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Gene Siskel: Thumbs up. Hats off.

By Vladimir Zelevinsky
staff reporter

This week saw the passing of one of the most influential of the modern film critics, Gene Siskel. With his colleague, Roger Ebert, he used his TV show with the trademark "thumbs up thumbs down" rating system to remind filmgoers all over the world of many things about the movies, things so obvious that they usually tend to be forgotten. Remembering Siskel, one can not forget these things.

Movies are fun. In this era when the dominating interest is the sickly curiosity in the peculiar institution of celebrity, when the financial aspects of filmmaking have nearly drowned all the artistic ones, when the studios' giant advertising machines can make a blockbuster out of any expensive stinker, when the movies are gauged to perform for a specific audience segment in this era, Siskel and Ebert reminded the viewers that the movies still can be fun. I know Siskel watched around three hundred movies a year; the sheer volume would seem certain to dull one's interest in this particular art form. And yet it didn't happen. The best moments on the show were when these two critics as if purposefully cast for comic reasons, tall and lanky Siskel versus short and stout Ebert disagreed with each other. Then there would be some passion: real, unrehearsed and unfeigned passion for the medium, which was even more startling if it concerned some run-of-the-mill Hollywood movie of the week. He was lucky to really care for his job.

It's subjectivity that matters. There's nothing as useless as an objective review. Even if such a review could exist, it would be most likely limited to the listing of cast and crew. What really matters in art criticism is subjectivity. Listening to Siskel week after week, one would gain quite a good impression of his personal likes and dislikes, and would be able to predict one's own response to the film. It was like having a good friend, the one who you would trust on comedies and romances, and who, you were sure, would hate just the kind of an action blockbuster you'd love. It was even more impressive when a disagreeing Siskel would listen to Ebert and then suddenly, right on the air, change his opinion. There's nothing better to demonstrate one's integrity than the admission that you're fallible.

It's all about thumbs up or down. Art criticism, which spans a huge spectrum from a dime-a-dozen one paragraph summaries in your free town weekly to the serious books on the theory of film as an art form, is really nothing but the way to express one of two thoughts. I liked it. I didn't like it. And, ultimately, that's all there is. Movies should be fun. And if we give thumbs down, it's not because we like to hate stuff; no, it's because we hope it gets better.

The show must go on, of course, like everything in showbiz. Ebert might get a new partner, or he might do the show by himself, or the studio might just hire two new critics. But Gene Siskel will be remembered.

Thumbs up. Hats off.