Criticwire Survey: Movie Walkouts

Features
February 10, 2014 9:40 AM
4 Comments
  • |

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: After leaving a play at intermission, the New York Times theatre critic Walter Kerr famously quipped, "You don't have to eat the whole apple to know it's rotten." Is it okay for movie critics to walk out of a film (or turn off a screener), and if so, can they write about it?

Matt Zoller Seitz, New York, RogerEbert.com

If you are assigned to review the film, or if you're planning on doing any kind of think piece, you are obligated to watch the entire thing, and people are right to complain if you don't watch the whole thing but write about it anyway.

If you are not reviewing it, or presenting what purports to be a comprehensive, informed opinion about it, there is nothing wrong with walking out and telling people you walked out. You are simply reporting something that happened that day. 

Stephen Whitty, The Star-Ledger

With a dozen or more movies opening every weekend, not all of which I can write about, I admit I have turned off screeners 30 minutes in, saying, this is a bad little film on a single screen, no one is going to know about it anyway, I'm going to do it a favor and not review. And then I stick to that, and don't write a thing about it, at all. But if you are determined to review something, I think the very least you can do -- this is not exactly ditch-digging, you know -- is stay in your seat until the damn thing is over. I mean, would you skip the last 100 pages but still write a book review? Walk out before the fourth movement and still critique a symphony? Doing anything less isn't fair to anyone, and at the very least, risks making you look like an utter fool; imagine reviewers in 1960 who walked out of Psycho after 15 minutes, complaining it was just another robbery picture. 

Dan Kois, Slate

Of course it's okay to walk out of a movie or turn off a screener. Life's too short. It's also OK to write about it. The only thing it's not okay to do is to write a piece that lies about doing so. You can even write a "review," if you want, if you are upfront about how much you saw and make a vigorous case for why you left early. And you should remain open to the possibility that, say, the last 68 minutes of Monuments Men might be terrific and you might have blown it. The outlet you write for would be wise to make sure that review is not the only take on the film in their pages, but that's up to editors.

Keith Phipps, The Dissolve

If that critic is reviewing the movie then absolutely not. There's no way to write an accurate assessment of a film without seeing the whole thing. I've had my flight reflex kick in over the years -- Tomcats, Big Mommas: Like Father Like Son -- but you owe it to your readers to stick it out. I think there's an unspoken trust that a critic will have at least seen the film he or she is writing about and, look, ultimately it's just not that hard to watch a movie. I had a job shaving the rough edges off of plastic boxes one summer. That was hard. Watching movies is easy.

Robert Levin, amNewYork

It is okay for a critic to walk out of a movie or shut off a screener if, and only if, the critic discloses the walkout in precise detail at the top of the review. Depending on when the walkout happened, the tone might need to shift toward a "Why I walked out of __" story. It's a fundamental concept, really: Honesty is always the best and most important policy. That being said, if a critic starts making a habit of doing this it becomes problematic, for obvious reasons.

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs, Variety

Serge Daney never saw Kapo.

Jordan Hoffman, ScreenCrush, New York Daily News

It's like the nuclear option. I say you can do it -- but maybe once or twice in a career -- and only in the most extreme cases, with extenuating circumstances. Just hating it doesn't cut the mustard.

Also you must make it very clear in the very first line of your piece. I say this because it is what I believe, but also to cover my own ass after leaving the screening of The Raid 2 with a few minutes remaining. (I originally thought there were ten left -- I'm now told I missed about five.) To further explain the specificity of my situation -- I really thought I was going to hurl during The Raid 2. Also, it was the type of film that, let's face it, by this point of the game, even a last minute reveal isn't going to change its gimmicky nature. But I spoke with friends who sat through it to find out what I missed, to double-check. (Come to think of it, I missed as much as if I went to the bathroom. Should critics be allowed to go to the loo during a film? I always try to hold it in, but sometimes ya gotta!)

You can also turn down assignments if you think you just aren't going to be able to handle the film. I was supposed to review Amour, but when the movie was coming out there was some emotional stuff happening in my family that made me recognize the ROI wasn't there for me. Editors are human beings, and mine was quite kind when I told him I'd end up an emotional catastrophe if I saw that movie at that time.

But I'd like to discuss a different problem. So many of the foreign language/independent films I review are given to me via screener links. The reality is that with my schedule I may not be reviewing these films at all if I weren't given the freedom to fit them in on my schedule. I watch 'em either very early in the morning or very late at night. 

Most of these are on (glorious) Vimeo, which I can link up to my fairly sizable television via a gewgaw on my iPad. This set-up makes the picture quality look as good as a DVD. Sometimes -- maybe 25% of the time -- I am condemned to screen a film via a link that I can only watch on my laptop. This is a problem, because I am always just a tap away from my email or interrupting IMs. 

I am pretty good about staying true to the film and blocking everything else out. But when a movie is dragging on and I already kinda know how I feel about it -- and the outlet I'm writing for only wants a very short capsule because the film is playing one theater for six nights - it is very tempting to check email. I don't, though. I really fight it. That's the pact I've made with the Fates that allowed me to sustain myself on this very cool job. But it's tough! Hopefully filmmakers will see this lament and demand that their screener links be on Vimeo or one of the other platforms that allows an HDMI connection.

Oh -- and about the bathroom question? The moral answer is, number one is okay, number two, that's missing too much of the movie.

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

I made public my objection to the fact that Jordan Hoffman's Sundance write-up of The Raid 2 -- in which he described leaving before the end -- was identified as a "review", including a numerical rating. A writer can certainly turn any experience into fodder, but to me it's not merely semantic that if one doesn't finish watching a movie/reading a book/etc., you shouldn't "review" it. Talk about why you did what you did, and what you saw before you left, but at that point it becomes primarily about you, not about the work. And as inevitably subjective as writing about art of any kind must be, the moment you realize you're really writing about yourself, it's time to stop calling it a "review."

So sure, it's okay to walk out; people have to make choices like that all the time at festivals, and sometimes simply run out of patience in a more conventional viewing setting. Just understand what it is you've given up the right to do at that point, namely providing a discussion of the film that suggests a full and thorough experience of it.

Kenji Fujishima, Slant Magazine, In Review Online

Though I personally believe in giving every movie a fair shake by sticking with it until the very end, I don't look down upon other critics who do walk out of something/shut off a screener midway; that's their right, and perhaps they have understandable reasons for doing so (life's too short, better movies are playing at a festival, etc.). I'd apply a similar stance on writing about a movie a critic walks out on: You're free to write about it, especially as long as you're upfront about the fact that you didn't technically finish it; I'm free to toss that particular review aside if I feel it's not worth taking into serious consideration because of that fact.

Farran Smith Nehme, Self-Styled Siren, New York Post

At home, I've shut off films or walked out of the room, sure -- who hasn't? And I've walked out of cinemas when I loathed the film, although not often, because I'm stubborn. But that's on my own dime and my own time. When I'm reviewing something for the New York Post, I watch the whole thing. Period. I may use my hand to hold my head upright, I may chew gum in hopes the minty-fresh feeling will keep me awake, I may slump down so far I'm practically inventing a new yoga position, but I watch.

If can't finish a film I'm watching for my blog, I don't write about it, so there's that problem solved. If I give a movie one star in the Post, it's a pretty sure bet that Citizen Farran, there strictly for her own amusement, would have split. But that's no weighty matter in the privacy of my home, or even in a multiplex where the other patrons are free to assume I ran out of Raisinets. If I bail on a press screening, that's a strong statement. Same thing if I shut off the screener and turn in a review that says, "I washed my hands of this one."

While I am sorry to bring up "Why I Walked Out of The Monuments Men," because so many of the comments were rude, it was, definitely, a review. The first 500 words or so include observations about Monuments Men's script, the acting, the casting, the master shots and the editing rhythm, as well as unflattering comparisons with The Train. That's not even counting an equally long roundup of critics there to testify, "Sam is right!" While I am obviously sympathetic to the idea that some movies aren't worth my time, you can't flash-fry a new release and then insist it's not a review, it's a think piece. It would be a review even if it were a paragraph. As I recall, that's how much Pauline Kael gave to what she saw of Fellini's Casanova before she walked out. Kael had company; Gene Siskel made for the exits a few times. So did Roger Ebert. I'm sure there are others.

Why this diffidence? Let's admit that for a critic, walking out is an extreme form of the pan -- more pointed than falling asleep, less drastic than starting a riot. Merely because I haven't yet found that special stinker that will prompt me to abandon ship doesn't mean there's not one in my future. But if that day comes, I want to make like Margo Channing in All About Eve, trailing my coat across the heads of my colleagues as I storm outside to find the nearest cocktail lounge. A walkout, like any other form of criticism, surely demands some style.

Peter Howell, Toronto Star

With all due respect to our spirited sultan of surveys, the only good reasons for walking out on a show one is reviewing are medical or family emergencies or the theatre being on fire. In which case, the critic is duty bound to not write a conventional review with star ratings. A news story might be appropriate, if the theatre actually burned to the ground, but not a review. It's the absolute bare minimum requirement for a critic, not to mention common sense and fair play, to actually sit through the film, stage play or TV show that he or she is assigning a critical grade to. I suppose a critic could justifiably write a story (still not a review) about why he or she left a movie early, for reasons of disgust or boredom or whatever. But such stories should be extremely rare, otherwise the critic should question whether they're really in the proper line of work.

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap, What the Flick?!

I do feel like I have to watch a movie I'm reviewing all the way through, if only to discover just how terrible it might still become. I agree that you can tell at a certain point that a movie isn't going to get any better, but there's always the possibility that it could get much, much worse. Most recently, I wanted to ankle Cavemen, but I soldiered on. And whenever I want to bolt a movie at a film festival, I'm reminded of Jonas Akerlund, who, legend has it, confronted each and every person who walked out of the press/industry screening of Spun at Toronto. I didn't skedaddle from the dreadful Gummo partially because I didn't want to shove my way past Harmony Korine and partially because I felt the film itself was daring me to leave, and I didn't want to give it the satisfaction.

Adam Kempenaar, Filmspotting

If you review for an outlet that requires you to offer a summary 'score' such as a star rating or letter grade, I'd suggest that offering such a score - as reductive and arguably meaningless as it is -- would be disingenuous. You shouldn't rate something you didn't finish -- or probably comment at all under the guise of a traditional review. But what are you going to do, not speak or write about the movie ever in any context? Just pretend the whole thing didn't happen? That every thought you had about the movie is irrelevant because there were 35 minutes left? (Your every thought might be, but that holds true even if you saw the whole thing.) Seems to me that, same as with any piece of criticism, as long as you're honest about the experience you had, you're fine.

Richard Brody, New Yorker

The entire activity of criticism runs on an uneasy disproportion: It takes two years to make a movie, two hours to watch it, and two seconds to dismiss it. A critic can redeem that imbalance with exertion, devotion, and self-questioning. A movie's evident lack of inspiration, even its cynical venality, may still offer a peculiarly complex experience. But there's nothing more deadening to a critic's soul than habitually pulling a thousand words of nuance out of the undifferentiated muck of boredom; that's where sublime invective comes in. It seems to me, though, that the basic precondition for delivering that invective is seeing a movie in its entirety. We're writing about our experiences, and if the urge to propel oneself from a seat is irrepressible, it's not illegitimate to write about it, but I'm tempted to say, with Ninotchka, "Suppress it" -- find a way to write about the movie that captures the feeling that wasn't yielded to. Otherwise, with Cordelia: Hate, and be silent. Then there's the matter of the press screening, which is a privilege. When I'm a paying customer and am not writing about a movie, I feel utterly justified in entering and leaving the theatre at my own whim. At a critics' screening, a walkout is instantly understood, whether by publicists or other critics, as a pan without content -- thumb-down and middle-finger-up. A film was coming out, and the only screening within my deadlines was early evening of a holiday for which I had family plans. The publicist and I agreed that I'd stay for the first hour or so, at which point I had to head off; the publicist would then send along a screener so that I could catch up on the ending. I sat in the back on the aisle and tried to slip away silently. A few days later, I ran into another critic, who asked, "So you really hated [title]." Everyone knows everyone; word gets around; and whatever I thought about the movie, it wasn't with my feet that I planned to express it. As for DVDs: even if I never slept, I'd never be able to watch in their entirety all the screeners and viewing links that I receive. Part of criticism is editorial -- choices of what to write about. But I live in fear, literally in fear, of missing a good movie because of impatience or distraction; so I'll often go back to watch again, or flip to the middle of a disk that I'm ready to bail on. Lots more work goes into making the movie than into watching it; criticism is a responsibility and a privilege; and talking about it that way inevitably sounds sanctimonious.

Features
  • |
You might also like:

4 Comments

  • Kathleen Carroll | February 13, 2014 3:23 PMReply

    I've long forgotten the name of the movie, but it was one of those cases in which all the critics had to attend a night screening in a theater. To say the audience was restless is an understatement. I was all but overcome with boredom when I heard Pauline Kael announce in a very loud voice "Life is too short" as she flounced out of the theater. Her exit line, which must have been heard by even those critics in the audience who had been dozing off, left everyone chuckling except the publicist.

  • Bill Thompson | February 10, 2014 11:24 AMReply

    I'm opposed to waking out of movies in general. If you're getting paid I see no reason whatsoever why that person should walk out of the movie. Be a professional and finish the movie (of course as with anything professional, exceptions need be made for things like sickness, pregnancy, or any sort of life level emergency).

    In general though, I think it's an issue of respecting the art and the artist. A group of people have made a work of art for your consumption. You need not love their film, like their film, or hate their film, but at the least you owe it to the artist to give their work respect. Watching the entire film does that, and for me it's a rule that should not be deviated from.

  • Robert Fuller | February 12, 2014 1:02 AM

    Critics don't get paid for every movie they watch, just for the ones they review (and I assume they watch the entirety of those). Do you sit through every movie to completion, even the ones that are obviously terrible? I sure don't. Not every movie deserves respect.

    Really, I don't know why this is even an issue worth discussing.

  • dan | February 10, 2014 9:57 AMReply

    If I got paid to watch films, man i'd watch anything, I'd only ever leave to throw up. I'll leave you with that.

Email Updates