What Roger Ebert (and Gene Siskel) taught me

April 8, 2013
PBS's "Sneak Previews" and the syndicated "At the Movies" had a profound influence on my life.

PBS’s “Sneak Previews” and the syndicated “At the Movies” had a profound influence on my life.

I was saddened to learn that film critic, author, and TV host Roger Ebert died last week after a long struggle against cancer and declining health. I haven’t read or watched Ebert for years, but I can hardly exaggerate the formative influence that he and his onscreen partner, the late Gene Siskel, had on my life.

I’m completely serious.

I probably started watching PBS’s Sneak Previews around 1979. Our local PBS affiliate aired it on Sunday afternoons, which was a TV graveyard for kids’ programming. And as someone who watched far too much TV as a kid, I had to watch something.

Ordinarily, Siskel and Ebert would review about three new movies each week. If you only know them from their syndicated movie review show, after they became celebrities—not to mention friends—and their arguments became more of a schtick, you may be surprised at how angrily the two of them could go at it. In those moments, these two writers from competing Chicago newspapers really didn’t seem to like each other very much.

And what were they getting so worked up about? Not mostly Bergman, Truffaut, and French New Wave, although they certainly could argue about those things. They mostly argued about mainstream Hollywood movies. Good old, junky American pop culture at its best and worst.

And I loved it!

They taught me that it’s O.K. to be passionate about things like movies (or even pop music, which would soon become my overriding interest)—that it’s O.K. to feel things deeply, even when no one else understands why you feel this way. They taught me to discern the often subtle messages that pop culture communicates. They helped teach me that it’s O.K. to stand alone on principle. They also helped teach me the importance of a good argument.

Anyone who knows me well also knows that I like to argue. I become animated sometimes. I even raise my voice sometimes. These attributes don’t always serve me well because they can be misunderstood. But Siskel and Ebert could totally relate: they did the same thing!

But here’s the key: No matter how angry they got, it wasn’t personal with them. I mean, it was personal in the sense that movies—and opinions about movies—affected them deeply and personally. But they didn’t resort to ad hominem attacks. Whether or not they thought the other person was a complete moron (which I’m sure they did sometimes) was beside the point: they were arguing about ideas. Ideas were what mattered most.

So they taught me that, too—or at least I tried to learn it from them. Stick to ideas, Brent. Stick to reason. Stick to logic. Set aside your feelings. Feelings are important, but they don’t win the argument.

One of my oldest and best friends came to hear me preach on Easter Sunday. After the service, he said, “Don’t think I didn’t notice the mannerisms you picked up from David Letterman.” (He and I are Letterman fans from the NBC days.) And I’m sure he’s right! When I’m relaxed—sharing an anecdote, story, or sermon illustration—I’m sure Letterman comes shining through.

But when my inflection rises, and my volume increases, and I gesticulate more emphatically, I’m channeling my inner Siskel or Ebert.

They helped me find my voice. And for that I’m grateful.

Here’s an old clip from their PBS show. They’re not arguing in this one. Instead, their agreeing about violence toward women in recent movies (circa 1980).

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