The news may be a bit aged at this point, but it wasn’t when this question was formed. A few weeks back critic Rex Reed wrote a review of horror anthology film V/H/S/2, admitting that he walked out well before the movie was over. After Film.com posted an outstanding article on why critics shouldn’t bail on films before they’re over, I figured it’d be interesting to direct the question towards our own staff. The reactions ranged from deeply ethical (Justin’s), despondently conflicted (my own), and delightfully hilarious (Hilary’s). This definitely provided one of our most delightfully varied discussions in some time.
Question: When have you walked out of a movie, or gotten closest to doing so, and how did you feel about that?
As melodramatic as it may sound, I consider the ticket handed to me at the box office to be a contract of sorts, and the nice multiplex employee collecting stubs to be something of a notary public. It is an almost prenuptial commitment to whatever experience to which I am about to subject myself in the theater, no matter how unprepared I might be for that experience to yield revulsion, disappointment, emptiness or violations of my moral convictions. I’m a firm believer that we thrive best as consumers of all creative work – from the most artistically ambitious to the most commercially cynical – when we engage what’s been presented to us. Walking out in intellectual or even moral objection to a movie’s content has always struck me as an act of dismissal, as something contrary to engagement. I find the far more intellectually honest endeavor to be affording the director (or artist) the patience their work ends up requiring of you, and to stick it through to the bitter end, if only so your opinion can be predicated on a work that has been allowed to fully realize itself in front of you.
This is an admittedly haughty way of saying that, as an act of expressing distaste, I have never walked out of a movie. To be clear, my “Buyer Beware” philosophy is one I follow merely for the sake of simplicity in my own life (it’s sometimes easier to follow one simple rule than dozens of smaller mitigating rules). If anybody else has a defensible reason to support walking out of a movie, and can defend it rigorously, more power to them. And of course there are other completely understandable circumstances to walk out as well. A friend of mine did when she became physically ill watching The Human Centipede 2, and a professor of mine admits in her published memoir she cannot watch the films of Lynch and Tarantino because, as a victim of rape, the violence depicted is simply too much. So as I declare easy-to-follow rules for myself when it comes to movie-watching, it comes with the understanding that, obviously, everybody has to set up their own rules to suit their own emotional, intellectual and even physical needs. I wouldn’t begrudge anybody their own path as consumers of movie.
I actually don’t even begrudge Rex Reed for walking out of V/H/S/2, so long as he speaks honestly to his experience involving an incomplete viewing of the movie he’s assigned to review. Whether the great blathering queen of hacky film criticism actually did that with his review is a completely different conversation.
There were two instances last year in which I actively walked out of a movie, one of which was mostly physiological. I’ve talked plenty of my seasickness at New York Film Festival after Life of Pi causing me to walk out of Leviathan, a documentary I’d since sought out vigorously until catching up to it in March. As Justin said above, being made physically sick by a film is an absolutely understandable reason for walking out, and it’s not always an act of condemnation. The kinetic energy of Leviathan’s images is so beleaguering as to require a level head going in. Similarly there are plenty of films that rack their violence up to squeamish extremes, though I haven’t personally experience that phenomenon. Even the sickest of images just give me more reason to remain rooted in my seat to see exactly how far they’ll take it.
The other time I walked out of a film last year was because I simply couldn’t stand the stupidity on display in the film in question. That film was Battleship, which nearly 30 minutes in had still failed to deliver anything truly exciting. What we got instead was mediocre boys acting foolishly over thinly drawn girls. I didn’t care that there were flashy explosions still to come, and I had no investment to what was onscreen. So I happily left, and yet I’ve still found myself regretting that decision. Not because I believe what was still to come could’ve redeemed the film, but because, in my personal opinion, leaving the theater before the film is finished essentially robs you of the right to hail or condemn it. I can say I couldn’t stand being around male protagonists that irritating, but I can’t say the film as a whole – certainly not its action, of which I saw nothing – was as terrible as the opening. I admit, I take up Justin’s viewpoint on this, with a slight amendment. An average viewer should be able to bail on a film they’ve already paid, but for a critic who is paid to see them, the least we owe these films is our two hours in exchange for the months they spent making it.
Recently, though, I’ve wondered if I could take that notion of walking out of a movie to the extreme. Is it right to start watching a movie at home and not finish it? Is it okay to get halfway through a film, pause it, and then finish it on a later day? This is what has been racking my mind. Do we have any more right to dismiss a movie early on when we’re at home? Should we fragment our viewing of a film at all, changing our perception of it by ignoring the first half when we pick up with the second half days later? It’s here where we get into increasingly muddy waters, and my gut reaction is no. Movies should be fully embraced, good or bad, for the full run, whether in the theater, or perhaps even more crucially at home. A theater is made so there will be no distractions between the viewer and the image, and if you can’t commit for as short a time as two hours there, then the movie really must be doing something to put you off. Just don’t punish yourself by walking out, because then the film won. Make it through, and you can conquer the film with your own forceful condemnation.
As for Rex Reed? Well, it’s his loss for walking out of V/H/S/2 well before its finest segment, The Raid: Redemption director Gareth Huw Evans’ Safe Haven, which ended up going delightfully bonkers with its grisly mayhem.
There are plenty of good reasons to walk out of a film, even if you’re a film critic. As a performer who has known the pain of loudly unhappy audience members, I’d far rather they take their negative energy down the block and inflict it on some unsuspecting waiter than continue to infect the air with their misery. Of course, the characters on screen can’t hear you sigh and shift in your seat, but the lady behind you can, and she’d also appreciate it if you stopped jiggling your chairback against her knees because it’s totally taking her out of the transformative experience of watching Pacific Rim around your constantly-moving head.
Why do we go to the movies, anyway? It’s a social exercise. It’s to hear other people confirm that we laughed at something funny, and to eavesdrop on their reactions on the way out of the theater. It’s an activity that feels increasingly novel in the age of instant streaming and video on demand. We go so that we can talk about it, so that we can be part of a conversation. That conversation includes actions like walking out. There’s no moral imperative to give a film “its due.” Life is short. Why spend it watching awful movies?
Of course I think that seeing bad art can be just as important in developing a critical eye as seeing good art. But how much do you need? As someone with an interest in responding to media and writing criticism, I can only stand to expend so much energy amplifying bad movies’ reach. As much as it gives me perspective to witness failure on screen, how many times should I endure the same mistakes for the sake of a conversation I’m kind of tired of? Being a feminist killjoy can be really exhausting. And though I think it’s necessary for diverse and fringe voices to participate in the dialogues happening in the mainstream for cross-pollination of ideas and vocabulary to occur, it’s also important to spend our frequently-disappearing time and money on the things we want to actively support. Ain’t nobody got time for InAPPropriate Comedy.
Some friends and I once went to see Sex and the City 2 “ironically,” and I knew it was a mistake from the beginning. While I had something of a connection to the characters and was slightly interested in the evolution of the franchise from subversive chick-lit to sellout product line, they went in blind and far too sober. While I was upset we wasted $13 dollars walking out on a predictable disaster, it was almost worth it to see their shell-shocked faces as we slammed back Jameson at the Red Robin next to the multiplex. And don’t worry – I caught the awful burqa scene in all its glory when it was televised a few years later. This is an anecdote-worthy experience made possible by the Walk-Out.
Rex Reed delivers clicks by being outrageous. The fact that he reviewed an anthology film without seeing all its component shorts is Tommy Wiseau-level genius. Add this to calling Melissa McCarthy a “tractor-sized” “female hippo,” and I’m almost convinced that he’s a performance art piece. Like Herman Cain. For other critics thinking about reviewing films they haven’t seen all the way through, I say go for it. Write that piece that loses its focus half-way through, abandons its artistic merits in favor of a sensationalized, dramatic statement invoking ignorant cliches, and ends with sex on a beach somewhere (hopefully yours!) It would be an inspired tribute to Hollywood.