The Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself includes a clip, taken from a TV appearance in 1980, in which the Pulitzer Prize winner explains the station of the movie critic. “I sit at the desk next to our music critic at the Sun-Times,” he explains. “People are very worshipful of him — ‘Oh, what did you think of Solti’s conducting last night?’ And then he will say, and they will nod like this and go away. Then they’ll turn around and come up to me and say, ‘I totally disagree with your review in this morning’s paper!’” In the clip, he’s discussing our inflexibility regarding our film opinions, but he’s also commenting on the degree to which film reviews are seen as second-class criticism. And that view has never been clearer than in the newest, weirdest trend in online film commentary: people writing about movies they haven’t bothered to see.
The latest offender is this piece by Olivia Williams, which ran at Decider last Friday afternoon, timed to that day’s release of Jupiter Ascending. The telltale phraseology pops up in early paragraphs: “the filmmaking siblings look like they might shoot and miss again,” “the mega-budget space adventure looked as if it could go either way,” etc. Then, at the top of the fourth paragraph, comes the admission: “As a loyal Wachowski fan, I’ll most likely see Jupiter Ascending in the near future…” And that, dear reader, is where the piece should end (it’s certainly the point at which any sensible reader closes the tab). But nope, it goes on for another 500-plus words, taking the Wachoswskis to task for the protagonist of a film the writer has, for whatever reason, not gone to the trouble to see.
To be sure, Williams and Decider are in good company. Last month, The New Republic — ever dedicated to preserving their 100-year-old tradition of “journalism, values, and voice” — ran a 600-plus word screed against American Sniper by former diplomat and current academic Dennis Jett, who waited until the fifth paragraph to make his disclosure: “I have not seen American Sniper. But if the trailer is any indication, Eastwood’s film, like Zero Dark Thirty, tries to make a straightforward situation more complex than it is.” Yes, that’s right, a two-minute advertisement was not invested with a sufficient degree of complexity. You know what might contain a bit more nuance? The whole movie!
If this movement has an inception point, it’s probably Glenn Greenwald’s December 2012 Guardian indictment of Zero Dark Thirty as a “torture-glorifying film” that “relies on fabrications,” but that Greenwald admits, six paragraphs in — in a parenthetical, no less — he hasn’t seen. “I have not seen this film and thus am obviously not purporting to review it,” he insisted. “I am, instead, writing about the reaction to the film: the way in which its fabrications about the benefits of torture seem to be no impediment to its being adored and celebrated.”
Greenwald, at least at that point, had the excuse that he could only write about ZD30’s reviews because critics and awards-season voters were the only ones who’d seen it. (He returned to the topic four days later, having now bothered to seen the film, with a follow-up that read as if he maybe saw it with his mind already made up.) But Jett’s piece went live at TNR on January 13, weeks after Sniper’s initial limited release (and a mere three days before it went wide, when media screenings were plentiful), while Williams’ Jupiter consideration appeared on Decider at four o’clock on the afternoon of opening day, well after not only critics’ screenings but several public ones.
To be clear, we’re not talking about wrestling with a Russian novel here, or even binge-watching a season of television. Sitting and watching a movie is neither very time-consuming (Sniper and Jupiter both clock in at under 2 ¼ hours) nor particularly strenuous. So the best we can do is chock it up to #hottake culture — that TNR‘s and Decider’s editors were simply so anxious to get these opinions out in the world (uniformed thought they maybe) that they simply couldn’t wait the extra day or two for the writers in question to actually put the movie in front of their eye-holes. But that tack, and the inevitable admission that they haven’t taken that most basic step, shuts down any rhetorical power they may hold. Armstrong has legitimate points to make about feminism in mainstream action cinema; Jett’s concerns about Sniper’s politics are, at the very least, worthy of discussion. But once that disclosure hits, any reasonable reader walks away; if the author hasn’t even bothered to engage with an artist’s work, why should the reader engage with theirs?
So why is this form of rhetorical spit-balling/daydreaming allowed to prosper? You certainly wouldn’t expect any site worth its salt to run a book commentary based on the dust-jacket copy, or an art exhibit review by a writer who’s seen a couple of JPEGs. But different rules apply to movies because they’re a common currency — a populist art form, which anyone can view and opine on. As Ebert pointed out, we may require a fancy music critic to explain the specifics of a symphony, but most readers figure any Joe Schmuck can luck into a gig reviewing movies. And when even name-brand movie critics are known for sleeping through movies, walking out early or showing up late, getting basic plot details wrong, and generally being jackasses, why should anyone else bother to see movies before shooting their mouths off about them?
But they should. It seems downright bizarre to have to think this, much less have to put it in writing as though it’s not just common sense, but here goes: Just see the damn movie before you write about it. Hold that thinkpiece for a few precious hours, to a) make sure it holds water, and b) perhaps back up its assertions with, I dunno, examples from the work in question. It might not be the “conversation starter” you’re hoping for, but it’ll at least have a whiff of credibility to it.
But if we can’t make that revolutionary notion fly, how’s about this: If The New Republic and Decider are indeed writing checks to writers who review movies based solely on trailers, I would like to offer both outlets the opportunity to run the very first review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I shall begin the bidding at one thousand dollars.