I was never afraid. But the caustic bald man wanted to be feared.
I was never afraid of him; only slightly startled, sometimes amused, mostly bemused. From the first confrontation when I had just started college. He was always… concerned. And he knew best.
Boy, did Gene Siskel know best, and better than any of you.
Gene used to talk in Mamet-like cadences when he was bullshitting and berating, at least to those he considered his lessers, when cloistered in Chicago’s private screening room, first in River North and which is now in a successive incarnation atop a Loop high-rise. Sometimes the hectoring spilled onto State Street or Lake Street.
You get a taste of his proud opprobrium in the David Letterman clips that have resurfaced alongside a raft of excerpts from the television shows (and the-not-quite-mock-feud) that he shared with Roger Ebert.
Writes Ebert in his memoir, “Life Itself,” “In the early days of doing shows with Gene Siskel, part of our so-called chemistry resulted because, having successfully made my argument and feeling some relief, I felt personally under assault if Siskel disagreed. This led to tension that, oddly, helped the show… I had no conception of such a show and no desire to work with Siskel.”
In daily life, in multiple encounters each week, Gene was much worse than in any of the clips (or even the splenetic outtakes). It wasn’t like watching mom and dad fight, it was like seeing two strangers on the corner, again and again and again.
In the nineties, there wasn’t awareness about trauma caused by workplaces filled with abusive behavior. And it wasn’t like the reviewer’s privilege of the screening room was a job you could quit. Nonetheless, if you would allow, if I could have a moment of your precious time, I would submit—I channel the voices of Mamet and Siskel with that contrived construction—that the screening room when this pair fought is the most poisonous work environment I ever knew.
Being addressed every once in a while by Gene was my first experience with what the Internet today calls “debate,” as in, “Accept the premises of my dispute on a subject of my choice at a time of my choosing.”
The venomous vaudeville on the shows is amusing from great distance, but I feel tingling akin to PTSD if I hear Gene’s voice more than a few seconds. The badgering, the sneering—it’s all true. It’s all real. The persona is the person, elevated to a career’s shtick. I have never known a more anxious, more hostile man.
When there were only a few people at a screening, if there was a bone to be picked, picked that bone was. “Let’s go into the boardroom,” Gene would say. Passing the open projection booth door, he would say to the operator, “We’re going to the boardroom, is that all right?” And the operator would shrug. Inside the glass box, Gene would make his case. My ten-minute poker face improved over time.
This was not the only time Siskel confronted me: on more than one occasion he questioned why I had laughed aloud at something in a movie (usually it was a baleful or beautiful line reading). There were even times when Gene disagreed with a sigh that came out of me at something ridiculous, and he would call me out on it in the next quiet moment. “Hey! Ray’s bored! Let’s turn off the projector! Let’s listen to Ray!” Gene responded to one especially epic moan of dismay.
You can see why so many days, especially after their persona work in front of the cameras over at the Channel 2 studios a few blocks away, Roger might greet him with profane banter, which, were often met with blistering enmity along the lines of “Roger, you dumb fucking pig, just shut the fuck up. Just shut up. Are you still here?”
I was a witness across many years, like so many other bystanders, to this combat. They fought. They sneered. They barked. They made familiar and still unfunny jokes at each others’ expense, Gene the one who spoke aloud the most during movies, particularly those he felt superior to. Why be exposed to such selfish nonsense when the two most highly remunerated figures—millions of dollars negotiated by their agent, the name of whom Gene said should not be spoken aloud—were going at it tooth-and-nail?
A former producer of their show, the late Andrea Gronvall, ought to have lived to tell her tales on paper, but was too modest. And maybe too angry? Her stories from the actual workplace were scalding but are not mine to tell. That past has passed.
Many reviewers, including me most days, kept out of the forty-nine-seat room when they were in fullest plumage, the other professionals, waiting for the lights, and the volume, to go down. Again, again.
When I was but a child, a couple months off the farm in the South, Gene tried to have me for lunch. The week before, a movie had opened, a thriller that looks better and also more lunatic to adult eyes so many years later. Gene had reviewed it on its opening Friday as “a thinking man’s thriller.” Because my college paper’s arts section appeared on Wednesday, reviews appeared after a movie (and other reviews) had opened. In this case, I said something or other, not naming the Tribune’s cinematic bard, “If this is a thinking man’s thriller, it’s a thriller for a man who stopped thinking at age fourteen.”
What was the screening the next week at the McClurg Court Cinemas, now demolished, down on Ohio? Dunno. But I remember Gene striding up to me, his combover thick, bearing a full-on Fu Manchu mustache, which nowadays would be considered a Freddie Mercury ‘stache, wearing a striped shirt with buttons open down to… there, as well as what memory hallucinates as purple bell-bottom wide-wale corduroys. I was agog even at that callow age and have told this often enough that I can’t imagine this being an inaccurate snapshot of the man who coveted and invested in John Travolta’s pure white three-piece “Saturday Night Fever” costume with the aerodynamic collars.
Gene’s extended arm and pointed finger were prepared. He called me by the version of my name I wrote under then. My back was against the wall across from an empty concessions counter, the carpeted wall tickling my back. “Why did you write this review? Where did you come from? Why would you say that? Are you embarrassed for your university? Are you not embarrassed for your family? Did no one ever teach you that you can’t go around saying things like that about people who hold positions? Don’t you respect those older than you?” The threatening attention did not offer youthful me a thrill. But I wasn’t intimidated by this person.
The angriest I ever saw Gene get at me—Roger skittered away that afternoon, warning me that I was going to be well and truly targeted—was over my review of the Coen brothers’ “Fargo.” I had written in Newcity, “Just because Siskel and Ebert are calling it some damn thing or another like ‘a new American masterpiece’ is no reason not to see ‘Fargo.’”
At that time, there were lots of ads for movies in print. Some weeks a few, some weeks a lot. The movie section ran intact, full reviews for every movie playing in the city and suburbs if Miramax Films and other art-house concerns placed enough square yardage in the large, newsprint tabloid. Weaker weeks, the reviews would be shortened by hand late at night on paste-up boards, but no matter how few pages there were in the film section during the lengthy Chicago theatrical engagement of “Fargo,” at least that opening line would run: “Just because Siskel and Ebert are calling it some damn thing or another like ‘a new American masterpiece’ is no reason not to see ‘Fargo.’”
I arrived ten or fifteen minutes before a mid-afternoon movie. Roger was having greens from a Tupperware standing near the door and his customary seat at the exit, near the washroom. Whoosh! He was gone, the door closing behind him.
I wish I could write in bristling detail about their sporadic rage across those decades, but all it amounts to week after week, screening after screening, especially the ones after their midweek tapings, is hostility that slathered everyone in the room. I remember the look of chagrin on the face of cool, kindly Roy Leonard: it happened too often to register as shock, only as dismay at needless mussing of another day.
I look for notes in my many handwritten journals and they’re never as detailed as they could be; they’re notations of workaday hurt. “Gene calls Roger fat”; “Gene calls Roger a fat motherfucker.” “Roger says, ‘Fuck. You.’” We were there to be astonished, to invoke Jean Cocteau’s phrase about waiting for the lights to go down, but instead were assaulted.
Post-“Fargo,” Gene refined his case against me. “Would you not say that we agree on most everything, on almost every movie, what you would give three stars I would give three stars and what I would give one star you would give one star?”
“Newcity doesn’t give stars.”
“Nonetheless, would you not say that we agree in principle? Ray? Answer me?”
I turned away. More than once.
Would you not say that he is still here? Yes. Yes, I would say that the malign phantom is still here, but there is no fear. Bemusement? Maybe.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.