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Dipti S. Barot | Longreads | November 2019 | 11 minutes (2,634 words)
When I was a teenager, I made the unusual decision to switch schools midway through high school. I kept having the distinct, nagging feeling that there was much more to explore beyond the comfortable bubble of my tiny private school, and if I didn’t leave, then my growth would be stunted forever. One of my best friends at the time wrote me a lovely metaphorical story as my farewell gift. It was about two beautiful bird friends who lived in a gorgeous garden surrounded by tall walls, one of whom wants to fly outside to discover new worlds. And fly away I did. I transferred to a large public school shortly thereafter and immediately realized that I needed to find friends, and fast. Fate intervened in the form of two middle aged white gentlemen who soon became my constant weekly companions during this rough transition. Their names were Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.
Times were financially topsy turvy for our family then, and television provided an escape from that. I don’t specifically remember stumbling upon Siskel and Ebert the first time, but it likely happened when I was surfing the limited number of local TV channels that our antenna could catch for free. It was a half-hour movie review show, where two critics who wrote for rival newspapers in Chicago would get together and talk shop and share their opinions on the movies of the day.
This 16-year-old brown girl was likely an outlier in the target demographic for two white men from the Midwest around my Dad’s age. Undoubtedly it was one of their classic, boisterous back and forth bickerings that must have given me enough pause to stay on their channel rather than continue surfing, the sheer magnetism of their bursts of antagonism drawing me in. But once I discovered them, I was hooked. There was no going back.
I had one date and one date alone every Saturday evening at 6:30pm, and I would make sure that no other commitments would stand in the way of my special time with my guys. Of course, there were no other plans to cancel or reshuffle, because the reality of having no close friends during your junior year of high school had paved the way for many an empty weekend. And thus began the tradition of Siskel and Ebert Saturday nights with my dudes. I relished their repartee, their intelligent banter, their expressions of disgust and contempt towards disappointing movies, and oftentimes towards each other.
This last category was what I imagine hooked the most fans, and certainly the reason I got lured. When do you get to see intelligent people who actually respect each other disagree so passionately that it’s as if sparks are ricocheting off the screen? There was chubby Roger Ebert, often the meaner of the two, with his barbed complaints about his partner’s latest opinions, and there was the tall, balding Gene Siskel, the gentler and kinder one, more likely to throw up his hands in exasperation. With Siskel and Ebert, you got to peek into the unvarnished moments where they wanted to throttle each other, and it was an intellectual exercise in rhetorical gymnastics, layered with the antics and drama of World Wrestling Federation. It was a bedazzling polemical display.
Prior to finding those guys, the main staple in my childhood entertainment diet was Bollywood films. My cousins and I would get together and recreate scenes and songs from Gopal Krishna, belt out Amitabh tunes from Coolie, and get swept away in the melodrama of the latest Romeo and Juliet remake, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. Road trips and family parties would be incomplete without endless rounds of Antakadi, the singing game that means “end verse.” Teams compete against each other by belting out tunes back and forth; the last letter of the final verse just sung by one team becomes the first letter of the next song sung by the next team. Bollywood films were a fully immersive three-hour experience, and it was the bread and butter — rather, the rotli and ghee — of our lives.
Then Siskel and Ebert entered my life in such a profound way that they forever changed my appetite for entertainment, and in fact, reconfigured my palate indelibly. They kept convincing me to watch movies not just well outside my Bollywood wheelhouse, but also outside my Hollywood one. Their passion was so keen, so contagious, their ability to champion films so effective, that I felt helpless to do anything but. I couldn’t afford to be a regular theater goer at that moment in time, so I would often have to wait months for the VHS to come out before I could view their recommendations. I kept a running list of the films I wanted to see and soon became a regular at the family-owned Expo Video only blocks away on the corner of 11th Street and Orange Avenue in Huntington Beach.
Another Friday night would roll around with nothing to do and no one to do it with, so I would amble over to the video store, plunk down a couple of dollars on the counter and return home to watch Siskel and Ebert’s latest find. The year was 1994 and the movies they heralded included Pulp Fiction, Shawshank Redemption, and the crowning jewel of them all, Hoop Dreams. All of a sudden my worldview expanded and my idea of what a film could be was blown wide open.
Hoop Dreams was an unforgettable documentary film that followed two young, black, gifted Chicago athletes and the enormous weight of basketball being their one shot to a better future. The film captures the poverty, the concrete landscapes of the projects, the ravages of drug addiction, and the immense pressure to succeed sitting on the spindly shoulders of these two boys. You see the beauty and resilience of black families in the face of unimaginable odds. I had never rooted more for two human beings than I did for those boys. The film was an indictment of the American dream, the farce perpetuated by a system that chews up and spits out kids like these. Siskel and Ebert, famously known for their two thumbs, gave it “two very enthusiastic thumbs up,” and in their Best of 1994 show, the pair actually agreed and picked Hoop Dreams as their best film of that year. Siskel exclaimed, “The great stuff declares itself.” The film held up a mirror to society and dared you not to look away.
For me, the movie was a revelation. Up until the moment I saw Hoop Dreams, I hadn’t experienced the power, the sheer force unleashed, when a great film achieves its full potential. After I finished watching it for the first time, I felt as if someone had reached into the caverns of my rib cage, enclosed my heart in their palms, and wrung out every drop of feeling possible from that pumping organ. It became a reference point for every single piece of art I have encountered since. Still, and this is no surprise, Hoop Dreams was not even nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar. This taught me something too.
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Hoop Dreams is a narrative of human beings trying to find success in a rigged game in which the playing field itself is unfair. The odds are so skewed against these two boys that every step forward feels like a small miracle. Just surviving in this world feels like an act of defiance, a victory. So it was no surprise that the tastemakers of the day decided to ignore the film. Regardless of whether the movie was nominated or whether these athletes made it to the NBA, we knew their value. In the aftermath of the Oscar shut-out, Ebert was inspired to write a column entitled, “Anatomy of a Snub,” in which he, once again, championed the film in contrast to every other documentary that had been nominated. Siskel and Ebert’s righteous anger around the Oscar snub made me love them even more, if that were possible.
One day, suddenly, Gene Siskel was taken away from us. Glioblastoma Multiforme — an aggressive, malignant brain cancer — was the cause. I wasn’t sure I was allowed to feel bereft since I had never known him, but I did. I wasn’t in any way prepared. But then I would think of Ebert, sitting alone in his chair on the recreated movie theater balcony that was the set for their show, and I would feel ashamed. Just Ebert. One thumb up. One thumb short. I didn’t know if he would get taken away from me, too, by some heartless broadcast bozo boss. But Ebert stayed on.
There were new iterations of their famous show, with a rotating cast of yahoos I always despised. Sure, Ebert was there, but it was never the same. When Richard Roeper ended up landing the permanent gig and it became Ebert and Roeper, I felt like a kid who hated their new stepdad. I loathed Roeper. As far as I was concerned, he was a bumbling backwoods bumpkin who could never quite sync with Ebert’s wavelength. I would still tune in, but now the show just made me sad. I would read Ebert’s writeups more, and I would note what direction his thumb went in, and cared precious little about Roeper’s stupid thumb. Looking back, was I unfair to Roeper? Absolutely. But grief doesn’t have to make sense, and it certainly doesn’t have to be fair. My Saturday night date nights were over.
All those subsequent years of film watching, I had a specially selected diet of whatever-Ebert-tells-me-to-watch. I would go to the movies I knew he had thumbs-upped, come home, look up his review, and it was like talking to an old friend about the movie you had just watched together. It was my favorite thing to do after a film. No matter what time I would come home at night, I would Google “Roger Ebert+[film name]” and then Ebert and I would hang out for a bit. In those moments, even years later, I would still miss Siskel because it had been way more fun watching them joust back and forth. But at least I had Ebert. He continued to be a champion of the films the mainstream overlooked, going so far as to start an Overlooked Film Festival in Urbana, Illinois. He used his perch on that theater balcony to open doors for films that truly held up an original lens to our world, his pulpit for amplifying stories of the underrepresented. He knew the responsibility of his position, the power of his thumb, and he wielded it for art whose values he stood for.
Many years later, life afforded me the opportunity of a pit stop in Chicago for a few years. This was during the time Ebert had begun his own illness journey with papillary thyroid cancer. It was one of those magical summer evenings in Chicago — warm with a cool breeze off Lake Michigan, kissed by a touch of humidity keeping the skin moist — where people lay out on the grass with spread blankets, picnic baskets and bare feet. The inaugural movie was the classic 60s Hitchcock thriller, The Birds. (Incidentally, if you ever really want to experience the full scope of scary movie dread that this particular film has to offer, watch it in the open air, with actual birds circling up overhead.)
It turned out that Roger Ebert was going to introduce the film. My ears perked up and I instantly made a beeline towards the mic because I knew this was going to be my chance to connect with this person who had changed my life. As he finished his introduction, I bobbed and weaved through pockets of people and found myself standing right next to him. What should I call him, I anxiously asked myself, Mr. Ebert? One voice in my head immediately cut another one off and said, No! He’s your friend, dammit.
I felt trembly as I said, “Roger! I just wanted to thank you and Gene for introducing me to Hoop Dreams all those years back when I was in high school. You guys opened me up to so many movies, but that is the one I am most thankful for.”
He shook my hand warmly, obviously confirming we’d been best friends for decades and said excitedly, “Yeah, wasn’t it just the best? I am so glad you mentioned that film because films like that can change your life.” We continued to chat for a bit, and I found myself trying not to cry, which I hadn’t expected. I had never met a hero and didn’t anticipate the overwhelm that accompanied it. Ebert then, true to form, left me with something he insisted I watch, pressing into my palm a new DVD of the film In America.
When we lost Ebert years later, in April, 2013 —after his brave and very public struggles with his recurrent cancer — I felt bereft again. Then I would think of his lovely wife Chaz, and felt ashamed of my grief. But I was grieving, there was no denying it. By this point in my life, I had a growing list of dear ones I had lost, and I knew about the irreplaceability of particular people. I experienced the lumps in throat during the birthdays you no longer celebrated, and the vacuum you could feel at the big moments, like marriages, and other milestones. What I did not anticipate was the frequency with which I would miss both Siskel and Ebert. I miss them every time I watch a movie. I missed them this spring, on a Saturday night at a very sticky-floored theater in Brooklyn, where I watched Jordan Peele’s, Us, knowing how much they would have been enthralled by it, guessing how they would have bickered about the symbolism and metaphors. I missed them when I saw the brilliant documentary, Minding the Gap, the day I turned 41, in the plush red velvet seats of a theater in Amsterdam, my husband sobbing on my shoulder as the credits rolled from the potent picture it painted not only of the filmmaker’s childhood, but of his own. I missed how vociferously they likely would have championed the luminous Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, the mini-series that rended our hearts with the story of five innocent boys and succeeded in forever replacing the moniker “The Central Park Five” with “The Exonerated Five.” I feel certain Siskel and Ebert would have been outraged at its lone Emmy and trust me, they would have let everyone know. I miss them every time.
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I have been lucky to have some extraordinary role models who’ve helped shape my life, and I count Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert as formative ones. Siskel and Ebert and their thumbs have defined much of my life, and I am richer for it. I did not end up behind a camera, or find myself writing scripts for a living. I am not an artist; I am just a normal human who loves to go to the movies. As did they. I didn’t spend my weekends in high school getting high at the arcade under the Pier or getting wasted at a house party when someone’s parents were out of town. I spent them with Siskel and Ebert and in the worlds they insisted I enter, taking me by the hand and coaxing me to bear witness to lives so different from my own, beckoning me to find the places where we overlap. They were my standing Saturday night dates, my life concierges, my fake white Dads, curating the culture for me; they were my bridges to beautiful things.
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Dipti S. Barot is based in the Bay Area, where she moonlights in medicine and dabbles in real estate while dreaming of being a high school English teacher.
Editor: Sari Botton