I do not know Matt Singer, the author of "Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever," published Oct. 24 and which the Tribune's Michael Phillips praised, calling it "a good story, told adroitly and often movingly."
To a point, that assessment is true. I wanted more. That's my problem.
Again, I do not know Singer but I knew Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert (and worked and socialized with both), as well as many of the other people who played parts prominent and minor in the lives of this remarkable pair, and who pepper the 352 pages of this book.
Singer told Phillips that as he was preparing to present his literary agent with a proposal, he "looked back at Ebert's memoir and thought: That's a great book. But there are only three chapters on Siskel and Ebert. So maybe there's room for a book like mine to exist."
That "maybe" convinced Singer's agent and G.P. Putnam's Sons, which published the book. It is filled with many of the details of the television phenomenon that paired Ebert of the Sun-Times and Siskel of the Chicago Tribune on TV shows reviewing movies.
Under a number of different titles , the show was hugely influential, making the unlikely pair rich and famous. Singer energetically attempts to get behind the myths, suppositions and theories in trying to explain how this happened.
And so we get this, as Singer writes, "Disagreements over the pronunciation of foreign filmmakers' names were not uncommon on the set ... but they typically escalated into all-out fights. Among the show's crew, Gene and Roger's dispute over the pronunciation of the word gauntlet is legendary -- even though, to this author's knowledge, there is only one correct pronunciation of 'gauntlet.'"
There is, I fear, no way to fully explain what made Ebert and Siskel work, though there is much to be gained in Ebert's "Life Itself: A Memoir," published in 2011. It is a masterpiece of the self-reflective kind, much of it mined from the blog he had started years before.
Ebert died in 2013; Siskel in 1999. Neither of them is available to offer their famous thumbs in reference to Singer's book.
I remember that Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss once described their show as "a sitcom about two guys who lived in a movie theater." And Singer does offer an interesting story, told to him by Ebert's widow Chaz, about some TV executives having actually floated the notion of a sitcom based on fictional versions of the two critics or a show on which they would "play" themselves. Either of these thank-god-they-never-were-made efforts would have been titled "Best Enemies."
Chaz Ebert is a valuable source for the book, as is Siskel's widow Marlene Iglitzen. I know and like both women and wish they had been prodded to say more about the nature and character of the men they loved.
Media critic Robert Feder has some incisive observations here, as does Richard Roeper, who had a lengthy television seat next to Ebert. Phillips too has some good words and thoughts to share. After Roger lost his voice after surgeries, my voice was used to read Ebert's words in televised reviews, as was that of his friend, Bill Kurtis. We were both honored to do so.
We are minor players to be sure. But lots of memories poured forth after reading Singer's book, which compelled me to rewatch Steve James' intimate documentary based on Ebert's memoir and with heart wrenching access to some of Ebert's final days.
I also reread my obituaries of both men, and another about Tim Weigel, who had been Siskel's roommate freshman year at Yale and who also, in one of the most haunting coincidences I have ever encountered, also died of a brain malady in 2001.
I suppose in doing all of this, I was attempting to do what Singer set out to do, to explain the magic that was Siskel and Ebert. Perhaps some mysteries have no explanation. Perhaps some mysteries are miracles.
Something Ebert had to say when I called him for comment for the obituary I was writing about Siskel came back to me: "I remember after we first started out and we were on a talk show and this old actor Buddy Rogers said to us, 'The trouble with you guys is that you have a sibling rivalry.' We did. He was like a brother, and I loved him that way."
Ebert also said "How meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love."
And that'll have to be good enough for me.