Thursday, June 3, 2010

My Love of Movies and Gene Siskel--Thursday Journal

Last weekend I was reminded of an early influence on my appreciation of movies, the late film critic Gene Siskel.

There was a time during the 1970's and 1980's when you could not hear Roger Ebert's name mentioned without also hearing, in the same breath, the name of Gene Siskel.  In fact, it was "Siskel and Ebert", the name of their milestone television program, that became part of the national lexicon.  Theirs was the first show to feature two critics discussing, and gloriously debating, the latest movies in release.

Each review was capped with their signature judgment: "Thumbs Up" or "Thumbs Down".  (Once in a while after a decidedly mixed review, they might give a humorous "Thumb Sideways".)  Nationwide, newspaper movie ads used "Two Thumbs Up" as a cinematic seal of approval.  While Ebert was the daily film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, Siskel reviewed films for the rival Chicago Tribune.  Since our household had Tribune delivery, I began my love affair with movies by following Siskel's reviews.

My father would occasionally bring home a Sun-Times from the train station, giving me a chance to read Ebert.  But I remained loyal to Siskel, hung on his every word, memorized the star-ratings he awarded each movie (* to ****), and imitated his style (along with that of Pauline Kael) when I began writing reviews of my own in a junior-high-school journal.

Many of Siskel's favorites eventually became my own favorites too.  "Annie Hall", "Nashville" and "Z" all made the #1 spot on his annual Top-10 lists.  He reviewed "Cabaret" twice in two weeks, the second time to urge people to see it.  He enthused that "The Last Emperor" was one of the greatest films he had seen in all his years of reviewing to that time, in a career that started in 1969. 

Siskel instilled in me an appreciation of the artistry and creative possibility of movies, giving special praise to international cinema, particularly French and Italian imports.  And he made me feel like I was "in" on the conversation about the most exciting movies of the day, many of which I yearned to see in spite of being too young, according to the then-stricter enforcement of the MPAA rating system.

I entered his "Beat Siskel" Oscar contest faithfully during my entire teen and college years.  I never won, but had a blast handicapping and second-guessing him and the Academy. 

Gene Siskel died in 1999 of a brain tumor at age 53,  It felt as though I had been cast adrift, without an anchor. 

This past weekend I attended a film at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Downtown Chicago, part of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  It is a terrific little movie house with two comfortable screening rooms showing a great variety of classic, independent and experimantal films, as well as the occasional Hollywood revival, and interesting documentaries.

It is a showplace reminiscent of a time when college students stayed up all night to discuss and debate the latest new wave or foreign film, or to gather after class for coffee and a matinee, maybe sitting for a double feature.  I am sure that if I lived any closer to the city, I would spend as much time at the Gene Siskel Center as I did in the University screening rooms of my youth.

Mark and I saw Vittorio DeSica's 1948 neo-realist masterpiece "The Bicycle Thieves".  The print was in mint condition and I understood some of the Italian dialog without the subtitles.  This film was simple and profound: a man in post-WW2 Italy needs a bicycle for his new job.  When his is stolen on his first day, he and his son spend the day to try to find it.  Along the way they make some hard discoveries about justice and ethics and the struggle of life.  It is not romanticized at all, but its stratightforward tone and open-endedness made it extremely emotional and moving.  I think Gene would have been ecstatic to have this film showcased in the theater that bears his name. 


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