Roger Ebert has been taking a lot of heat recently. He reviewed a movie (“Tru Loved”) and, at the end of the review, revealed that he had only seen the first 8 minutes of the film. Posted simultaneously with the review was a blog entry in which Mr. Ebert explained his actions and asked for reader feedback. Readers were outraged; his editor was appalled; a firestorm was sparked.
Mr. Ebert has tried to make amends, laying down the rules that every film critic should follow. It’s a funny list and one worth reading, if only to get inside the head of a film critic. His proscriptions ably demonstrate the struggles and temptations we critics face — who wouldn’t want to get a photo taken with a beloved celebrity, after all? We can’t do it, though, because (as Mr. Ebert explains) it’s tawdry and unbecoming of a professional journalist. (Still…I haven’t yet given up hope of creating a celebrity scrapbook. One of these days I’m going to ask the staff photographers who accompany us on these interviews to surreptitiously snap an action shot or two that works me into the frame.)
What has most interested me about this whole kerfluffle, however, is the reader response. They seemed quite upset that Mr. Ebert had only given the movie a cursory glance, intimating that he overstepped some sort of ethical line by not sitting through the whole movie. This is, simply put, wrong: by disclosing in the review that he hadn’t finished the film, Mr. Ebert provided himself with plenty of cover. But did his action devalue the worth of his criticism overall?
I don’t really think so. Roger Ebert is one of those rare critics who looks for the good in every movie he sees. He’s not an elitist snob; he’s easily the most populist of the popular film critics currently working. If he walked out of a movie after 8 minutes, shouldn’t that tell you something of its entertainment value? If he hadn’t disclosed the fact that he left early and wrote the same review, he’d deserve every critical comment that he’s received. But as it is, he was having a bit of fun. Shame on the readers who didn’t play along.
(For the record: My editor would have me drawn and quartered if I tried to pull a stunt like Ebert’s here.)