Today's Reading

INTRODUCTION

COMING ATTRACTIONS

If you want to learn about history you can find it in the most odd places. The patterns in the world will force themselves into other corners of the world... Looking at it small, you can get more detailed.

—GENE SISKEL

When you ask someone for the truth about themselves, you may get the truth, or part of the truth, or none of the truth, but you will certainly get what they would like you to think is the truth.

—ROGER EBERT

Like a lot of what you're about to read, this story starts with a disagreement.

Everyone involved agrees on this much: the key moment that altered the course of American film criticism—along with the history of television, and even the movies themselves—took place at a diner in Chicago on a Saturday afternoon in early 1976. That's where two men who knew each other for six years before they ever engaged in a meaningful conversation met for the most important lunch of their professional lives.

Their names were Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. They were summoned to the Oxford Pub, a popular hangout for reporters on Lincoln Avenue, by a woman they had never met. Her name was Thea Flaum. She had a proposal for them.

Siskel and Ebert might have been curious to hear what Flaum had to say, but they were not thrilled to see each other again. From the first time they'd laid eyes on one another, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel had known they had chemistry—the kind that causes glycerin to explode when it's mixed with nitric and sulfuric acid. When they were placed in close proximity, something could erupt at any moment. It often did.

The two had been locked in a bitter rivalry for more than half a decade. In the mid-1970s, there were four big newspapers in Chicago, each with its own film critic. Ebert, at the Chicago Sun-Times, was on good terms with David Elliott, his counterpart at the Chicago Daily News, and Mary Knoblauch at Chicago Today. But Siskel, at the Chicago Tribune, was a perpetual thorn in his side.

Ebert had become the Sun-Times' critic in 1967. Siskel followed at the Tribune in 1969, a development Ebert perceived as a deliberate attempt by the paper to compete with him head-on by bringing in their own young critic to cover the Chicago film scene. Shortly after Siskel got the job at the Tribune, he even started using stars to rate the movies he reviewed. Previously, Ebert had been the only critic in Chicago to use such a system.

These developments left Ebert certain: Siskel was explicitly hired to knock him off.

Siskel, for his part, needed no added motivation to view Ebert as a threat. Siskel's former roommate at Yale called him "the most competitive person I've ever run across—more so than Michael Jordan or Bill and Hillary Clinton." So if Roger viewed him as his adversary, that was just fine with Gene, who always loved a good contest.

Now he had one: destroy Ebert.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert saw each other as more than competitors; they were closer to mortal enemies. Each considered it an essential aspect of their job to beat the other: to write the best review, to land the biggest interview, to score the best scoops. And they took their jobs very seriously.

As the two men settled in for lunch, they sized each other up. The lanky Siskel, who was just about to celebrate his thirtieth birthday, was trying to compensate for his accelerating hair loss by growing out a painter's brush mustache and an enormous set of sideburns. The pudgy Ebert, thirty-three, had no such problem with male-pattern baldness; his hair was so thick it threatened to overtake his forehead entirely as it drooped down toward a pair of thick glasses. The two men were so at odds even their hairstyles were diametrically opposed to one another.

But Siskel and Ebert weren't strangers. In fact, this was a reunion of sorts. A few months earlier, the two men had set aside their mutual hostility long enough to shoot a pilot at Chicago's public television station, WTTW. While local newscasts in New York City had begun adding film critics to their lineup of reporters by the early 1960s, this pilot, titled Opening Soon...at a Theater Near You, represented a totally new concept for a TV series. Instead of a lone critic presenting themselves as a singular authority on a work of art, Opening Soon showcased two film critics—in conversation— discussing their respective reactions to the latest movies in town.
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