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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Tue, Oct 28, 2008 7:23pm

I guess I don’t get the outrage. He said he only saw the first 8 minutes so there was full disclosure. How does it appearing at the end of the review make the slightest difference? Do people only read the first few paragraphs of a review and cannot possibly be expected to read all the way down to the end? Are people outraged that they started reading a review with an expectation that got overturned about 30 seconds later than if he had started with that admission?

He hated the way the film was made. He said so. What on earth can be objectionable about that? I know some people hate on Ebert just on principle, for some reason that I’ve attributed to the if-I-criticize-a-big-shot-I-must-be-hot-stuff attitude often found on the Net. But really, he was clear in his original review. He’s human, he made a choice, he told the world about that choice, enjoy or it not. But complaints? Unreal…

Tue, Oct 28, 2008 8:00pm

It’s not objectionable that he hated it, it’s that he’s one of the most well known reviewers of movies, and his opinion is listened to. How is 8 minutes of a movie, however terrible, a fair shake? The flip at the end makes the rest of the review seem irrelevant.

One of the biggest shifts to Internet critiques is transparency. Readers just want to know the facts, want to see how the reviewers thoughts/contexts are playing into the film review.

I agree with MaryAnn Johanson on some reviews and not others, but because she’s open and honest; I’m able to construct a good representation of the film for myself. It’s no longer a matter of blindly trusting your favorite reviewer, its blindly trusting that they’ll be open about their thinking.

Tue, Oct 28, 2008 9:03pm

That is quite bizarre. I can understand walking out of a movie, but 8 minutes is a tiny fraction of a film. Sure it may take less than 8 to realise a movie will stink (even 2 minutes of a trailer is often enough) but most people would expect more than 8 minutes as adequate for a review.

As for the anti-gay sentiments.. I cant see anything in the review that is overtly anti-gay or hateful, and as far as I know there is no pattern of him walking out of gay themed films. Though I dont usually read Ebert myself.

Tue, Oct 28, 2008 11:28pm

Ebert has a wicked sweet job and he gets paid a lot to do it. He’s not ALLOWED to just skip out on a movie and then review it.

The Gaucho
The Gaucho
Wed, Oct 29, 2008 3:51am

I don’t understand the fuss. Roger Ebert sees eight minutes of a movie, thinks they are a godawful eight minutes, writes a review about those eight minutes and says so. The man has been terribly ill the last year, and maybe, well, just maybe, thinks that his time is worth more to him, NOT watching the whole of that particular movie. What’s so unreasonable about it that makes you (implicitly) suggest he stops reviewing movies altogether?

I had a good laugh about it, and made the decision not to go see that movie. You have to admit that he saw enough mistakes in that first eight minutes.

Wed, Oct 29, 2008 12:58pm

I know some people hate on Ebert just on principle, for some reason that I’ve attributed to the if-I-criticize-a-big-shot-I-must-be-hot-stuff attitude often found on the Net.

Well, for the record, that’s not me.

I do think there’s a certain value in knowing that even a hardened film critic who’s seen a ton of crap couldn’t endure more than eight minutes of a movie. I’m just not sure that it’s fair to withhold that info till the end of a review. It’s not that people don’t read all the way through to the end of a review: it’s that it pulls the rug out from under readers when this is supposed to be a writer/reader relationship that’s about trust.

Obviously, many of Ebert’s readers didn’t mind the review (the majority of the commenters on his blog postings about it come out in his favor).

Wed, Oct 29, 2008 9:06pm

MaryAnn, I never put you in that hating on Ebert camp. I meant comments I see on IMDB and the like.

I still cannot begin to fathom being upset by this review. Yes, it pulls the rug out from under the reader, but writers have been doing that for thousands of years. It’s a known literary device and Ebert is known for writing reviews in a variety of styles. I thought it was cool.

I’m glad people are still capable of outrage, however. Now if we can just get them to channel that outrage toward the truly outrageous parts of society. Then we might see progress. :)

Thu, Oct 30, 2008 3:24pm

I read Ebert pretty faithfully- he’s one of my two main critics. I don’t have a problem with this review. Yeah, I know eight minutes might not be enough, but the point was that there was so much incompetence after eight minutes that he couldn’t trust the filmmakers to pull it out. And no, I don’t think it’s wrong to hold it until the end of the review. The readers who wouldn’t see that are probably the morons who only check the star rating. Speaking for myself, I did not feel my trust in Roger undermined by the end of the review. I was surprised, but I thought that helped the impact of it- “all that in only eight minutes?”

Maryann, I think you’re missing the point of his “attention must be paid” comment. He wasn’t saying that, because it’s hard to make a movie, everyone must go see the movie. I think the reason he felt compelled to apologize was that he was picking on the little guy. Roger has made a point of seeking out small, independent movies and publicizing them. That doesn’t mean, though, that he’d give a bad movie a pass just because it was a challenge to get it made. But I think he felt guilty because, by slamming a movie after only eight minutes, he basically made a punchline out of it. The movie may have deserved a bad review, but he felt that giving it such a bad review after only eight minutes was unnecessarily harsh to a movie that didn’t really deserve it. I think, if he had written a similar review about some craptacular Michael Bay movie, he wouldn’t have felt so bad about it.