Tuned In

Why Roger Ebert’s Thumb Mattered

Far from dumbing down criticism, At the Movies--and that trademark thumbs-up-or-down--showed how instinctively Roger Ebert knew storytelling.

  • Share
  • Read Later
AP Photo/Buena Vista Television

Film critics Gene Siskel, left, and Roger Ebert are shown in a 1994 photo

I first got to know Roger Ebert, as I suspect many of you did, as a thumb. Growing up in Michigan, pre-websites, I didn’t see Chicago newspapers, but I did see At the Movies, the review show he hosted with Gene Siskel. After his death yesterday, Ebert is rightly being remembered for his towering achievements in many media: newspapers, books, the movies themselves, even Twitter. But he owes his legacy as the biggest voice ever to explain pop culture to the public to TV.

And he owes that, at least in part, to his thumb. Over its long run, first on public TV, then in syndication, under various titles and (after Siskel’s death in 1999) with various co-hosts, Ebert’s show did an amazing thing: it engaged millions of people in a thoughtful, fun, passionate conversation about how movies work (and don’t) and why it matters. If the show were only Ebert and his co-hosts sparring wittily in a popcorn-scented arena, that would have been enough. But Ebert’s closing trope, the thumbs-up, thumbs-down final digits of judgment, made the show iconic: Siskel and Ebert’s thumbs were the show’s viral hook before viral media existed.

When I started writing reviews for a living, I’ll admit it: I hated the thumbs. Or not the thumbs themselves, but the grades, stars, point systems, and various glyphs throughout media that reduce a complex, subjective analysis into a single, universal answer: see it or don’t see it, that apple is 2.5 points better than this orange. I wrote a column for Salon about the phenomenon: “I will not stretch human charity by expecting you to pity the critic. But consider this: What other writer is regularly expected to append his work with a shorthand tag to help people avoid reading it altogether?”

At least when it came to Ebert’s thumb, I was wrong. For lesser critics, an up-or-down vote might be a catchy gimmick to end-around the hard work of thinking. But no sensible person would have wanted to skip over Ebert’s intellectual wrestling with Siskel on TV, or skim past his humane, generous, often hilarious Sun-Times reviews.

Ebert was much more than his thumb. And yet that thumb was essential to understanding Ebert. The reason that gesture existed is the same reason that Ebert was a great critic: because he understood entertainment.

At the Movies was trying an amazing thing, to tell a mass TV audience how art works, every week. To do that, Ebert structured each review like an entertainment, a story, a little movie, really. There was a premise and subject (the movie), there was conflict (the review and debate), and then—there was the big finish. As in a good story, a Siskel and Ebert segment had mystery, suspense, and a payoff. (Occasionally, there was even a dramatic twist, as in the clip above, in which when Ebert convinced Siskel to reverse his thumb on the 1996 movie Broken Arrow. Update: Sadly, the original clip is not embeddable, but here’s the Youtube link.)

What Ebert knew instinctively is what writers like me need to learn over and over: a writer is a communicator, and a communicator communicates whatever way works best. You use words. You use pictures. You use video clips. You wave a stick in the air if you have to. And if it gives you a platform, and gets people’s attention, and appeals to the human desire to cut to the freaking chase–you use your thumb.

Ebert was far smarter, wiser, and more eloquent than most of us scribbling along in his absence. But, and this is what made him great, he was never a snob–not about the movies, not about the audience, and not about how he expressed his passions. His writing alone would have made him one of the best of his era, but he wasn’t too fancy for TV. He could weave an analysis of a movie, even a lousy one, into an examination of life and history and your own troubled soul, in subtle and majestic prose. But he also, as cancer took his voice late in life, became of of the best users of Twitter, dropping crystal-shard observations on art and politics 140 characters at a time.

Roger Ebert was about far more than his thumb; there was far more to his reviews than whether a movie was good or bad. But remembering him for his thumb is no reductive insult—what better legacy for a movie lover to leave than one memorable image? Ebert gave us his thumb, and–to my everlasting gratitude–trusted us to discover the rest of the man.