When renowned film critic, Roger Ebert, died last year, there was a huge outpouring of appreciation from film lovers around the world. He was an ambassador for cinema who introduced audiences to countless films they might have otherwise missed. Ebert and his long-time partner, Gene Siskel, started reviewing movies on their Chicago PBS affiliate back in 1975. The program was called Sneak Previews, and it laid the foundation for their hugely successful syndicated show, Siskel & Ebert, that was to follow a decade later.
By the time I accidentally discovered Sneak Previews in the early ‘80s, I was already an avid moviegoer. My friends and I went to the theater every Friday night, taking in the latest Hollywood blockbusters (which had already been out about a month by the time it arrived in our microscopic town). We relished every opportunity to be traumatized by R-rated fare. An American Werewolf in London prompted many a sleepless night, and each one of them was worth it. Every trip to the theater was an event, even when the movie failed to impress. I remember watching The Big Chill while the man next to me snored so loudly that I could barely hear anything. Perhaps he was trying to do me a favor.
Our movie palace was the Robey Theater, located in glamorous downtown Spencer, West Virginia.
Opened in 1907, the Robey holds the distinction of being the longest continually-operating movie theater in the United States. And when you sat down in the 80 year-old wooden seats, you could really feel the nostalgia… right in your ass. The huge auditorium seated nearly 400 people, and every night but Wednesday gave you a choice of two showtimes: 7:00PM or 9:00PM. There was a balcony, but, according to legend, it was permanently closed due to structural instability. It also had one of the most horrifying men’s restrooms in the history of indoor plumbing. You had to walk down a creepy stairwell just to reach the dank bathroom in the basement. It was a grungy concrete bunker straight out of Fight Club, and I remember nearly busting my bladder just to avoid making the pilgrimage. Ah, good times!
I was never a particularly ambitious boy. The two things I enjoyed most in life were throwing a baseball as hard as humanly possible and writing short stories. My two older sisters were scholastic and social superstars, which further highlighting my mediocrity. Despite a general contentment, my childhood was also plagued by a vague restlessness. I knew there was something else out there, but “out there” was a nebulous concept to me. That all changed after I stumbled upon Sneak Previews.
Suddenly, an entire world opened up to me. Siskel and Ebert discussed amazing movies that I had never heard of… movies I would never see… and they all sounded so hopelessly glorious. They argued with each other. Like, real arguments. Their passion elevated these inaccessible movies to almost mythic status. If only I lived in a town playing these elusive movies, surely my life would be glamorous and exciting!
Sneak Previews darlings like My Dinner with Andre became a new measuring stick for me. Inspired by Siskel and Ebert’s sincere treatment of movies, I sought out older, more adventurous classics. Somehow, I convinced my parents to buy one of those ‘newfangled VHS tape machines.’ While my classmates were destroying their new toys on Christmas morning, I was entranced by a ginormous metal box that could probably survive a nuclear winter.
Foolishly, my parents started a rental account for me at the local Rite Aid and I was off to the races. The first weekend, I rented One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Pink Floyd The Wall, and A Clockwork Orange. I was like an addict, pounding one movie after another. It’s not surprising that each of these films holds a special place in my heart; Cuckoo’s Nest remains my favorite film, while The Wall so profoundly disturbed me with its graphic depictions of self-mutilation that I still can’t watch scenes in which characters are shaving. Sneak Previews led me into a cinematic minefield from which I’ve never escaped.
It was the first time I heard people discussing film seriously. Siskel and Ebert moved beyond personal preference and evaluated artistic expression. While I would never compare my skills as a reviewer to those two legends, I try to employ their philosophy; I critique a movie based upon how well it accomplished its objectives, regardless of whether it met my objectives. Through their intense discussions, Siskel and Ebert taught me a new language. I discovered that movies were carefully constructed to elicit thoughts and feelings in the viewer, and different genres used different techniques to accomplish this. My best friend and I quickly stole Sneak Previews format, using a tape recorder to debate each film we saw. Sure, it was good fun to call each other idiots, but it was also a great education in film analysis, with Siskel and Ebert presiding as the learned schoolmasters.
Not only did Sneak Previews, and later, Siskel & Ebert, introduce me to the concept of film as an art form, it expanded my mind to new possibilities. Suddenly, “out there” became a place of opportunity. Perhaps it’s an exaggeration to say that Siskel and Ebert inspired me to leave my sleepy little hometown, but they did help illuminate a part of my psyche that could no longer be ignored. It’s absurd that two “old guys” arguing about movies could have made such an impact on a young boy’s life. Looking back, I feel somewhat guilty about taking it for granted; like it was always going to be there. It was a great show that celebrated passion, debate and critical thinking just as much as it championed cinema. For that, we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.