskbert's influence on the national audience mirrors their critical clout in Chicago for more than a decade. Many theater owners routinely refuse to show films disliked by Siskbert and worry over such things as how often a given art-film house has been reviewed--vis-a-vis a rival art-film house--by either or both of the critics. Out-of-town reviews don't matter much here: If Siskbert said "no," then Kael, Canby and Schickel be damned. Those serious about the arts snicker at Siskbert; the rest of Chicago pays close attention.

They need each other. Without the ballast of Ebert's comparative intellectualism, Siskel would quickly seem light enough to drift off the set. Without Siskel's personable image, a night "At the Movies" with the pedantic Ebert might seem like a rough first date.

They once seemed to share a genuine rivalry that has been replaced with a sort of mock antipathy, like the old Jack Benny-Fred Allen feud. Their lucrative partnership--or is it the mellowing of age?--has taken some of the starch out of their relationship.

They often agree and both embrace populism. Basically, Siskbert goes with the flow: As the American public has slowly been conditioned to accept a level of film making lacking the basic skill, variety and wit of earlier eras, Siskbert has cheerfully joined in the slide. They both decry Hollywood hype, yet from the third week of January each year, they're spouting Oscar picks with the worst of 'em.

Siskel uses the most superficial allures to judge a film, reducing his criticism to the barest essentials of plot and character and has committed egregious factual errors within even this limited arena. (He has confused actors, praising a star's performance in a film in which the star didn't appear.) Ebert's populist stance similarly keeps him tied to details of plot and character, but he offers informed and reasonable exegesis of motivation and meaning, and he can at least break the surface of such cinematic concerns as scene composition and pacing.

Ebert has often read the book from which a film has been adapted; Siskel seems to have never read anything between hard covers. Consider "The Color Purple": Ebert, having read Alice Walker's book, could accurately write of "a screenplay that may take some of the shocking edges off Walker's novel." Siskel wrote that "nothing in the book appears to have been soft-pedaled in the film"--a comment quite at odds with reality.

(In that same review, Siskel offered some of his pungent social criticism: "The principal black men in 'The Color Purple' use their women--both wives and daughters--as sexual chattel. True, this is a period film . . . and today's black men, I suppose, can hide behind that fact. But another fact--the great number of single, black female parents today-- surely draws the behavior in this film close to many contemporary homes.")

Ebert remains the craftsman, the wordsmith knowledgeable and careful enough to create an image, sell an opinion, even on occasion to move his readers. At times, he crosses over into the trite and maudlin, but such excesses, which stem from his facility with language, are uncommon. Siskel writes with neither facility nor clarity. His reviews usually read as if he'd simply typed his notes and added some rudimentary grammar; the prose flows like scrap metal.

Yet Siskel, writing for the bigger Tribune, has the greater name recognition and following in his home town. He is the genial, telegenic one who seems blissfully unburdened by cinema musings the slightest bit deeper than those mused by Mr. and Mrs. Joe Average. Ebert is the bespectacled thinker whose earnest intellectualism may be too challenging for some.

Now and then, wallowing in populism gets them sticky. Siskbert once campaigned against teen slasher movies, exhorting people to boycott such films and force theater owners to stop booking them, on the grounds that such films influenced audiences to acts of similar lunacy. Yet the papers carried no stories of crimes inspired by "I Spit on Your Grave" (which Siskbert had singled out as among the worst of the lot). But the newspapers did run plenty of stories about the people who killed themselves playing Russian roulette, inspired by "The Deer Hunter"--which was unflinchingly praised by Chicago's critics censors.

But such cavils bead like water and roll down the richly polished surface of the Siskbert media empire. They are American film critics, created by Americans for Americans, and America loves them.

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