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?


Ric Burke said...

I've never walked out of film in the cinema, I've wanted to several times but always felt that I should at least see it thorough to the end.

A friend, whose opinion I hold in high regard, told me recently that he walked out of 'Happy- Go-Lucky'. I know it's not to everybody's taste, I really liked it, but to walk out? I didn't really understand that but obviously he found it unbearable.

I believe Ebert should have least seen it through, no matter how bad, as he's paid to watch them after all. As a punter, I believe it's best to get out of dodge if the film is beyond awful. The law of averages states that I'll do it one day.

Richard Bellamy said...

The only movie I walked out on was "Rules of Attraction," but that was because I was with Jason and we agreed we could find something better to do. I can't think of any other film I've walked out on. Since 1998 I have made a point of writing a comment or a full review on every movie I see - and this compilation of the year's reviews is shared with Jason of the Cooler. So, I guess I feel required to stay through the film in order to form a complete opinion about it. Most recently, I felt like running out of Spike Lee's "The Miracle at St. Anna" because it was so terribly made. What a shoddy job! But I hung in there. I wanted to have a full pile of ammunition to sling at the film when I wrote the review. Ten minutes into the movie I had no hopes for it; I knew there would be no turnaround, but still I wanted the whole bad picture. I kept wishing for a turnaround when I saw "The Happening," because Shyamalan's strength is in the ending and I felt a great ending could have redeemed the film for Mark Wahlberg, the many death scenes that just didn't work, and bad lines like "I think there's a bathroom here." Alas, there was no redemption. But I hung in there. I always hang in there. Part of the reason is that if I leave I'm leaving the major decompression chamber I use for myself to unwind after a stressful week teaching middle schoolers. I'd rather stay and watch even if I squirm in reaction to the horridness of a film. Sometimes I stay, perversely, because I want to see if it gets worse! Recent experiences like this - "Flightplan" with Jodie Foster and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

Allison said...

Jason! I commented earlier and I do not see it. Was it deleted? Promise i didn't use bad words. :)

I never leave movies. I have wanted to MANY times, most recently at the latest Indiana Jones movie. But, once I commit to a movie and the money and the time, I'm down to at least see it through no matter what.

Other notes:

1. LAME to leave early if you are a critic. That would be like a beat writer leaving in the first quarter of a blowout. could you imagine?

2. Rules of Attraction. I loved this movie and own it. Please talk to me about your disdain. It may also be because I'm dark and love Bret Easton Ellis...

Do tell.

Fox said...

Great piece, Jason. I hadn't heard that about Ebert and Tru Loved (haven't heard of that movie either...). I have mixed feelings about what Ebert did. Since he admitted up front that he only saw 9 minutes of the film, I think he clears himself a bit. I mean, at that point readers should know it's kind of a stunt review.

However, I agree with you that it's bad criticism and unethical specifically on the grounds that he gets paid to do what he does. Oh well, he will have another entry for one of his "THIS MOVIE SUCKS" books, I guess.

On walking out... I never do it. I have fallen asleep, however. And while that may add up to the same lack of paying attention, at least it's not deliberate.

What I do when I really hate a movie, is make a point to walk out as soon as the first credit hits. While this is not a vocal or noticeable sign of protest, it at least makes me feel good.

Anonymous said...

The one movie I distinctly remember walking out on was the one many, many years ago that starred John Travolta and Lily Tomlin as lovers. (Not inspired to look up the title at the moment. 1977, maybe?) It was so bloody awful. I'm pretty sure the experience is what caused the former to retreat into pseudo-religion and the latter to swear off men for life.

Jason Bellamy said...

Great comments, all! Some replies …

Often I stick with movies for the same reason I show up in the first place: Because I want to know them even if I can’t enjoy them. Which is to say: I’m sure “Rules Of Attraction” has some redeeming moments, but I’m totally unaware of them because I walked out. My loss. By sticking through “The Happening,” on the other hand, I can discuss its suckage because I experienced it. All of it. Every painful second. (Though with that one I think it reached a point where I became like James Bond in the latest “Casino Royale” and managed to find some sick pleasure out of the repeated shots to the groin. But I digress.)

The night Hokahey and I walked out of “Rules Of Attraction” we were face-to-face for the first time in about a decade. Being movie freaks we of course went looking for a movie. But we were in some dingy back corner of Foxborough (I was there on business) and the options at the multiplex were limited. “Rules” started at a convenient time. We went for it.

Allison, correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the first 10 minutes of “Rules” include lots of wannabe Tarantino dialogue with totally unnecessary amounts of cussing, followed by a scene where (I think) a guy vomits on a girl while more or less raping her at a frat party. Something like that. Anyway, it’s an ugly first 10 minutes that totally repulsed me, and I looked at Hokahey and said we should walk. This led to us driving to another multiplex, but the options there were no better. So I don’t regret at all walking out of that film. And I have no desire, none, to see the rest of it (though I’ve heard from at least one other person who likes it). But under normal circumstances, I would have suffered through. Hokahey would have too.

Here’s a follow-up question: Are people as devoted to sitting through DVDs as they are with in-theater screenings? I have a hunch that people who would never walk out at a theater might stop a DVD midway through out of boredom and never get back to the rest of it.

Admission: A few months ago, I fast-forward scanned through the last 30 minutes or so of “Pushing Tin.” Someone had told me it was a fun movie, and so I Netflixed it. But beyond marveling at Angelina Jolie’s old nose, I got no pleasure out of it. In the end my regret wasn’t quitting the movie early. It was that I didn’t quit it early enough.

Jason Bellamy said...

Oh, and this: No, Allison. I didn't delete any comment. But yesterday I noticed that comments in Blogger were screwy. Trying to post at another blog, I lost an entire comment trying to login. So my guess is that's what happened for you.

Jason Bellamy said...

Oh, and this too: I linked to it above, but since we're taking Ebert to task (and rightfully so), be sure to read his follow-up post on the "Tru Loved" controversy. At least Ebert is contrite in his apology. If he failed to meet journalistic standards the first time around, he exceeded requirements in the end. Good for him.

Mark said...

Jason, I'm glad you took up this topic. I had a feeling that with The Cooler's smart readership it would make for a lively conversation.

My policy generally has been to try to stick movies out. You've already paid the money, it's only two hours, there's popcorn. As opposed to a bad book, which I'll drop like a dinnertime sales call. There are just too many good books and not enough time to slog through something I'm not enjoying.

That said, I feel like I must have walked out of a theater at some point but I can't remember any specific instances now. I remember hating and not getting "My Dinner With Andre" when it came out and watching my watch as much as the screen, but I stuck it out. (I never did go back and re-watch that one but I feel like I should now with a few years on me.)

To answer your question about movies at home, though, yes, we stop DVDs or Tivo'd movies all the time. Just the other night, in fact, we gave up on "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" about 20 minutes in. It was part of our Paul Newman film festival and neither of us had seen it; I was looking forward to it. But somehow Michelle and I weren't at all grabbed by the setup and the goofy tone. We determined that there were plenty of other pictures to switch to, and without having to get up, walk to the car and make a new plan it was an easy call. (Was that decision a mistake?)

As for Ebert and "Tru Loved," I agree with Fox's observation that it was essentially a stunt review and so I give it a pass. Especially since he came clean about his walkout both to his editor and to his readers. And in fact the follow-up discussion on his blog became far more worthwhile than any consideration of the movie could have been, at any length.

Not sure I'd like to see him or any other critic make a habit of it though. We're paying you to sit there so we don't have to, dude. I can't tell you how many City Council or legislative committee meetings I've slogged through even though I could write the story -- and get it right! -- in the first five minutes.

Thanks again for bringing such excellent topics and thoughts to this blog.

-- Mark

Richard Bellamy said...


I agree with you on "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" - a quirky tone that just doesn't hold up today. I remember being very disappointed by this movie when I first saw it - though I didn't walk out.

Another Newman "Western" that I had had hopes for was "Buffalo Bill and the Indians" - but it doesn't have enough memorable drama to be worth re-watching.

Paul Newman's passing probably urged a number of us to check out some old Newman movies. I would like to invest in a DVD copy of "Hombre." I remember seeing "Somebody Up There Likes Me" on TV when I was young. To me Newman is THE "Rocky" - sorry Sylvester. And I also remember really liking the sort of novelistic epic nature of "From the Terrace."

James Yates said...

As a college film critic a few years back, I saw my fair share of bad films. The two that I most wanted to walk out of were "Formula 51" and "I Spy."

An old friend of mine used to work at a movie theater, and the theater had a policy allowing people refunds if they didn't like a movie an hour or so into it. That absolutely stunned me. Obviously, if you don't like a movie, you're free to leave, but I would never imagine asking for a refund. Isn't it implied that there's a 50/50 shot that you won't like a film?

Of course, depending on how awful the film in question is, there's always the benefit of staying for the unintentional laughs.

Anonymous said...

I've walked out of two films in my moviegoing life. One was Bruno Dumont's Twenty Nine Palms, simply because it was a beautiful day outside and there were plenty of better ways to spend my time than to watch this grim nonsense. The other time was involuntary, when I had to leave a screening of Mr Hulot's Holiday because I had eaten something that disagreed with me and I suddenly became violently ill. I rectified that situation later in the week, though, when I went back for a second viewing of Tati's great film.

But I try to stay with a film at all costs. If I started walking out of bad movies just because I wasn't enjoying them, it might become a bad habit.

Anonymous said...

The last time I walked out on a movie was Tuesday, October 21. The film was Dead Girl's Feast, a festival film from Brazil that later garnered the best new director prize. Do I regret it, particularly in light of the honor it won? Not at all. I think the judges were wrong, but they're entitled to their opinion. The hubby and I found it revolting and condescending, a judgment somewhat confirmed by the young Brazilians sitting next to us laughing derisively at a simple-minded man complaining to his sow of a wife.

I've walked out of other films and turned off films I've watched at home. My time is more important to me than to keep going on some movie I'm not enjoying or getting something out of just on principle. Do I sometimes miss the best parts of a film that might redeem it in my eyes? I guess I probably do, but you know what? There are masterpieces I haven't seen yet. There are hundreds of films released each year that I can't possibly find time, energy, or money to see.

I'm a critic because I want to help other movie fans sift through the din of films out there and find the ones that I found worth my time. Ebert had every right to walk out of that movie - his late colleague Gene Siskel said "that's 2 hours of my life I'll neer get back again" about bad movies, and with Roger's ailing health, I think he's seeing the wisdom in that sentence. However, he shouldn't have written a review of the film. You can't possibly know what a film holds after 8 minutes. I even gave Dead Girl's Feast an hour before packing it in; the minimum I usually give a film is 30 minutes.