I was eighteen the first time I met Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Okay, so I did not actually meet them. I was spending New Year’s Eve in Chicago, and since I did not know anyone, I turned on the portable black and white television set in the apartment of the commune where I was staying. These “communals” must have been intellectuals because the television set was set to PBS. At that particular time, as if the Gods of Movies had intervened, Sneak Previews, Siskel and Ebert’s first show, local to Chicago in the early 1970s, was on. Being a film fanatic, I tuned in to these two gentlemen who were arguing about a few films. They commanded my interest. They knew film. They knew what made films great, not so great, and just plain awful. Previous to Sneak Previews, I thought I knew film. I realize now I only knew film trivia. With Sneak Previews and its various reincarnations as Siskel and Ebert gained in popularity, I learned more than film trivia—I learned what they were willing to teach.
So, with Cancer having recently taken Mr. Ebert, and having taken Mr. Siskel some time ago, I feel compelled to thank them for steering me toward two films, among others, I perhaps would have missed through my years of viewing.
1. Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas—this is my favorite film. It contains a great performance by Harry Dean Stanton who makes any film better just because he is in it. Siskel and Ebert taught me, through this film, how landscapes can become characters in films, how colors matter in certain shots, and how acting without words can carry more weight than spoken dialogue. It is a film about how one man loses his American Dream, how he regains part of it, and how he is able to accept that will just have to be good enough. Ry Cooder’s film score is haunting. This film won the Grand Prize at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, but it did not play many mainstream movie theatres. What a shame.
2. Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America—What Siskel and Ebert taught me about this one is always go with the director’s cut. The film was released in several versions, and each version is of a different length. The director’s cut, at 229 minutes, it the version you need to see. Some versions cut out more than an hour of Leone’s work. Uh, bad idea. Great acting by Robert De Niro and James Woods coupled with an outstanding supporting cast….but that is only the beginning. Ennio Morricone’s music score adds a great deal to this film. Previous to Once Upon a Time in America, I only knew the work of Leone and Morricone from the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s—The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, to name a few….Siskel and Ebert told me about this one, and they told me which version was the one that matters.
I can name many, many other films I “discovered” with the assistance of Siskel and Ebert—Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, Cinema Paradiso, The Grifters, Mona Lisa, The Long Good Friday, okay…the list DOES go on…..and on…..and on.
Siskel and Ebert taught me to look below the surface…the story…of a film to get at its core…its worth. While story remains important—just ask Clint Eastwood—film score, color choices, editing, cinematography….all the “stuff” I used to create the Film as Literature class often matter more. While having seen thousands of movies has made me a self-proclaimed film trivia guru, Siskel and Ebert have helped me become a self-proclaimed well-informed film critic.
Thank you Mr. Siskel. Thank you Mr. Ebert.
May your balcony always be open wherever you are.