Unless you’ve been living in a film industry bubble the last few days, you’re probably aware of Roger Ebert’s now (in)famous review of Tru Loved, which he wrote based upon notations taken during the film’s first 8 minutes. After this, he paused his screener, and the temptation to forgo the remainder became too great for him to ignore. He typed up his review and sent it to his editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, who had one objection — she felt Ebert was ethically obligated to disclose outright the fact that he had only seen the movie’s first 8 minutes. Ebert disagreed, wanting to save this revelation until the denouement of his review (and dramatically he’s right; it’s the only way to include such a fact and keep the review at all interesting). Ebert won, the review was printed as it was. The backlash was astounding. Ebert blogged about the issue twice, once to directly solicit comments from readers and a second time to issue what was essentially a mea culpa for having done the indie flick a disservice. I read through several of the comments on both posts; they run the expected gamut from defensive to apathetic to piercingly vituperative.
Being an occasional (though thus far unpaid) film critic and a long-time (though not enthusiastic) reader of Ebert, it puts me in an interesting position to comment on the above events, although I think virtually every possible opinion has already been expressed, ad nauseam. Ebert has always struck me as a curious sort of cultural phenomenon; he might be the purest (and maybe the best) movie “reviewer” out there, and he’s not paid to write because he can usefully organize films (ie Andrew Sarris or Richard Corliss) or forcefully burrow into them (ie Manny Farber) or weigh them against some obtuse, arcane, social morality rubric (ie Bosley Crowther). Ebert just describes what he likes and doesn’t like about the movies, plain and simple. Why you should see a particular flick and avoid another. Some may dispute the significance of this sort of criticism, but it’s made Ebert probably the best known American critic of all time, and allowed him to embody however obliquely what is generally considered the critical zeitgeist — in the pre-filmcrit blog era, anyway. For example, look at one of my favorite TV shows of all time, The Critic, starring Jon Lovitz as a doughy, cranky, lovable, Pulitzer-winning film critic with a ridiculously reductive review schematic (the “Shermometor,” an appropriation of the the “thumbs up/down” system). The cartoon worked because we so strongly identified all those characteristics with film criticism to begin with (although the writing/producing team of Al Jean and Mike Reiss helped a great deal).
But, back to the issue at hand. Some individuals are actually claiming that Ebert cheated them, and I think my observations in the above paragraph have something to do with it. Since Ebert’s real claim to fame is simply *reviewing* the movies, mediating likes and dislikes, then how can he be said to have gotten a true “reading” of the film in only eight minutes? You know, I almost feel sorry for Ebert when I hear such arguments, because if this were any other film critic working today the review would have largely been ignored (Consider hearing Jonathon Rosenbaum walk out of a picture. I wouldn’t feel compelled to see the film in question, but I wouldn’t blame him for writing an essay about why he walked out, either). But, Ebert has become a kind of star power critic, and we hold him to strong ethical standards insofar as is relevant to his “job”.
I also find it interesting that so many comments on the blogs noted to Ebert (or scolded him, rather) that reviewing movies is his “job”. As though he were financially or contractually obligated to sit through films in their entirety because he is receiving money to do so. Once again, I feel there’s something askew in this logic. First of all, I doubt anyone writing those comments actually funds Ebert’s work, and second of all, once again I remind that as a critic, Ebert is only getting paid for his opinions (or such is my personal consideration of this profession). The implication in the anti-8 minute sentiments is that the film critic is supposed to be stronger than the average human being, able to view miles upon miles of celluloid shlock and not only survive the experience but wax poetic on the occasional merits of one- and two- star specimens that the typical moviegoer wouldn’t touch with a ten foot twizzler and a giant tub of popcorn. I am a bit flattered by this perception, as Ebert should be, but it’s simply unfair. The film critic is no stronger than you are, my average moviegoer. He or she simply expresses his/her ideas on paper better (sometimes) and (again sometimes) knows more about film historically and technically than you do.
I was reminded a little here of Cary Grant’s character in Arsenic and Old Lace. A real estate writer-turned theater critic, he abhors the daily drudgery of subpar histrionics and at one point elucidates a plan to watch the first act of a play and then “pan the hell out of it”. Of course, at that moment he had a family emergency (namely that his aunts were murdering helpless elderly men and burying them in the cellar), so this does not come across as a character flaw whatsoever. But, putting the specifics aside — the critic is a human being, with a life outside their work, and will occasionally make accommodations. Furthermore, the critic is a human being with a threshold for crap. I think Ebert’s trespass was far less dubious than that above; is Cary Grant so much more likable that we forgive him any faux pas (this need not be answered)?
Finally, I can fully comprehend and empathize with those that feel Ebert was insulting to the film, but let’s face it — some films deserve to be insulted (I haven’t seen this one so I can’t comment further there). I feel strongly that withdrawal — in film reviewing or in politics — can be a powerful critical statement. It’s more or less the same dichotomy that draft dodgers face: you’re either an unpatriotic coward for refusing to serve Uncle Sam or a hero for standing up and proclaiming your opinion despite the potential repercussions. I think the truth falls somewhere in between, depending on the situation. But isn’t refusing to see a movie for various reasons just as valid a criticism as sitting through the same movie in its entirety and feeling disgusted? Granted, they’re different situations — in one instance you’re responding to the movie itself and in the other you’re responding to the aura around the movie, the vibes you glean from descriptions and other reviews and trailers, etc. But they’re both responses. And at the end of the day that is all critics should be required to do — respond. To what, and in what capacity, is their choice.