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THE BIG PICTURE

Ebert's blunder spells trouble for all critics

October 24, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

It's definitely been the media kerfuffle of the week: Roger Ebert's admission that he wrote an entire review of a new film after watching only eight minutes of the picture has inspired a storm of outrage. It turns out that everybody's a critic, especially when it comes to judging movie critics. Now a clearly chastened Ebert has acknowledged on his blog for the Chicago Sun-Times that he was wrong, posting a follow-up post to his original explanation, admitting that he wished he had never published the review (of a small indie film called "Tru Loved") in the first place. As he puts it:

"It sent the wrong message. If I had seen the entire film, a review, however negative, would have been appropriate. But in reviewing the first eight minutes, I was guilty of too much affection for my prose. I have learned a great deal from the intelligent, opinionated, useful comments from all those readers. . . . I will never, ever again review a film I have not seen in its entirety. Never. Ever." He adds: "I must apologize to writer-director Stewart Wade, his actors and his crew. They did nothing to deserve this. For them, it must have been like a drive-by shooting. . . . I feel like a jerk. In even my negative reviews, I try to give some sense of why you might want to see a film even if I didn't admire it. Here, I failed."

Once you get past the fact that Ebert's abject apology sounds a lot like one of those blacklisted '50s Hollywood screenwriters telling HUAC that "I am deeply sorry for ever joining the Communist Party -- I let my country down, I let my family down, I let my therapist down," basically saying anything to get his job back -- you get the feeling that this is just another nail in the coffin for the credibility of film critics with the average moviegoer. If there were ever an act that indelibly painted critics as elitist snobs, it would be America's best-known critic reviewing a movie after only bothering to watch for eight minutes.

I remain a loyal fan of Ebert, who was a huge influence on me as a young writer and has sprung to my defense when I've been under attack. So I'm definitely not an objective observer. I also read critics religiously, looking to them for guidance and inspiration. But I am part of a vanishing breed. The average newspaper reader has less and less use for critical opinion, increasingly preferring to rely on aggregated critical judgment from websites like Rotten Tomatoes over individual critics -- or solely relying on recommendations from friends. As one Ebert-basher wrote: "After learning that Roger Ebert defends writing a full-column review based on a 8-minute scrap of film, I don't feel so bad about not reading movie reviews."

Ebert's blunder, one of the few he's made in a four-decade career, will probably take on a life of its own, cited in future years in various broadsides against the critical establishment, probably in a sentence that reads something like: "After reading Kenny Turan's dismissal of 'Quantum of Solace,' one wonders whether Mr. Turan was dozing off during the film's breathtaking action sequences or whether he simply walked out of the screening room after eight minutes, in emulation of Roger Ebert's rude dismissal of a movie earlier this year."

All critics have is their credibility. I'd be lying if I told you I've never walked out of a film. At film festivals, I do it all the time. Like Roger, I am convinced that you can tell after 20 or 25 minutes, almost within the shadow of a doubt, that a movie has been directed by a clumsy amateur or a deluded auteur. At a festival, when you're trying to see four or five movies in a day, you are pretty ruthless about cutting your losses and moving on to the next film.

But I don't review movies. I see them looking for stories. If a movie is so bad that I walk out, I simply scratch it off my list. If you're a reviewer, you're held to a higher standard. Trust me, it's why critics often sound so cranky -- they knew the film was a dog right away but had to stay to the bitter end, just to make sure. But you have to stick it out. I guess it's a lot like being a sportswriter. You have to stay to the last out. It was just the other day that the Boston Red Sox were down 7-0 going into the seventh inning of a big playoff game before storming back to beat the Tampa Bay Rays, 8-7. You wouldn't have wanted to leave in the middle of that game, right?

The same goes with movies. Maybe the plot kicks into gear, maybe an actor shows up, delivering a graceful performance, maybe (at the very least) the story takes us to the South of France and we get to see some beautiful scenery. If a movie has a hidden surprise, you want to be around to see it. Yogi Berra probably never read Pauline Kael, but he knew this much about being a critic: "It ain't over 'til it's over."

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patrick.goldstein@latimes.com

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This article and others about movies and pop culture can be found on the Big Picture blog.

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