Siegel's Sin

July 23, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

The following quote has been widely attributed to Good Morning America movie critic Joel Siegel: "Time to go! First movie I've walked out of in 30 fucking years!" The movie that so distrubed Siegel is Kevin Smith's Clerks II, a mildly raunchy but hardly horrifically offensive comedy. For this to represent the straw the broke Siegel's camel's back, I can only scratch my head (considering what he has been through in his life). I have never paid a lot of attention to Siegel's reviews, but for him to choose Clerks II as his inagural walk-out makes me wonder what his opinion was of Freddy Got Fingered or The Devil's Rejects. (My guess is he didn't see either.)

There are two issues worth addressing here. The first is whether a film critic has the right to walk out of a film. The second is how he should conduct himself in the event that such a thing happens. I know a lot of critics have been leaping to Siegel's defense this week; I will not be one of them. I'm not sure he deserves the fusillade delivered by Kevin Smith (after all, he apologized, and the apology seemed sincere), but he doesn't merit the free pass he is being given in some quarters. What he did was unconscionable.

(Odd that I find myself writing this two weeks after writing an entry about ethics.)

There's nothing wrong with a critic walking out of a film, provided that he is upfront with his readers. Excepting film festival offerings that I'm "sampling," I have never walked out of a movie, regardless of whether I intended to review it or not. There have been times when I was sorely tempted, and on one occasion (when I did not write a review), I allowed myself to doze off. (In my defense, I was medicated at the time and my friends wanted to stay.) In the future, I could see myself giving up and leaving the theater before the end credits, but this isn't something I would want to hide from my readers. However, I do not believe it's reasonable to assign a "star rating" on the basis of an incomplete viewing. I might state that the film was unwatchable and I had to leave, but the rating would be "n/a" or something similar. I have stayed the course with some films like Freddy Got Fingered mainly so I could provide a perspective of the entire product. (There comes a point in every movie when you realize it's not going to get better.)

There is a difference, however, between walking out and making a spectacle of oneself in the process. Getting up and annoucing "Time to go! First movie I've walked out of in 30 fucking years!" is not defensible, irrespective of the circumstances. If Siegel could no longer stomach what was on screen, he should have quietly risen and headed for the door, then used his two minutes of TV time to lambast the film. Interrupting everyone else's enjoyment is not the right approach. Furthermore, by doing what he did, he altered the viewing experience for everyone in the theater. An interruption like that pulls an audience out of their reverie, if only for a moment. Watching a movie can be a delicate balancing act between shutting out distractions and allowing the director's vision to pull you along. When someone wilfully interrupts that flow with a thoughtless distraction, he sabotages the movie-going experience. Therein lies the heart of Siegel's sin.

Of course, we live in a time when crude behavior in movie theaters has become an expected occurrence, and this is sad. It's the reason why many movie-lovers above the age of 40 (and some younger) no longer attend multiplexes. People talk through films as if they're in their living rooms. They put their bare feet on the seats in front of them. They eat noxious substances that stink up the auditorium. So, taken in that context, maybe what Siegel did isn't so bad after all. Maybe he's just reflecting how people act these days in theaters. If that's the case, those of us who love the experience of sitting quietly in an auditorium watching something unfold on the big screen can wish that all such people would walk out, with or without announcing it beforehand.