I can’t remember ever walking out of a movie, press screening or otherwise, but I have the luxury of not seeing that many. Granted, as someone who edits a film section (among other things) and also writes about movies, I see a lot more than a lot of people, at least new ones, the kind not on basic cable: I review a movie a week, try to see something I didn’t in the theater, maybe catch up with another on DVD or Netflix. I get to choose what I want to see, based on who’s in it or behind it, what I’ve read about it by other critics, or even just its plot description or who distributed it. Many working critics aren’t so lucky.
They pick up freelance gigs as they’re available, or work as one of the only reviewers for a website or print publication, charged with plowing through as many movies as they can. (For an example, someone like Keith Uhlich at Time Out New York.) Just this week, 14 new movies will hit NYC theaters, according to a spreadsheet I get every week, which doesn’t always include what’s playing at some of the city’s smaller independent movie houses. That’s a lot of movies, and this is still pre-Oscar winter, when distributors aren’t rushing to get their products into theaters.
I’m sincerely unhappy to say that most of those movies won’t be any good, a mix of cynical Hollywood tailoring-to-teenagers, “indie” movies following an exhausting quirky formula, or foreign movies cynically tailored to their country-of-origin’s own version of the thoughtless demographics with the most disposable income. Granted several will be pretty good, or all right, anyway, and one might even be great; it’s those movies that hopefully keep any full-time critic going, on that endless hunt for the overlooked masterpiece. One of the best experiences a critic can have, I think, is to see and love a movie everyone else ignores or hates and write an intelligent, passionate defense—or at least a call to reevaluation. Sticking up for the art you love, especially the art that needs sticking up for, is a unique joy.
But, still: there are bad cycles, there are bad assignments, and it’s exhausting to write negative reviews about some stupid movie that has the same stupid problems as the last dozen movies you had to watch for work. How many ways can you express your frustration with a recurring strain of laziness among certain filmmakers?
This isn’t to say it’s justify a critic’s walking out of a screening, a debate about which is happening in film circles: it’s the subject of a Criticwire Survey, presumably after Sam Adams admitted to walking out of Monuments Men, which was a few weeks after Jordan Hoffman had walked out of a movie at Sundance. (They had their own reasons for doing so, and at least Adams wasn’t writing for review, so I don’t mean to suggest that they fit neatly into anything I’ve mentioned above.) The general consensus of the critics surveyed is that, sure, anyone should be able to walk out of a movie—except people being paid to write reviews about them, who have a professional obligation to stick it through. (I like to counsel people to stop reading books they’re not enjoying because there are more than enough great books out there that you’ll never have enough time to read. But I don’t tell freelancers I’m paying for book reviews to do that!)
At the same time… I mean, I know film critics don’t have a hard job considering all the jobs there are out there, but it can be psychologically taxing work, which is just to say it’s more trying than it sounds. There’s a huge difference between passively watching a film for recreation and actively watching a film to develop meaningful insights beyond how engaged with a plot you are—no, really, there is!—particularly when you’re doing it day in, day out, shuttling off to screening rooms to devote more time and thought to a movie than it often seems the filmmakers themselves did. For those of you at home, people forced to endure a whole lot of bad-to-mediocre art can sometimes lose their patience. It doesn’t mean we have to condone it, but at least have a little sympathy.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart