I'm a Better Dad Than Him. . .

Siskel & Ebert Display the Danger of the Critic Roadblock

As any regular reader of my articles or any listener of the podcast, The Movie Breakdown will know, I am a HUGE fan of Siskel & Ebert. I love the show to the point that I never hide the fact it was the major inspiration behind doing my own movie review podcast and we mostly try to emulate its formula (to be fair to us, over the almost 10 years we've tinkered with the format but I don't know any show or podcast that tries to pay 'homage' to it like we do).

I think both critics were not only very entertaining in the way that they debated but were incredibly insightful and thoughtful. I was always a bigger fan of Roger Ebert, especially since I tended to read more of his written review and felt he was the stronger writer. What I appreciate about both Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, is that they were so strong at articulating their views and so passionate about their opinions that I often appreciated and enjoyed what they were saying about a movie even if I completely disagreed with them.

One area that I often disagreed with both was horror. For whatever reason, they often disliked the many popular horror movies. Outside of the original Halloween and a few others, they really despised slashers. One slasher series that they panned was Nightmare on Elm Street, which I confess is a series with many bad sequels but the original was a terrific and original horror concept (and yes, I think, an awesome and classic movie).

Here is their review of Wes Craven's New Nightmare, which is both a sequel and a meta-reimagining of the franchise. It is easily the best of all the sequels and a great high-concept horror.

There is a clear disagreement on the movie. I side with Roger Ebert over Gene Siskel on this one. I also feel that Ebert over the years tended to be a bit more open-minded when it came to horror even if it was a genre that he criticized often. Siskel was usually repelled by gore and extreme violence, and though he made exceptions, he really seemed to have it out for the slasher genre (which was immensely popular in the 1980s, so he'd have had to review a lot of them, but by this point in the 1990s the subgenre was waning).

In this discussion, I still understand Siskel's point. Even with all the meta ideas, it is still a slasher movie at its core that builds towards big kills. I think, it is way more thought-provoking than he believes but I get his criticisms that it is still a mostly follow-the-beats slasher. But my opinion of the movie is way more aligned with Ebert in that I think it does a great job of exploring the horror genre and its bigger effects on society. It feels like a very personal movie from Wes Craven. It was effective in making Freddy Krueger scary again.

It also was a primer for his extremely successful reinvention of the slasher subgenre with the even more meta Scream. Another movie that both Ebert and I enjoyed (well, I loved) and Siskel panned for the violence and it staying true to slasher roots.

I would never say that Siskel was 'wrong' here, because that isn't how film criticism works. It is subjective. I can say some arguments are weak or one doesn't communicate their side well. While I can see where Siskel is coming from with his arguments, I do think he hits what I am now calling the Critic Roadblock.

Critics like Siskel and Ebert, on a regular week probably watched and reviewed anywhere from four to eight movies, at least. Scott and I review anywhere from four to five movies a week, and that is a lot of films to try to analyze. In the case of critics like Siskel and Ebert, it was their job, and they were writing reviews for their paper and doing reviews for their show, and they weren't choosing what they were watching. They were essentially obligated to watch and review almost every movie that came out in Chicago (where they worked).

There is a big difference watching eight movies a week that one chooses to see and watching eight movies that you are only seeing because it is your job and that job may be the only reason you are ever seeing that movie. I've said before that the big difference between a movie critic and an average movie goer is the number of movies they see and the fact they watch then with an analytical eye. It is that swath of movies they see on a weekly basis that causes them to be more critical of a movie and why they tend to be harder on movies that are formulaic. safe or predictable.

After watching over 200 movies a year, I can confess that formula or generic movies can be tiresome since I see so many of them and would rather be challenged. This is one of the reasons why audiences sometimes would resonate more with a standard by the number's comedy (because they are seeing it for comfort and predictability) than a critic that has already seen ten of them in the past year.

There is another challenge that confronts a critic that the average movie goer does not need to experience. This is the hard part of the job. They are obligated to watch every new release even if it is from a genre that they don't enjoy. Siskel clearly did not enjoy slashers and even in the review, admits that he never liked Nightmare on Elm Street series (or at least, was never down with Freddy Krueger).

This my friends, is the Critic Roadblock.

If Siskel was just an average movie goer, he probably wouldn't have saw a single Nightmare on Elm Street because he knows that it isn't his thing. But he was obligated for his job to see most of them. He needed to see Wes Craven's New Nightmare; despite the fact he clearly did not enjoy himself with the previous six movies. Even though I know he tried to be an impartial and fair critic, it is almost impossible to not come in with some pre-conceived ideas and feelings about a movie connected with a series that he reviled. When he started seeing the gory kills again, his brain told him he was seeing more of what he despised and my guess, is he started checking out and not paying attention to the movie.

It is hard to blame him when you realize he may have already seen one or two movies that day before screening a film that he was likely not very excited about. He may have already been suffering from media fatigue. His take makes me believe that he emotionally checked out very quickly when watching this movie. I think, Siskel gave the fairest review that he could give, but I also think he was suffering from Critic Roadblock. The struggle of needing to see something you never wanted to see and trying to shake being triggered by the aspects you hate about those particular movies.

When you see that many movies a week, you can only emotionally invest in so many, When encountered with a movie that isn't your preference and more importantly, one that you usually despise, it becomes an uphill battle for the movie to win him over. He also has a decade worth of awful slasher movie baggage weighing him down before entering that screening.

From my years of watching Siskel & Ebert, I'd also say that Siskel suffered from Critic Roadblock way more often than Ebert. Ebert always seemed more open-minded to movies in genres that he didn't like that this time tried a few different things. Siskel seemed to bail out emotionally and analytically from a picture that he felt was too much like things he had to endure in the past.

Siskel didn't like the original The Terminator and passed it off as yet another sci-fi adventure that he was getting tired of. But the review also proves he seemed at some point to really get disengaged, because he mentioned the killer robot coming from its planet to hunt down Sarah Connor. It is clear for anyone who is paying attention to the movie that the Terminator does not come from another planet but rather from the future on planet earth. The same planet as Sarah or Siskel. It actually is a major part of the plot and that is restated several times.

But rather than completely discredit Siskel, I think it was evidence of the Critic Roadblock. He never really would have chosen to see that movie. He probably had to see many movies that week. It was inevitable he was going to be less focused on any movie that seemed to be hitting the same beats that he was exhausted over.

The Critic Roadblock is why he didn't find Wes Craven's New Nightmare to be thought-provoking or why he felt it was just a standard gory slasher. I disagree with him. I also understand why it didn't work for him.

This is the thing we need to understand with critics. They are never wrong. Because you can't be wrong about how you feel about art. But if you follow a critic for a long time, you start to understand what works and doesn't work for them. You get to learn about the person who they are and what forms their thoughts and likes. Even though I adored Roger Ebert, I usually know what movies we would probably disagree over.

Therefore, the critics' job is not to be taste makers and tell you what you need to see. Their job is to communicate what worked for them and why it worked for them or why it didn't work for them. I think, both critics in the video explain really well why they liked or disliked the movie. A good critic should be able to pan a movie but still review it in a way that the reader or viewer or listener can still decide if it is a movie they want to see.

The critic's role is also to start a conversation. A conversation is done by providing honest feelings and analysis from each side. It is being open to different views and perspectives.

The Critic Roadblock is also something that I need to remember when I watch and review five plus movies a week and sometimes encounter pictures that I would not normally gravitate towards. I'll always honestly provide my feeling and analysis of a movie, but I also promise to be open to it changing on every rewatch. I wish Siskel had a chance to revisit New Nightmare.