At the Horror Movies: Siskel and Ebert

24 January 2010 at 11:20 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

In several previous posts, I have featured clips of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s reviews to contextualize the reception of a movie up for discussion. Of course, this should come as no surprise given the influence of their long-running programs: with hundreds of movie covers sporting the “Two thumbs up!” quote like a badge of honor, Siskel (RIP) and Ebert became and remain household names, notwithstanding Richard Roeper.

My relationship with these two critics has always been a tense one. This started during childhood when my family would deliberate over our choice of rentals. “This one says ‘two thumbs up’,” my dad would say. Invariably, us kids would hate the movie and swear never to fall for the Siskel and Ebert endorsement tool again. Still, as my movie fandom developed, I could not help but gravitate toward At the Movies when it played on its awkward early Saturday evening time slot. Watching their reviews gave me the language to talk about film and a bit of insight into understanding its production (though certainly, Shawn Levy‘s reviews in the Oregonian also played a critical role for this Eastern Oregon girl). With the language of film criticism, I could dispute Ebert and Siskel with my own evaluations of films, and eventually, I found myself writing movie reviews for pleasure and eventually a few for my school newspaper.

As a film scholar in my adulthood, my interest in popular criticism persists but in a slightly different fashion. I see the video recorded ramblings of these two men as fascinating artifacts that tell us a little about the public discourse surrounding movies of the past. It helps that some of my favorite film scholars–particularly Carol Clover–have used Siskel and Ebert to discuss the horror genre. In her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, she challenges what she calls “the Siskel-Ebert position” that the rape-revenge film I Spit on Your Grave “makes rapists of us all” (228-229). Such a hysterical reaction may seem like an overstatement, but when you actually take a look at the footage, it’s not far from the truth: Siskel and Ebert regularly deemed horror films an abomination to humanity, in effect implying that audiences failed to see the camp or irony of such movies.
But here, I present to you the most hysterical of Siskel and Ebert reviews: the famous “Women in Danger” episode from 1980. In three parts, here it is:

Siskel and Ebert make legitimate points about the problematic nature of these films. I especially agree that the slasher genre at times exemplifies a backlash against the women’s movement; still, the critics cleverly pick and choose which films to discuss and which clips to use as evidence for their thesis without fully contextualizing these moments. Rhetorically, these omissions benefit the argument but at the expense of the facts. For example, Ebert characterizes the first-person camera angles often used in the slasher as a device strictly used for the purposes of identifying with the killer; he neglects to mention, however, that it also generates suspense by obscuring the killer’s identity (as is the case in Friday the 13th, discussed in the second clip). And speaking of Friday, I love the way Siskel uses Easy Rider as a counter-example of men behaving risky and evading punishment…even though those characters get murdered in the end. They also fail to mention that men get killed in these films, and sometimes, it’s the final girl that does the killing in the end! Sure, they use Halloween as a token positive example, but they fail to notice that some of the qualities they like in Halloween (i.e., strong women who get the killer in the end) persist in the movies they decry, while some of the qualities they loath about the slasher (i.e. the alignment between sex and violence) can also be attributed to Halloween.

In short, while Siskel and Ebert couch their arguments in terms of gender politics, the core of their dispute with these films has more to do with quality than content. Notice the way that they discuss Halloween in terms of John Carpenter’s authorship (side note: I love the way that Siskel and Ebert deem these films sexist in one breath and then use the masculine pronoun to describe “the artist” in another). What really offends them, more than anything, is the way in which the content is presented, rather than the content itself. Compound this with the fact that Sneak Preview aired on PBS, a public venture notoriously steeped in problematic notions of middle-classness according to Laurie Oullette (confession: I love public TV and radio in spite of this tendency–what can I say? I’m a white, liberal intellectual).

The politics of taste become more interesting when Ebert and Siskel review so-called “art house” horror movies, like Blue Velvet below:

Here, Ebert protests the exploitation of actress Isabella Rossellini while Siskel defends the film’s content for its critique of small town life. For Siskel, the artistic intent trumps concerns about gender. By contrast, Ebert assumes that poor Rossellini must have been ignorant of David Lynch‘s artistic intentions (since he is the one with all the control) when she exposed her naked body before the camera–the two were only dating at the time, so I’m sure she knew nothing of the content filmed after her scheduled appearances. Once again, Ebert bases his “feminist” arguments on masculinist assumptions, while Siskel finds that the artistry and commentary override such concerns.

In terms of discomfort with content, a role-reversal between the critics occurs in the clip below reviewing Crash:

Here, Ebert schools Siskel about the film’s commentary on the eroticization of violence in cinema. I actually agree with Ebert and find Siskel’s observations incredibly obtuse, but I do find it hilarious that both men seem to imply that if the scenes were erotic that this would somehow be a bad thing. Again, one reviewer takes a principled stance against the content, while the other defends it on the basis of artistic merit.

In short, Siskel and Ebert’s work on horror films (both of the “exploitive” and “art house” variety) demonstrates the class and gender politics that film critics often engage in as arbiters of taste. Of course, I’m not making a new point here, but its one worth reconsidering, especially when examining the horror genre.


1 Comment

  1. I Spit on Your Grave Remake « Dark Room said,

    […] (also known as Day of the Woman) seems a somewhat unlikely choice. That brutal, rape-revenge film made waves upon its first release with the likes of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert who critiqued its prolonged scenes of sexual assault. It also featured problematic portrayals of […]

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