Roger Ebert’s eight-minute review

So, Roger Ebert reviewed a movie after seeing only eight minutes of it, and people are talking. Some are objecting to the fact that Ebert does not reveal he saw only eight minutes of the film, Tru Love, until the end of his review. In Ebert’s followup blog post defending his decision to not only review only eight minutes of a film but also to withhold that info from readers till the end, Ebert claims people are calling him anti-gay for writing such a scathing review of a gay-themed film, and upon such a truncated viewing at that.
Ebert has now backed down from defending the review, and has posted a second review of the whole film (which appears on the same page as that first one, following it). His second followup blog post, retracting his self-defense, however, has an air of peevishness about it — he writes, “I will never, ever, again review a film I have not seen in its entirety. Never. Ever,” which sounds just a tad like a kid throwing a tantrum after getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and as if he’ll be doing his readers an especial favor by refusing to review movies he hasn’t seen in their entirety. And in the readers comments following that post, Ebert points out that he is “bold-facing all comments from people who have seen the film,” as if more stock should be put in those comments than in reactions from people who have not seen the film. Which is incredibly disingenuous to my ear. Ebert clearly thought it was fine to review a film without having seen it all, but even more than that, he clearly thought it was fine if his scathing review kept people away from the film. But now he puts more stock in feedback from those who have seen the film anyway? That seems really unfair to his readers, who — for the most part, if the posted reader comments are to be taken as representative of how his fans feel — are mostly okay with his eight-minute review.

Now, I’ve walked out of movies too. Three of them, all in the last year or so, and I’ve reviewed two of them: Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins and Daddy Day Camp. (The third was Harold, which I’ve got a DVD of right here, and plan to watch, in its entirety, and review soon.) For each of those three films, I sat through around an hour of their 90-minute runtimes before walking out, and could confidently say that even if those films improved dramatically in their last 30 minutes, there’s no way anything could have made those first hours endurable. And I said as much in my reviews, upfront — no hiding the fact that I walked out. There certainly are films I’ve seen that have improved fantastically after their first eight minutes, and I can’t imagine feeling comfortable judging an entire film by its first few minutes. Then again, I won’t rule out the possibility that those first few minutes could be so horrendously awful that that could never happen.

I’m not sure I could agree with Peter Sciretta at /Film, who says: “I haven’t seen Tru Love, and probably won’t. I think I trust Ebert’s opinion too much at times, even when its based only on 8 minutes.” That’s some major trust right there. I’m not sure if I’d trust myself that much.

And I’m not sure I agree with Eugene Novikov of Cinematical, either, when he notes that “Ebert’s addendum to his original ‘review’ is characteristically insightful and well worth reading.” For Ebert ends that second review with this:

Here I want to observe that it’s a miracle any film gets made. Millions of tiny pieces have to come together. It takes courage and resolve to pull it off, especially on a limited budget. Stewart Wade, the writer and director of “Tru Loved,” has achieved that miracle. Attention must be paid.

Attention certainly must not be paid. Yes, the stick-to-it-iveness required to get a movie made may be commendable, but that doesn’t make the movie itself worthy of attention. The movie biz ain’t kindergarten, where everyone gets a gold star and a cookie just for showing up. I’d hate to think that a critic like Ebert would start to second-guess himself — or bend over backwards to be nice when it’s not warranted — as a result of one review that, perhaps, was not structured as it should have been.

This is what worries me more. Ebert is sticking to his defense for withholding that vital piece of info — he saw only eight minutes of the film — by attributing to it, in that second followup blog post, the “(non-humorous) function of a punch-line.” That sounds an awful lot like his defense — “it was satire!” — of his mysterious pro-creationism column from only last month. Two such almost nonsensical explanations in as many months seems like something to be worried about. The man’s been quite sick of late. Maybe his judgment’s been impaired, either physically, because of his sickness, or spiritually, in that he just doesn’t care anymore about such absurdities as movies and politics. Who can blame him, after what he’s been through? But maybe it’s time to recognize that.

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