FILM / Shticks and stones: Two men, two thumbs and, once upon a time, a skunk. A revue show or a review show? Sheila Johnston talks to Chicago critics Siskel and Ebert whose TV show takes 15 million to the movies

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The Independent Culture
A few weeks ago Variety conducted an inquest into the mysterious case of the phantom film critics: names attached to enthusiastic quotes on posters and ads - names working for obscure magazines or media shows which no-one ever sees. But what does that matter? The studios get instant euphoria; the hacks, if they exist (which in some cases is doubtful), get fleeting fame and a free lunch. Film journalism, the article suggested, is definitely going to the bad.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert aren't phantoms: as well as writing film columns for two rival daily papers, they appear on a weekly TV review show, Siskel and Ebert, which is syndicated to 15 million viewers across the country. They feature regularly on movie posters, invariably under the endorsement: two thumbs up] Both men deny that a thumbs-down will send a film to the lions: 'I didn't like Batman Returns or Home Alone,' says Ebert. 'So you can see how influential we are.

'People do not pay the same kind of attention to movie critics that they do to a theatre critic like Frank Rich (the infamous Butcher of Broadway, whose New York Times review can close a show within a day). It doesn't cost you dollars 60 to go to a movie.' All the same, a couple of years back the Los Angeles Times polled several dozen Hollywood folk on the relative power of American movie critics. Almost all put Siskel and Ebert - Sisbert as they're known - in the front rank.

Part of their appeal springs from the entertainment value of the show. 'What they offer is equal parts review and revue,' said the Los Angeles Times. 'Audiences seem to tune in as much for the shtick as for the performances they are judging.' It's a mix of clips and comment in the time-honoured Barry Norman tradition. Except that - unlike Norman, who delivers his opinions unchallenged - Sisbert is famed for robust on-screen argument (the debates aren't scripted) and sharp professional rivalry: a recent, 11,000-word Playboy interview chronicled some memorably schoolboyish bickering.

'We have lots of co-hosted shows in the United States,' says Siskel. 'They pretend to like each other, are full of false geniality. Most of the emotion on TV 'reality shows' (astonishingly, this appears to be current Americanese for 'chat shows') is so mellow that when you get some sparks you notice them. But we agree far more often than we disagree.'

If the rivalry is a pose, it's either an unconscious one or very cleverly simulated. Asked about it, Ebert embarks on a long, tortured account of how, in this interview, he thought I was going to talk to him first, but when he came to the phone he found Siskel already hogging it (I'd already heard him down the wires pressing his partner to get off the line). Unlike most competitors, Sisbert has become established as a comic double-act, guesting on chat shows, speaking on the lecture circuit. In short, they're media celebs in their own right.

Not everybody approves. The Los Angeles Times suggested that this side of Siskel and Ebert was swamping the show. Film Comment's Richard Corliss called it 'a sitcom starring two guys who live in a movie theatre and argue all the time'. Still, it used to be worse: 'We started out locally on a monthly show for public television,' Siskel says. 'As a cute ending, we'd pick the 'Dog of the Week', and have this dog, Spot the Wonder Dog, run in, bark and run off.

'Then we moved to commercial syndication and had to come up with something different, so we got a skunk. Now the skunk had less personality than Spot, and even less than Roger. He didn't like to face the camera, so you'd just see, like, this little throw-rug on the chair. Frequently the director would have to announce over the microphone to the floor manager: 'Spin the skunk', which I always thought was a great phrase. They'd turn him round and film him real quickly before he burrowed back into the corner.'

Seventeen years on, the animal sidekicks have been discreetly buried, and Siskel and Ebert honed to a high professionalism, but they are aware that some of their critics see the thumbs as a form of superficial, fast-food reviewing. In the past Ebert had grumbled about the system: 'It's almost as if the two of us are little jack-in-the-boxes, and all we can say is 'Two thumbs up]' ' Now he defends it: 'It's not very subtle. But there are others that are even more ridiculous. There's a critic in LA who, like many other critics, isn't limited by his own parameters. He will often say things like: 'On a scale of one to 10, I'll give it a 15]' Frankly I'd rather be quoted as 'two thumbs up' because most quotes they choose make you sound like an idiot.'

He does believe, though, that film criticism has become flabbier. 'In the Sixties Judith Crist's review of Cleopatra and Rex Reed's interview with Warren Beatty in Esquire broke the cosy symbiotic relationship between the press and Hollywood which had been going on in a fan-magazine style for 30 years. Suddenly you got all these warts-and-all profiles and, in response, press agents tried to get quote approval, story approval, writer approval and so on. Once, entertainment journalists could make their names by being extremely irreverent, outspoken and brash. Today if they want access to the major stars they mostly have to be sycophants.'

Naturally Sisbert denies being subject to these pressures: 'One lucky break for us is that we're in Chicago,' says Siskel. 'We're between the media capital (New York) and the movie capital (LA), and so we don't get romanced, and we don't keep running into the people. And New York is so full of really good critics that I find sometimes they have to shout a bit to stand out from the crowd.'

The carping about Siskel and Ebert isn't altogether justified; after all it eschews star interviews and has attacked issues like product placement and run special editions on black-and-white photography and silent cinema. But, if there are so few good, critical TV shows about the movies - on both sides of the Atlantic - it's because there are many factors working against them. First, the access to film clips - mostly producers have to select the same old scenes from a pre-assembled promo reel, which pre-empts much precise analysis. 'They don't want to lend you a whole print - they're afraid of piracy,' says Paul Kerr, the series editor of Moving Pictures, the BBC's film magazine.

Interviews and location reports are becoming harder to set up too. 'Since the mid- to late Eighties the electronic press kit has become part of the armoury of film publicity,' Kerr says. This is a video of interviews, clips and location footage which arts producers are increasingly expected to cannibalise for their shows, in place of direct access to the director and stars. When Kerr was planning Moving Pictures, he looked at earlier BBC film programmes. 'In one Arena, Gavin Miller went on the set of a Spielberg film. We couldn't even get on the set of Abel (Driller Killer) Ferrara's new movie.'

Hardest of all is a historical perspective. Film clips come free if you're giving airtime to current releases: archive footage can cost up to pounds 5,000 for a few seconds. If you can get it - often you have to submit a treatment explaining what will be said about the movie. 'We've never been refused,' says Kerr. 'But Out had incredible problems with clips for this week's item on homophobia.'

Meanwhile, the uneasy truce between critics and publicists continues: Variety cites the case of Rod Lurie of Los Angeles Magazine, who was called up by a studio to complain that there weren't enough glowing adjectives in his review. He told them that he wasn't that keen on the movie and it would be 'a miracle' if he gave them better copy. No prizes for guessing how he was quoted on the ads.

'Siskel and Ebert' plays on BBC2 at 11.15pm for six weeks from next Monday. 'Moving Pictures' returns next January.

(Photograph omitted)