As has been widely reported, discussed and vitriolically commented upon this morning, New York Observer critic Rex Reed published a review of the horror anthology sequel “V/H/S/2” yesterday in which he openly admits to walking out of the film after the first reel, or only one chapter into a four-part, four-director project. Panning an omnibus movie in a major publication without having seen three quarters of the short films it contains does indeed seem to constitute thinly veiled professional trolling—a fact underlined in thick felt tip pen by the use of the headline “V/H/S/2 is Unwatchable From Start to Finish”, a particularly galling touch—and in this case it isn’t difficult to sympathize with the widespread indignation of readers and critics alike, who have been justifiably comparing Reed’s behaviour to a food critic tearing apart a restaurant after only tasting the appetizer. The New York Observer pays Rex Reed to watch and review movies each week, and here is a case in which he has failed to do that job properly. It seems reasonable that he should be held publicly accountable.
But leaving aside the fact that Rex Reed has a long history of provocation and most likely doesn’t care that people on the internet are angry with him, as well as the fact that the Observer will no doubt be pleased with the spike in web traffic as a result of eager hate-readers this morning—two salient and undermentioned points raised by New York Post critic Lou Lumenick on Twitter earlier—one still must contend with the issue at the heart of this pseudo-controversy, which is no less than a question of ethics fundamental to the practice of film criticism. This might sound obvious, but it’s worth articulating: the outrage generated by Reed’s review is founded on the assumption that critics may only review a film if they have seen the film in its entirety.
What’s interesting about this specific case is that the review itself admits fault: Reed clearly states that he “happily deserted” the film, going so far as to clarify the precise moment of his walkout. A capsule blurb clocking in at a mere 137 words, the review is so brief that one could easily imagine Reed filling the space with descriptions based solely on his experience of the first twenty minutes, in which case nobody would know or care. Obviously his honesty doesn’t exonerate him, but surely it’s preferable to walking out and pretending he didn’t. Reed’s sin was aired publicly, but imagine how much more damning it would be if a critic were caught red-handed taking the easy way out of half their job.
This, of course, raises an intriguing question: do critics ever secretly review movies they’ve given up on? A recognizable critic might get called out for walking from a press screening and writing about it afterward, but studios are relying more and more on DVD screeners and Vimeo links, especially for low-budget or limited-release films like “V/H/S/2”. Readers can only take it for granted that a critic has watched a film in its entirety before writing about it. It’s an unspoken agreement: you assume that what’s being written about was watched all the way through. And yet there’s very little stopping someone from fast-forwarding through the latest micro-budget indie comedy or leaving it on in the background while they tweet or clean the house or make lunch.
Where do you draw the line of acceptability? If I’m watching a movie but I check my phone constantly throughout it, can I review it in good faith? What if I nod off for a few minutes—does falling asleep for 30 seconds of a 2-hour movie mean I can’t review it, and if not, what about falling asleep for five minutes, or ten? Nearly every time I’m at a press screening, somebody shows up late, sometimes to the point of missing half a reel—is that ethical? Critics often leave the movie halfway through to use the bathroom, which seems reasonable, but what if you miss a key plot point while you’re in the can? Ebert was widely criticized for his review of “The Loneliest Planet” last year for seeming to be unaware of that film’s second-act, blink-and-you-miss-it twist, which suggests that even one missed moment could disrupt a critic’s ability to properly review a film.
Which is why, of course, it’s a question of ethics: it’s a critic’s responsibility to repay the trust of their readers and colleagues by watching a film as fully and attentively as possible every time, even when there’s a tight deadline or an egregiously bad movie to be endured. There’s no way to guarantee that this has been the case; critics can’t be policed. But every critic, especially those of us assigned the dregs of the weekly release slate, have had to sit through films so awful that making it to the end is a test of conviction and willpower, and ultimately a movie is just a movie—watching even the worst films is, frankly, the easiest part of the job, and I will gladly put up with the most abrasive movies ever made for the rest of my life if it means getting paid to do it for a living. If movie-going is strictly a hobby, walking out guilt-free is absolutely within your right as a paying member of the audience. Not so for critics: if you cannot sit through a 90-minute movie, you should not be paid to write about it. Accepting the assignment means accepting the running time, for better or worse, and making it to the end is the most basic responsibility of the vocation. Without that effort you are failing the movie and you are failing your readers, and even though nobody is forcing a critic to stick it out, they ought to be held to a high enough standard that they are castigated if they don’t.