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.)