Picking one last fight with Roger Ebert

 

ggarvin@MiamiHerald.com

Film critic Roger Ebert, who died of cancer Thursday at age 70, reviewed thousands of movies over the years for the Chicago Sun-Times and his television show. His often cutting reviews ("I've seen audits that were more thrilling," he said of one lifeless picture) in turn triggered thousands of arguments.

Among his most controversial reviews was one in 2008 of a film which, Ebert admitted, he'd walked out of after a few minutes. That touched off a lively debate among Miami Herald critics about the propriety of reviewing something you haven't seen in its entirety. Ebert sent us a nice note saying he'd loved the piece. We're posting it again, knowing the chance to trigger one last argument would tickle him.

Earlier this month, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert ripped into a movie called "Tru Loved" like he was carving a Halloween jack-o'-lantern, labeling it "on about the same level as a not especially good high school play. . . . It fails at fundamentals we take for granted when we go to the movies. By lacking them, it illustrates what the minimum requirements are for a competent film."

"Tru Loved," a low-budget, starless film about a gay teenager moving from San Francisco to a conservative suburb, is not exactly an Oscar contender. So there was no real news in a veteran film critic dumping on a cheap-jack indie flick . . . not until the 16th paragraph, anyway, when Ebert disclosed that he'd only watched the first eight minutes of "Tru Loved." He confessed to lifting his summary of the plot from the website IMDB.com, and that some of the actors he criticized didn't even appear in the part of the movie he saw. No matter, he wrote: "The handwriting was on the wall. The returns were in. The case was closed. You know I'm right."

And most readers apparently thought he was. In the hundreds of comments posted on Ebert's blog, a few complained -- "The review reminds me of too many times when I tried in school to write a book review after having only read the first chapter" -- but the vast majority saw no problem in reviewing a movie he barely glimpsed. "I'm not faulting you for giving up after eight minutes, " wrote one reader. "Life's much too short. The older I get, the less patience I have with bad art, especially pretentious bad art."

Ebert, while defending what he did, nonetheless was quick to add that it's not his standard practice: The last movie he reviewed after walking out was the 1979 Roman gorefest "Caligula." "Disgusted and unspeakably depressed, I walked out of the film after two hours of its 170-minute length, " he wrote.

Anybody who reads Miami Herald critics knows they're regularly disgusted and depressed (if rarely unspeakably so) by books, movies, plays, concerts and TV shows. But do they ever walk out? Can a critic fairly review something he couldn't bear to finish? Some of the answers may surprise you.

(It surprised us, a little, to discover that The Miami Herald has no written policy on this. "This isn't something the paper would have a policy on, but common sense tells you you've got to see the show or movie or concert to develop a full and fair opinion, " says Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal. "There are lots of variables that play into this -- including deadlines, which sometimes prevent you from staying the whole time. But I don't believe either our critics or our readers would put much credence in a critique where the reviewer doesn't bother to see the movie.)

IN MUSIC . . .

I can relate to Roger Ebert's burning need to walk out of the movie "Tru Loved." I was tempted to destroy my stereo with a sledgehammer probably two minutes into Deborah Harry's ironically titled October 2007 release "Necessary Evil." It's an excruciating CD, full of random, cheesy musical styles (smooth jazz? hair metal?) and embarrassingly inappropriate lewdness (the 60-year-old woman sings about the devil's d--- and her curlies, for God's sake).

But whether it was professionalism or, more likely, morbid fascination, I stuck it out. Sure, I gave the album no stars (and got plenty of hate mail for trashing the icon), but I felt the ex-Blondie singer's star power warranted a review, good or horrid. If the artist had been a nobody, I would have simply ignored it -- a philosophy that maybe Ebert should have followed.

Now, if I had bailed out early on the Freestyle Explosion concert at downtown Miami's AmericanAirlines Arena in October 2006 after the lead singer of Information Society had a flailing, angry meltdown before stalking off the stage, I would have missed a great show. What followed were short but lively sets by Company B, Newcleus, Nocera, Debbie Deb, Lisa Lisa and the triumphant reunion of the female trio Exposé, its first performance in about a decade. Some members of the crowd were actually break-dancing in their seats.

Sometimes, early deadlines at The Herald have forced me to duck out of concerts way before their encores, which really cheats the readers. At the four-day Langerado Festival last March, I had to file my review less than an hour after the headlining Beastie Boys took the stage. I missed half the show, including the most important part -- the encores. I understand why it had to be done -- no one can read a review that doesn't make it into the paper -- but readers didn't get an accurate take on the night's biggest act. If you don't see it to the end, you can't rightly comment on it.

-- MICHAEL HAMERSLY mhamersly@MiamiHerald.com

IN FILM . . .

Ive only walked out of two movies in my life.

The first was George A. Romeros "Dawn of the Dead." I was 12 and tolerated 10 queasy minutes until a pasty-faced zombie bit a huge chunk out of his wife's forearm, which sent me bolting for the exit.

The second time was 1994, halfway through "Clifford," a comedy I was reviewing for The Herald starring Martin Short. The movie had not been screened for critics, so I caught a showing at the long-defunct AMC Omni Cinema.

I should point out that "Clifford" was so bad that its director, Paul Flaherty, has yet to make another movie. Clifford was so bad, Short didn't land another starring role for a decade. "Clifford" was so bad, it was probably responsible for putting the Omni Cinema -- if not the entire Omni mall -- out of business.

"Clifford" was wretched enough for me to award it an all-too-rare rating of "no stars." But although I have never met anyone in the ensuing 14 years who has even heard of "Clifford," I now wish I had pulled an Ebert and informed readers that I had not stayed for the whole thing.

I didn't mention it at the time because, as a relatively young critic, I feared it would undercut my review. Since then, I have never walked out of a screening, mostly because Ive never encountered a film as tortuous as that one. But if it were to happen again, Id open my critique with the fact that I couldn't endure the film in question and had no choice but to bail -- or die.

Coming from someone who persevered through "The Black Dahlia" and "Battlefield Earth" and "Catwoman" and "From Justin to Kelly," such an admission would mean something.

For the record, I made it through "Dawn of the Dead" the following day. But Ive never given "Clifford" another shot -- and I never will. Life, as they say, is short.

-- RENE RODRIGUEZ rrodriguez@MiamiHerald.com

IN THEATER . . .

Twenty years ago, on my annual spring Broadway trip, I made the unfortunate decision to see a revival of "Macbeth" starring Glenda Jackson and Christopher Plummer. Why unfortunate?

As I wrote in a mini-review: "On its long road to Broadway, the Plummer-Jackson 'Macbeth' went through three directors and two sets, and it shows. There is no consistency of style or vision. Some actors can handle the language, some can't. The looks range from regal to 'Road Warrior.' . . . The murder of 'Macbeth,' and I do mean the play, was so bloody awful that I left at intermission."

Why bring up a production that still makes me shudder? Two reasons: It is the only time (as far as I can remember) that I bailed out of a show I was reviewing before it ended. And I acknowledged in print that I fled.

Otherwise, unless I'm at the theater as a civilian rather than a working critic, I stay until the actors take their bows.

Readers deserve an analysis based on more than one act, and some productions do get better or worse as they unfold. And the actors, directors, playwrights and designers who make their living creating theater -- a significant part of South Florida's local arts scene -- deserve to have their work considered in its entirety.

That's not to say that sticking it out to the brilliant or bitter end is always a thrill, but that's what I'm paid to do. Even if I'm reviewing "Mamma Mia!" for the sixth time. Or, in retrospect, a particularly bad "Macbeth."

-- CHRISTINE DOLEN cdolen@MiamiHerald.com

IN BOOKS . . .

There they were, stark and terrible, two words marking the first page of a book I'd long anticipated reviewing: "Babe Ruth."

The book was Dennis Lehane's "The Given Day," his bid for literary greatness on a 1919 Boston police strike. I was dying to get my hands on it. And yet, those two words indicated I would have to endure pages about baseball, an excruciatingly overpraised sport (damn you, Roger Angell) and one utterly tedious to me unless it involves Crash Davis and the Durham Bulls.

I soldiered on for about 10 pages. Flipped ahead to discover Babe Ruth returned sporadically and decided I couldn't stomach reading one more word about an ancient ballplayer whose curse wasn't even valid anymore.

We ran someone else's review of "The Given Day," but if I'd not had the luxury of passing, I would have suffered onward. I would not have reviewed the book based on a small fraction of its content. Does this make me more conscientious than Roger Ebert, whom I generally admire? Hell yes. Critics have cushy jobs -- we all know it -- and the least we can do is bother to assess the works we write about in full. After all, I could be assigned to cover the local water management board meetings. If I had to slog through John Irving's interminable gas-bag "Until I Find You" to excoriate it, surely Mr. Ebert could sit through the far shorter "Tru Loved" in his dark, quiet theater, content in the knowledge that soon he could exact his revenge.

-- CONNIE OGLE cogle@MiamiHerald.com

IN TELEVISION . . .

I haven't seen "Tru Loved," the picture that sent Ebert into meltdown, but I can sympathize. Eight minutes is about twice as much as I had seen of The CW's reality show "Stylista" before I knew that I wished slow, agonizing deaths on everybody involved. Believe me, I wanted to turn it off. I didn't, because . . . Well, I don't know, exactly.

It's not like I was going to change my mind. A reality show about 11 stupid, untalented people with vile personalities who calculate individual worth by clothing labels? The conception was trash, the execution was trash, the cast was trash, and the people who put it on the air are trash. No TV alchemist was going to turn the show around between its fourth minute and its 42nd.

Some TV critics would have turned it off. Colleagues have confessed that they occasionally write a review of a show they gave up on. Even more common, now that we get advance screeners on DVDs, is fast-forwarding through, cutting the time you invest in pure garbage while guarding against any big surprises toward the end. I don't do that, either, though I've certainly been tempted -- for instance, while watching NBC's "Knight Rider," which made so little sense that I seriously wondered if I had a bad DVD.

But quitting a TV show is an intellectually lazy slippery slope. Being a critic means you're going to take the bad with the good. Most of the time that's not going to be a good deal for the critic, because the bad is really bad and there's a lot more of it.

But however painful, it's part of the job, just as football teams have to play in the rain and the Macy's Santa has to sit there while kids pee in his lap. If you're going to criticize somebody's work, you have to sit through it first. Just wear those dead brain cells like a badge of honor.

-- GLENN GARVIN

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