Matt Singer has written the Ultimate Geek History of one of the movies’ – and television’s – most dysfunctional couples with “Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever” (Penguin).
For those who remember Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on their highly rated and influential weekly show that was all about film reviews, “Opposable Thumbs” hits at the heart of the duo’s trademark Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down verdict on each film.
“Their influence is still felt today,” said Singer, 42, a film critic and film writer for decades. “I watched the show growing up and it absolutely was the thing that really got me first interested in movies.”
But did these two Chicago film critics – Siskel reviewed for the Chicago Tribune and Ebert, the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1975, was at the Chicago Sun-Times — really “change movies forever”?
“You know, they had this very contentious relationship. They fought all the time. They were legitimate rivals and competitors that didn’t necessarily like each other, especially at the start,” Singer said. “So, a lot of the show’s mythology is about those stories. Pranking each other, fighting. Yelling at each other! And absolutely, if I was going to do this book, that has to be part of it.
“But I also wanted to talk about film and film criticism — and that’s what that subtitle suggests: The impact these guys had on the world of film, film criticism on television and popular culture at large. They had an enormous impact on all of those things in terms of introducing this style of film criticism, this back and forth, which is still so prevalent in podcasts and YouTube. All these different places.
“They certainly were influential in championing filmmakers and movies that they loved, fighting for causes that they believed in, like film preservation or fighting against the colorization of black and white movies. All sorts of things.”
“Opposable Thumbs” offers a bonus surprise – an appendix of 24 obscure films both critics championed and loved.
“How that happened was in my research, I went back and rewatched as many episodes of the show as I could. Of course, there are the movies that are the classics. What surprised me was how many movies that not only had I not seen but in some cases never heard of. Movies that kind of vanished into thin air.
“As I was watching these episodes, it made me want to go watch those films.”
So, the Appendix salutes “these important film critics that were so important to me personally,” Singer said, while also injecting film criticism into a book bursting with backstage stories.
“Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever” releases Oct. 24