Thursday, October 23, 2008
Bad Movies: To Quit, or Not to Quit?
“How long should you sit through a bad movie?” That’s the way Friend of The Cooler Mark titled his e-mail last weekend when he forwarded a link to Roger Ebert’s blog post called “Don’t read me first!” In the post, Ebert defends his review of Tru Loved, a small independent film he’d blasted in a 735-word review despite watching less than 9 minutes of the movie. That Ebert admitted as much in the original review was the basis for his defense of his 1-star review. That Ebert was literally less than upfront about his early exit (he didn’t reveal prematurely quitting the movie until the last full paragraph) is what drew criticism – first from an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, and then from his blog readership, which has logged in with more than 500 comments on the issue.
As Mark predicted, I’d already seen Ebert’s blog piece (and thus also Ebert’s original review of Tru Loved). However, I hadn’t seen Ebert’s entry in the light in which it was now forwarded to my attention. Until then, I was caught up on the journalistic ethics of it all: Was Ebert’s review fair? (Sort of, I had decided. Ebert had been honest, if not perfectly explicit, in noting the amount of the film he viewed. And I suspect his written reactions to those 8 minutes were nothing short of sincere. But Ebert hadn’t practiced good journalism. His reaction to Tru Loved produced a story but not the story. Like all too many active journalists, Ebert had opted for sensationalism over good old-fashioned reportage.) This pondering of Ebert’s critical approach was absolutely appropriate. All the while, though, a more basic and yet equally worthy debate was right in front of me, and I was blind to it. Indeed: how long should you sit through a bad movie?
It’s a question that’s relevant on two levels: (1) as it applies to the critic (professional or unpaid), and (2) as it applies to the average moviegoer just out for a good time. For the critic, tradition and general respect would suggest sitting through the entire picture. But is it absolutely essential to see every minute of a film in order to pass judgment on it? In response to condemnation from his blog readership, Ebert reversed course and gave Tru Loved a full viewing. That inspired a longer (1,808 words), more detailed review that’s barely more praiseworthy than the first one. As a report for consumers trying to determine whether to see all or none of Tru Loved, Ebert’s second review is more valuable. But as a criticism of art, does the second review have any greater value than the first? Given that in his original review Ebert revealed the portion of the movie he was evaluating, I would say no – the same way that an appreciation or condemnation of a specific scene in a film is no less relevant than a critique of the entire body of the film.
But what about the average moviegoer? Does he or she owe a film a complete viewing? I would struggle to argue yes, because it’s the consumer’s time and money being invested. When I go to an art museum, I’m far more likely to spend time lingering in front of paintings than in front of sculptures, as I simply prefer one medium to the other. If I’m free to speed through the sculptures, or bypass them altogether, why shouldn’t a moviegoer be able to bail early on a film that’s failing to entertain or inspire? Then again, a movie is designed to be appreciated in its entirety. If you’ve only seen half of a movie, have you really seen it?
Ever since I started writing about movies (on and off) more than 10 years ago, I have made it a policy never to walk out of a theatrical screening. I’ve broken the rule twice, most recently with Friend of The Cooler Hokahey at Rules Of Attraction. In both cases the early exits had as much to do with wanting to make better use of precious time with a friend as it did with my dissatisfaction with the film itself. When I really think about it, I could probably stand to walk out early on a few films each year. But, like quitting midway through a workout, there’s a real danger that it becomes an awful habit. In what so far has been a disappointing year at the movies, I would have been more than happy to quit on as many as 10 films. But I stuck with them, and I’m glad I did. (At least, I think I’m glad.) In many cases – Appaloosa, most recently – I saw a film’s greatest moments only because I was willing to keep my butt in the seat. Such late windfalls rarely redeem an entire movie, but sometimes they do. And, in the meantime, they remind me of why I showed up at the cinema in the first place.
For all movie lovers, I think, movie-going is like an endless cycle of blind dates. Each time we show up at the theater hoping that this is The One – the movie that will sweep us off our feet like none has before. Odds are that it won’t happen. But we keep coming back, living for the possibility and enjoying those precious yet fleeting moments of magic in between. Many a love story – in real life and on screen – would never come to fruition if we stuck to first impressions. Some romances take time. Sometimes our initial instincts are all wrong.
But now I ask you, Cooler readers: When is the last time you quit on a movie? Do you regret it? If not, how would you react if a friend told you that he/she quit early on a movie near and dear to your heart? Would you feel the movie had been given an adequate chance?