Jay Dugan says he did it once, when the gremlins went into the blender. By then he'd seen enough. After maybe an hour of mayhem and gore he decided he could stand it no longer, he had to do something, make a decision and get on with life. He got up and left the theater, quitting "Gremlins" before the movie ended.
"It was so disgusting," says Dugan, 34, of Rodgers Forge. "It was so gross. You feel a sense of relief when you walk out."
Some do, some don't. Some see flashing on the screen the limits of their tolerance for inanity, profanity, sex, violence or their own boredom. Some are moved in these extremes to seek solace in a four-letter word glowing in the darkness: "EXIT." Others endure for sundry reasons, blind optimism among them: No, no, it can't be this bad ... All right, it can be this bad, but it can't possibly stay this bad. Can it?
At this festive time of year, when, as Dickens might say, movie abundance rejoices, when film critics wade valiantly through surging tides of cinematic slush, take note of a rough division of the species. There are those who just might walk out, those who never would, those who feel bound by professional duty or financial obligation to stay until the closing credits roll.
It's a question of temperament as well as taste.
"I like action, I like a certain amount of shoot-'em-ups," says Dugan, as he stands outside the Towson Commons General Cinema waiting to see "Elizabeth." But, he says, "when there's too much gore I don't like it."
Chris Millard, a contracts lawyer from Towson, recalls moment when he and a couple of friends together discovered the limits of their tolerance for idiocy. They were watching "RoboCop."
"After a while we all decided it was stupid," says Millard. "It was stupid from moment one and steadily went downhill."
The three friends looked at each other. Even in the darkness of the theater things were clear enough. Thinking in the moment as one, they got up and left.
Millard, waiting with his wife, Gayle, to see "Elizabeth," says he's not a habitual walk-outer. It's got to be an extreme case, a three-strikes situation: "If it evokes no emotion, if I don't feel like laughing or crying and if it's bad acting, it's 'Let me cut my losses and move on.' "
Gayle Millard has never come to this crossroads.
"I've never walked out of any movie," she says. "I fall asleep. But I fall asleep in the good ones, too."
A sleeping movie companion could well alleviate the potential hazards of walking out as a couple. One simply leans over and whispers: "Sweetie, wake up. We're leaving."
With a companion who is actually awake, however, the question of walking out requires a more delicate approach. There you are, suffering in silence, feeling you've seen enough. Do you say something to your companion? What if she's enjoying the show? Would that spoil it? What then? Better to keep an eye on her for a sign of hope: some squirming in the seat, some twist of the mouth signaling disgust.
Chuck and Lillian Bowers faced this situation years ago when they saw "Caravaggio" in Georgetown. Chuck, who recently joined the Men's Film Circle, a group devoted to watching action movies featuring guys named Bruce, Arnold, Jean-Claude, et al., was not connecting with "Caravaggio," a 1986 film about the late Renaissance Italian painter.
"It was probably the worst movie I ever saw," says Bowers, a physicist from Baltimore.
There in the Georgetown theater, Lillian says she and her husband quietly discussed a question of multilayered nuance: to walk or not to walk?
"He said, 'Let's go,' and I said, 'No,' " Lillian recalls.
That settled it. She watched and enjoyed the movie while Chuck hissed editorial comments about what he considered its artsy pretensions. The marriage survived.
One person's choice is another's luxury. Consider those members of the press corps who suffer mightily this time of year. In this busy season, film critics may see four, five movies a week, most of them schlock. An utterly unscientific survey of nine movie critics across the country shows that most feel professionally obliged not to walk out of a movie, however dreadful it may be.
This includes Margaret A. McGurk, film critic for the Cincinnati Enquirer, who says, "My motto is: 'I see 'em so you don't have to.' I stay to the bitter end of everything."
(For the record, Sun film critic Ann Hornaday agrees with McGurk. When on assignment as a critic, she never walks out before the film has ended.)
Nonetheless, critics who embrace this school of thought often find their sense of professional duty tested.
McGurk recalls being pushed to the brink of flight in 1995 by "Showgirls," with its "horrible lap-dancing scene," and "horrible sex scenes." This fall, she was nearly chased from the theater by the Jerry Springer movie "Ringmaster," a film that inspired critics everywhere to hold their noses.
"I couldn't wait for it to be over," says McGurk. "It was just a waste of time."
Despite his sense of "duty and responsibility and moral code," Steven Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer says he found himself longing for escape from "The Avengers," which he found "unbelievably, stultifyingly dull."
Yet, like those Japanese soldiers found hiding in caves decades after World War II ended, Rea would not abandon his post.
Joe Baltake of the Sacramento Bee says a really bad movie may become an object of "perverse curiosity. How bad can it get?"
If it gets really bad, chances are it will make for an entertaining review. Critics say they sometimes like to stick around until the end just to amass ammunition.
On a more optimistic note, Joe Holleman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says: You never know. It might get better.
"It's like covering a city council meeting," says Holleman. "You have to be there just in case something happens."
Maybe a promising actor debuts in the last 15 minutes. Maybe a bit of snappy dialogue crackles across the screen. Maybe, like James Cagney in "Angels With Dirty Faces," a deadly movie can find redemption in its last minutes.
The opposing view is best summed up in the "rancid soup" analogy supplied by John Simon, the famously acerbic drama and film critic of New York magazine. Novelist Jacqueline Susann once rebuked Simon publicly for lambasting one of her )) books when he had read only the first 40 pages. Simon recalls that he answered her complaint with a rhetorical question:
"If you get a bowl of rancid soup do you have to spoon out every drop to know it's rancid? ... The same principle applies," Simon says.
Simon does not feel duty-bound to sit through an awful show or movie, but does feel obliged to say in his review that he walked out before the end. He wrote a scathing piece in the National Review in June 1997 after walking out halfway through "The Designated Mourner" a movie with Wallace Shawn and Mike Nichols.
"The film was Wallace Shawn at his worst," says Simon. "Not that his best and his worst are that different."
This trafficking in opinions is taxing work. Sometimes it just seems to demand too much, says Jeff Simon, film critic and assistant arts editor for the Buffalo News.
Simon, no relation to John Simon, has been reviewing movies off and on for 25 years. He's 53, which he says may explain why he's inclined to walk out of something so wretched as "The Pest," a 1997 movie starring John Leguizamo. About 50 minutes of jokes about bodily functions was enough for him.
"Life's too short," he says. "I hear the wings fluttering behind me."
Those would be the wings of the Angel of Death, a sound Simon says he heard during Kevin Costner's "The Postman," an epic of post-apocalyptic heroism that ran 170 minutes. The critic says he sat through the whole dreary thing, "getting older by the minute."
Maybe it was some reservoir of admiration for Costner that kept him there. Whatever it was, he felt no such thing when he saw "The Birdcage" in 1995.
It was a beautiful spring day in Buffalo. And there he was inside. In the dark. With this rather tiresome remake of "La Cage Aux Folles." He stayed for about 45 minutes before fleeing into the sun, an affirming decision that reminded him of a quote he once heard from an English professor and literary critic: "Art is overrated, but life isn't."
Pub date: 12/13/98