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Eight (minutes) is not enough: Why a critic has to watch the whole show

In one of life's little coincidences, not long after I finished watching an advance screener of The CW's horrendous, why-is-there-life-on-Earth-bad Stylista, I came across this piece by film critic Roger Ebert Brokentv talking about writing a review of a movie that he walked out on after eight minutes. 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 Stylista before I knew that I didn't just hate it but 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 there was any chance I was going to change my mind. A reality show about 11 stupid, untalented people with vile personalities who think that individual worth is calculated by the labels on the clothes they wear? The conception was trash, the execution was trash, the cast was trash, and the people who put it on the air are trash. No television alchemist was going to somehow turn the show around between its fourth minute and its 42nd.

Some TV critics would have turned it off. I've spoken with colleagues who've confessed to me that they occasionally write a review of a show they gave up on before it ends. Even more common, now that we get advanced screeners on DVDs, is fast-forwarding through, cutting the time and effort 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 the pilot of NBC's Knight Rider last month, a show that made so little sense that I seriously wondered if I had a malfunctioning DVD. A few years ago, CBS had a show called Robbery Homicide -- created by Michael Mann, the Miami Vice guy, no less! -- that really, seriously gave me a crippling headache.

But I watched those all the way through, too. Part of it is some kind of personal quirk -- for better or for worse, I almost never quit reading a book or watching a movie before the end, even though it's got nothing to do with my job and I'm not going to write anything about them. The last movie I walked out of was Fritz the Cat, a smutty cartoon, in 1972 -- and that was because my girlfriend at the time insisted.

More broadly, though, I think quitting a novel, a movie or 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. Whether they're misguided idiots who think they've something to say when they don't or just cynical fast-buck artists trying to make a quick score before being found out, the world is full of creative shams whose "art" is barely one step removed from the scrawls on a bathroom wall.

But however painful, it's part of the job, just as football players have to play even when it's raining 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've got to sit through it first. Nothing drives me crazier than hearing from people complaining about one of my stories based on nothing more than the headline or the first paragraph. Why should I expect a novelist or a director to feel differently?

Footnote: The Herald's film critic, Rene Rodriguez, always stays to the end of a movie, though I'm pretty sure it's because he can't find his way out a theater in the dark.

Comments

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Connie

Practical matters first: I don't know how you'd have enough material to comment on if you only watched eight minutes of a movie (or, say, read 18 pages of a book). And Ebert doesn't write short reviews like we do sometimes; how on earth do you pad out some 900-word thing with no real idea what happens after the nine-minute mark?

I always finish a book if I'm reviewing it. I have on occasion started a book and found it too difficult and painful to continue with (Dennis Lehane's The Given Day did me in after about 25 pages, due to myriad baseball references), but in that case, I don't review of it. It's simply not fair. If you're going to take pot shots, you need to have a pretty good idea what you're talking about. Otherwise you're just lazy and should be forced into a job where you have to do real work, and how much fun would THAT be?

I haven't seen Tru Loved either, but I find it hard to believe it's any more horrific than Anaconda 2 (in which nobody gets eaten by a snake for 40-plus minutes) or Honey (in which Jessica Alba mangles hip-hop slang) or The Number 23 (Jim Carrey goes Goth but sadly is no more interesting than he was in Dumb and Dumber, which, by the way, was a better movie). I sat in screenings for those films in something akin to agony. But at least I stayed all the way through, and nobody could accuse me of not knowing what I was talking about when I trashed them.

Rene Rodriguez

You walked out of "Fritz the Cat" because your GIRLFRIEND wanted to? You're obviously not Cuban.

And I do always stay to the end of a movie, although sometimes I'm already on my feet, hovering by the exit when the credits roll. That was the case, for example, with "The Alamo," a movie so unspeakably boring, I can't imagine anyone with even a remote understanding of movies or a trace of discerning taste enjoying.

HoCo

I've always balked at (most) newspapers' policy of having its music critics leave concerts early so as to make deadline. The theater critic and movie critic gets to see a whole show, but pop music critics often must leave a concert that is only 2/3 done and still form a valid, analytical opinion. Concerts are often staged like plays, with a build-up of tension, rhythm and pay-off.
Thanks to online, we don't always have to leave early now, we can post review late in the night after the show. But for the biggest concerts (Madonna, etc.) where there is an insistence on coverage in print the next day, I bet we, the artist, and the readers, still get short-changed.

As for albums, in 18 years of reviewing music for The Miami Herald, I've never written a review of an album I've not listened to all the way through at least a couple times. Some music takes several listens to sink in and reveal nuances; some is so simplistic you can get it on one listen.
If it's an album by an artist I don't care about or don't have to review, you have about 30 seconds or so to grab me before I stop listening and toss out your CD. Life is too short to waste on bad music. But if I'm committed to reviewing it, I make it all the way through.

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