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As a kid growing up in suburban Chicago, there were three things that convinced me that I lived at the center of the universe: the Sears Tower, the Chicago Bulls, and Siskel and Ebert.
Gene Siskel, who died in 1999, and Roger Ebert, who passed away on Thursday, are two Chicago guys who managed to define two decades of film criticism. I can still remember hunkering down in front of the television with a bowl of spaghetti to watch them alternatively praise and trash the movies of the week. Their theme song still runs in my head when I see an old-school marquee.
Movie reviews were my window into all of that messy, weird, sexy and violent pop culture that my parents didn’t want me to see. Ebert always had a way of taking you inside a movie — and whether or not you intended to ever see that film (or could get your mom to take you to the mall), he could give you the experience of being in the theater with him. Listening to him talk about Toy Story, you might think he was rhapsodizing about Kurosawa. Before featurettes or red-band trailers or all the other little digital footnotes that today make up the movie-going experience, we just had movie reviews to tell us whether a movie was going to be any good.
Siskel and Ebert didn’t always like what I liked; they often panned movies I loved (particularly those I loved as a kid). Each argued his case, and the other was allowed to agree to disagree. These were critics who acknowledged that a person’s experience with a film was subjective. They taught me to mine every shot for evidence to make my case that a film was smart or stupid, fun or boring, and to argue my case fully. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel weren’t afraid to point out even the smallest error, like the way that the shark’s point-of-view shots in the Jaws movies don’t make any sense if the shark is also visible from the surface. Before I took a film class or had even seen more than two R-rated films, they taught me how to watch movies, and how to talk about them.
Today, we all get to be critics. Anyone who wants to can broadcast an opinion about Iron Man 3 in lengthy prose, but criticism is now attached to content itself in the form of likes and comments. Think about how many times a day you click a thumbs-up icon to tell someone you liked her video on YouTube or Facebook. “Thumbs up” and “thumbs down” may be the least scientific ratings system ever invented, but it works.
As the business of criticism began to change, Ebert didn’t bemoan its demise. Instead, he invested in Google. He started a blog, which became his voice when he could no longer speak. He became an Internet celebrity on par with his fame as a TV celebrity. Next week, he was planning to launch Ebert Digital, a venture to build digital projects around his film criticism.
Everyone who works in a creative field could learn something from Roger Ebert. And really, it boils down to one word: adapt. The thing you care about — print books, newspapers, big-screen movies — might change or disappear, and ranting won’t bring them back. But you can apply your talent to the next big thing, explore it, imagine a future for it — and invest yourself in making it better.