Two Thumbs Down: How Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert killed film criticism

Anghus Houvouras presents a theory on the death of film criticism…

Roger Ebert and Gene SiskelThat headline is incendiary.  Designed to elicit a reaction from you, the reader.  Because we live in an age where audiences must be engaged within the first sentence or they won’t even bother to click a link to read the subsequent article.  I’m guessing by the time you’ve finished reading it, you’ll either think it’s an interesting and engaging theory or that I’m a complete idiot and should be banned from ever writing about film again.  Because that’s the kind of reactions you get in an era where everything is judged only as success or failure.  And that’s because of the following phenomenon.

Binary Theory.

Everything is a “0” or a “1”

To walk you through this paradigm shift, you have to understand that all critical thought has been reduced to a pass/fail mentality.    Nuance has been murdered in favor of a cold, calculating metric determining value.  Good/Bad.  Right/Wrong.  Worth/Worthlessness.  Everything is a masterpiece or a piece of shit.  This is the core of what i like to call “Binary Theory”.

The information age has reduced everything to a simple, definable value.  And the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.

First off, let me say that at one point I was a fan of Siskel & Ebert, and don’t consider them malicious or complicit in the murder of film criticism.  No more than you could blame the first man who split the atom, Ernest Rutherford, for the bombing of Hiroshima.  While you can easily draw a line between the two events, their was no intent or ill will involved.  It is merely a byproduct of the initiating act.  I doubt Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert even understood the gravitas involved when they first started reviewing films and took their dog and pony show global.  And yet, it had a profound and defining impact on the medium.

Like many of you I watched them reviewing movies every week during a time when there were few options for film fans to see movie reviews.  There were the weekly write ups in your local newspaper.  If you were fortunate enough to have literate parents you may have been privy to the works of Pauline Kael or reviews found in magazines like Time, Newsweek, or (God forbid) People.  However, for a vast majority of Americans you were limited to the local paper and Siskel & Ebert once a week on TV.

For those of you unfamiliar, here’s a little history.  Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were Chicago-based film critics who had found some success on Public Television reviewing movies.  They were both strong personalities and generated an ample amount of friction discussing whatever films were released that week.  Like all good television it was equal parts informative and entertaining.  It was good television to watch them discuss a movie they loved.  It was great television when they disagreed.  Watching them trade blows over a divisive film was the highlight of every broadcast.

They parlayed this gig onto the national stage with “At the Movies” which became a mainstay on Public Television before jumping into syndication and becoming a cultural staple.  While Siskel and Ebert were the personalities behind that fueled the success, it was a simple metric that helped define the show: Those damn thumbs.

Thumbs up.  Thumbs down.

One convenient gesture that would tell audiences whether or not they recommended a movie.  Sure, there were six to seven minute conversations that preceded their Caesar-like final judgment.  It wasn’t as if they weren’t going into detail about the film before reducing it to a brutal pass/fail methodology.  However, that’s what stuck.  Everybody wanted to know if it was a thumbs up or a thumbs down.  “Two thumbs up” was the equivalent of critical praise.  Studios slapped it on print ads and announcers loudly trumpeted it on television commercials. 

Siskel and Ebert contributed greatly to the popularization of film criticism.  In fact, they are probably the most responsible for turning film criticism into water cooler conversation.   However, they are also responsible for the vitriolic attitudes and tabloidization of modern movie criticism.

Those thumbs, their weapons of choice, were intentionally incendiary.  The thumbs were cribbed from the Colosseum of ancient Rome where the fate of a fallen foe would hinge on the crowd’s vote.  A thumbs up from the crowd would spare a man’s life.  A thumbs down would result in his bloody execution.  Of course, this gesture took on far less sinister overtones in subsequent centuries, but their choice of this ‘live or die’ method of recommendation helped foster the mentality that all movies were either worth watching or worthless.  Intentional or not.  That mentality has snowballed in the internet age where guys like Gene Siskel would seem downright courteous compared to some of things you read on film websites.

Siskel and Ebert were to film criticism what McDonalds is to the hamburger.

Most people have probably had a McDonalds hamburger.  After serving billions, that’s probably a safe assumption.  While there’s nothing wrong with the McDonalds hamburger I doubt few people would refer to it as the crowning example of the formula.  There are better hamburgers out there, but McDonalds has the most popular. 

The McDonalds hamburger is the reduction of the food to its simplest state.  It has all the pieces: meat (supposedly), a bun, and some rudimentary fixings slapped together in a paper wrapper and mass produced for high quantity consumption.  Siskel and Ebert reduced criticism to the same state.  Simple, easy to understand and palatable for the masses.

And much like the hamburger, popularizing it and transforming it into something convenient did little to improve the quality.

It feels like we need to take a moment to review.  You have two film critics, a popular tv show, and a marketable hook with the thumbs.  Pass/Fail.  “0” or “1”.  Siskel and Ebert brought the art of debating cinema to the suburbs and reduced every discussion to a simple metric.  How exactly are Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert responsible for killing criticism?

The real impact of this wasn’t felt until well after Siskel passed away and the show faded from pop culture mainstay to a forgettable, oft repackaged mess.  It was those influenced by Siskel and Ebert who stepped up and became the modern day film critics.  The ones who launched websites, or in the early days took to BBS boards.  These were the film critics of tomorrow.  Average Joes who didn’t learn about film in a classroom but from a video store.  Analysts who dictated from a place of common sense and shed the traditional trappings of actual film criticism in favor of stripped down, frills fee approach.   A generation of film and entertainment writers inspired by the fast food film criticism of Siskel & Ebert.

Initially the online film movement seemed to shepherd a focus on discussion.  That the content of the written review as making a comeback.  Long, inspired discussions would take place on internet bulletin boards and chat rooms.  Hours could be spent dissecting even the most trivial of topics.  Websites became the new water cooler for film discussion where even the most microscopic of topics could find willing participants.

And yet, there was still a strong focus on reducing these opinions to a simple, definable metric.  Mostly in part because there were so many voices vying for your attention.  In the early days of television film criticism, Siskel and Ebert’s “Two thumbs up” was a way to separate themselves from the other similar shows that sprung up in the wake of their success.   It didn’t matter how many talking heads had taken to television discussing movies or what they were saying.  They were the ones with the thumbs.

Once again there was a need for simplification.  To cut through the clutter and place everything into a convenient easy package.  Thus was born sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic and a popularization of the simple metric which has become commonplace on the sites and apps used by people to find films.  Websites like Fandango, Moviefone, and Flixster. 

The problem is that the ‘clutter’ is in fact the nuanced and formulated opinions of film critics and bloggers.  Reducing those thoughts back into a pass/fail mentality only helps further the failed notion that movies are either massive successes or epic failures.

Twitter has continued this trend: the reduction of complex thought into 140 characters.  Film criticism continues to die one tweet at a time.  Twitter is where discourse goes to die.  And anyone claiming they’ve had quality discussions on Twitter probably aren’t the best conversationalists.

The problem with Binary Theory is that art should never be a pass/fail proposition.

I can’t speak for any other writer out there, but i know that 75% of the movies I see each year are neither masterpieces or complete disasters.  They exist in that nebulous, gray area where good critics often flourish and bad critics often drown: the middle.

I’ve heard critics say before how easy it is to write a review for a movie which they are passionate about.  And i’ve heard others declare that seeing a terrible movie may be the easiest review to write.  The ones where the bile and the venom can be spewed in a hate fueled rant guaranteed to generate some page views.  Those who adhere to that school of thought will also tell you writing a review for a mediocre movie may prove the most difficult because there is no passion to move them or hate to motivate their words.   That only the best films and the worst films are worthy of inspiration.

When did it become so difficult for critics to review an average movie?  Why is their only motivation in the best and the worst?  When did film criticism become an exercise in praise and annihilation?

Maybe it was right when Siskel and Ebert started dolling out those thumbs.

Fortunately, for those willing to look beyond the tomato-meters and the tweets, there are interesting discussions to be had.   For many, they will be content with simple, extrapolated math to tell them whether or not what’s showing in the cinema is worth seeing, that every movie is either a “0” or a “1”.  As a film writer, I find that troubling.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert helped popularize film criticism, but they are also the most responsible for its deterioration as an art form. 

Anghus Houvouras

Around the Internet…

  • http://www.facebook.com/tim.horsburgh1 Tim Horsburgh

    If you had done your research, you might have seen that Ebert and other <br />critics engaged in a long, inspired exchange of articles on this very <br />topic in the late 1980s. But, you know, binary theory, or something?

  • Patrick

    Straw man arguments. Straw man arguments everywhere.

  • http://twitter.com/studioexec1 The Studio Executive

    It&#39;s an interesting article about a subject that warrants discussion. The fact of the matter is there are are too many film reviewers out there. Too many sites and the star ratings system is an inadequate as it ever was. There is a touch of bitterness and you used &#39;nuance&#39; one too many times but at least you&#39;re thinking outside of the box.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Very few — perhaps none? — of the pre-Internet film critics learned about film in classrooms. Pauline Kael was a university dropout. Gene Siskel studied philosophy. Ebert has a background in science fiction fanzines (and studied English at university), which is probably close to how many of today&#39;s Net critics got their start as writers and journalists (including me).<br /><br />There&#39;s

  • http://mycareersuicidenote.tumblr.com/ anghus

    Im having trouble with Tim&#39;s argument. So because they discussed their impact on the form no one else can?

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Critics are not required to post their reviews at Rotten Tomatoes. It&#39;s not compulsory. But I get a ton of traffic from RT, so it does mean that many readers are using RT to find long-form criticism, not merely for a Fresh/Rotten rating.<br /><br />RT ratings may be used as the foundations of arguments, but they&#39;re not *good* arguments.<br /><br />Who gets to decide how many critics there

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    As I noted in my comment replying to anghus, who should get to decide how many critics there should be? If there are &quot;too many,&quot; how would you reduce that number?

  • http://ciaoenrico.com/ Ciaoenrico

    Great article.<br /><br />Very minor point though, something someone else has probably already mentioned: In Roman gladiatorial combat, the &quot;thumbs up&quot; was actually a directive to the winner to kill the loser. A &quot;thumbs down&quot; informed the victor to spare the loser&#39;s live.

  • EricBlairEtc

    I not usually a grammar jerk, but I will point out that in the second sentence, you mean &quot;elicit,&quot; not &quot;illicit&quot;. <br /><br />Second, does this have anything to do with the terrible movies the author made – so bad they aren&#39;t even reviewed on rotten tomatoes?

  • http://mycareersuicidenote.tumblr.com/ anghus

    duly noted, and actually no one mentioned it. thanks for the correction.

  • http://mycareersuicidenote.tumblr.com/ anghus

    on the first point, duly noted. on the second: are you assuming they&#39;re terrible based on a metric (or lack of one) or have you actually seen any of the movies i&#39;ve done? I&#39;m not arguing they&#39;re not terrible. I&#39;m just curious as to whether or not you made an assumption of the quality based on the metrics, or lack thereof, which would kind of lend credence to this article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tim.horsburgh1 Tim Horsburgh

    A high grade level of criticism would require that before presenting a theory, you look at previous research and familiarize yourself with existing discussions. But in this age of simplification….

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    What &quot;credentials&quot;? And how would you use &quot;credentials&quot; to kick someone off the Web? Of course there are issues on the Web with SEO trickery and the like, but isn&#39;t the Web still a far more democratic and more fair way for a critic to make name for him- or herself than having to go through a corporate gatekeeper, as critics had to do in the past? Surely you&#39;re not

  • http://mycareersuicidenote.tumblr.com/ anghus

    No, im not suggesting that at all. What im suggesting is in a populist driven media that &#39;good&#39; and &#39;bad&#39; doesnt matter. Only popularity. That has an impact on the quality of criticism. And when so much of it is weighed and measured as a simple metric, it invalidates in depth criticism and reduces it to a mathematical approximation. <br /><br />Im not saying anyone should be

  • http://mycareersuicidenote.tumblr.com/ anghus

    And again, where you err… <br /><br /><br />They engaged in a long, inspired exchange of articles. In your view, that ends any further discussion on the topic?

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Nothing is &quot;invalidated&quot; by Rotten Tomatoes. As I pointed out previously, RT directs readers toward in-depth criticism.<br /><br />I suspect that the real issue is, however, that you&#39;re nostalgic for a world that never existed. Most film critics, across the history of film, have known little about film except what they learned by watching lots of movies. Most film critics have not

  • http://twitter.com/kerfluffer Michael Slavitch

    Fail.

  • Bill

    What&#39;s next, how Amazon killed book reviewing?

  • Matt Arado

    I&#39;ve read this piece a few times and I&#39;m still not sure: Is the author aware that Siskel and Ebert were newspaper film critics well before they appeared on TV? It mentions that they were Chicago film critics, but doesn&#39;t specifically point out that they wrote weekly reviews, profiles and essays for the Chicago Tribune (Siskel) and Chicago Sun-Times (Ebert). I bring that up because

  • http://twitter.com/RyanIsBored Ryan Henry

    I&#39;m a big fan of Roger Ebert&#39;s writing, but I&#39;m don&#39;t think the intention of the author was to besmirch Roger&#39;s reputation as a reviewer. Just because (in the author&#39;s opinion) Siskel and Ebert were ultimately responsible for the downfall of criticism, this doesn&#39;t make them bad reviewers, just unwitting progenitors of the &quot;binary&quot; age. In the same way that

  • http://twitter.com/itsatradegy Genevi√®ve

    You seem to approach this from a viewpoint that everyone should want what you want out of film criticism because that&#39;s a superior form of film criticism. I happen to like reading long essays about movies that break down what worked or didn&#39;t work for the critic and why, but I know plenty of people who don&#39;t. I don&#39;t see that there&#39;s any wrong if some of the critics out there

  • John Williams

    Another example of someone taking an apocalyptic view of something they enjoy because of the big bad media monster. We&#39;re going to be okay, people. in 100 or 200 years people will look back and wonder why people were so confused that the advent of mass media caused some growing pains. Talk about a Duh moment.<br />If someone actually reads Ebert they know he concedes to the limitations of

  • Gio

    Although I too would lament the end of long-form film criticism, I do think there is a place for sites such as Rotten Tomatoes. How else to choose what films to watch when there are hundreds on TV in any given week? It does feel shallow to choose a film based on a broad approval rating consensus, but there is a limited amount of time we can spend watching films and with decades of great films

  • http://twitter.com/Mongolophile Jack Nick Olsen

    First, Siskel and Ebert&#39;s show doesn&#39;t seem to have effected many other critics&#39; methods of film analysis, and film criticism is not only alive, but more pervasive than it ever was. Second, I&#39;ve lately been noticing the opposite problem. I am no longer satisfied with the ability of most film critics to analyze films deeply and thoroughly without reading a great deal of unconfirmed

  • http://twitter.com/CaptainKidt Captain Kidd

    People picked what they read from headlines, before robot headlines. You&#39;re just projecting your Siskel and Ebert jealousy on to them.

  • Tamarack

    I can&#39;t take seriously an article written by someone who doesn&#39;t know what illicit means.

  • http://mycareersuicidenote.tumblr.com/ anghus

    very aware, yes. im discussing the television show&#39;s impact on the medium.

  • http://twitter.com/punkvision Joe Langenfeld

    I agree that the thumbs up or down is not a good way to label a film or a piece of art. I don&#39;t agree with your opinion that Siskel and Ebert were the &quot;McDonalds&quot; of film criticism. I think they were a little deeper than that, sometimes bordering on becoming too arty. I&#39;ve seen almost every show because I edited almost every one of them. And, you got the Roman thumbs wrong…

  • ThinkerT

    What might have been better is that Siskel and Ebert were the ones who invented the hamburger, i.e. a simple, quick, form of consumption, but who&#39;s quality can vary wildly depending on who&#39;s preparing said hamburger. Whereas from that spouted the latter-day film criticism community, which are like McDonald&#39;s and Burger King, reducing the &quot;hamburger&quot; down to it&#39;s lowest

  • http://twitter.com/MasterFinlayson Matthew Finlayson

    They also talked about the films with varying levels of praise or derision, and the system was not a binary one; it consisted of two thumbs up, one thumb up, or two thumbs down. Films on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic may also receive 101 possible gauges, and both also contain a very useful section of blurbs for top critics, which is generally the only part I&#39;ll initially look at. At the risk

  • Seamus

    I quite like this article, though I disagree with it&#39;s fundamental proposition. The amount of quality movie criticism available is probably higher than it has ever been. There&#39;s reviewers and reviews to suit every taste and literacy level. Sure, sites like Rotten Tomatoes probably hold undue sway, but it doesn&#39;t stop me (or many others) from enjoying our favourite film critics.

  • Taurin

    It&#39;s easy to see why there was an audience for it. The price of movies were going up and salaries were stagnating or even shrinking for the middle and lower classes. People wanted an authority with a cut and dried opinion to help them spend their movie dollars. Not saying I approve; just saying I understand.

  • Paul Counelis

    Bullshit. I call you on it. Because you said they are &quot;MOST responsible for&quot; the deterioration of an art form, not the archetype of internet bloggers (which I still don&#39;t agree with, but anyway). That&#39;s pretty far from calling Led Zeppelin the godfather of hair bands. Presumably, your article on that notion would be titled &quot;How Led Zeppelin destroyed rock music&quot;, and

  • Paul Counelis

    I agree, bashing your film career here is nonsense. I think it&#39;s very cool that you&#39;ve been involved with filmmaking, and it adds a sense of validity to your opinions, if anything. I also like that you address responses here. It&#39;s commendable.<br /><br />However, in this response, you refer to the article as a &quot;theory&quot;. Why then, is it presented with such finality, in the

  • Paul Counelis

    Very nice response.

  • Paul Counelis

    No, no, no. He&#39;s saying that they already did it better. Before you came in and ruined the binary theory as an art form. ;)

  • http://mycareersuicidenote.tumblr.com/ anghus

    hard to debate the Ryan Henry point. I think he proves the &quot;less is more&quot; theory. Summed it up rather nicely. And in hindsight, im kind of agreeing with you. After talking with people all week about it, i think the actual point is &quot;How Siskel and Ebert made long for criticism irrelevant&quot;, however there was an intentional point of being hyperbolic for the sake of the

  • http://mycareersuicidenote.tumblr.com/ anghus

    &quot; I hesitate to push on the little &#39;like&#39; button, up at the top of the article; seem much too binary…. ;-)&quot; that&#39;s awesome.

  • http://mycareersuicidenote.tumblr.com/ anghus

    yes. as i mentioned in a response a little higher up the page of yours, i think the mistake is the finality of it. It does comes across as declarative and not theoretical. Bad form on my part.

  • Andy

    Excellent article, I have felt this way for years as both a filmmaker and film watcher. To form an opinion of a film based on SOMEONE ELSE&#39;S opinion represents the height of simplicity in this area. Janet Maslin is also a perpetrator of this type of criticism. And don&#39;t forget how many critics DON&#39;T WATCH ENTIRE FILMS before reviewing.

  • anotherscott

    The problem is that, ultimately, suggesting whether or not a movie is worth seeing is, in fact, a binary choice. Either you go see it, or you don&#39;t. A reviewer can&#39;t suggest that you half-see a movie.