ReelThoughts: April 30, 2010

"The Ebert Foreword"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


It has now been nearly seven years since I stepped tentatively into the world of print publishing and, although I can't claim the experience as a whole was negative, there were enough negatives associated with it likely to prevent me from working with a traditional publisher again. Neither compilation of my reviews - Reelviews (published in 2003) and Reelviews 2 (published 2005) - was what I wanted it to be. My grand idea, and the impetus for accepting the book deal (beside fulfilling the long-held desire to publish a book), had been to create something loosely based on the website that went in new directions, with reviews never published on-line and many re-written versions of previously available material. I hoped to make the book and the website companion pieces and to offer some password-protected areas that could be accessed only by those with a copy of the book in front of them. Above all, I wanted to make Reelviews different from the dozen-plus movie review books that were available at the time. When I signed the deal in 2002, I was under the impression I would have a full three years to put together the first volume and that publication would take place in 2005. That was not the case.

I don't blame the publisher, although the company's eventual financial insolvency may say something about them. They were making business decisions. But the initially proposed generous timeline shrunk dramatically. In order to complete the book in the time allotted, I was put in a position that all I could do was copy-edit reviews from the website. And, to add insult to injury, I was asked only to include positive reviews, which meant three stars and above. As many readers have mentioned over the years, some of my best reviews are the strongly negative ones, but these could not be included. They didn't fit the format.

The resulting Reelviews is a nice, thick tome and I'm proud of it my own way, even if it is about a 95% regurgitation of website material. It's nice to have in print. You can stick a copy of it in the bathroom and peruse it at your leisure, which is difficult to do with a computer. With Reelviews 2, I pushed back a little, but still didn't get what I wanted. My initial hope: 1000 new reviews, completely different from those in the first volume. The publisher's insistence on "only positive reviews" squelched that possibility, so there was only a 10% turnover. Plus, the "print-only content" was reduced to a 10-page appendix called "Easter Eggs, Extended Editions and Director's Cuts." A grand total of ten new reviews - far from what I had hoped for.

Neither print edition of Reelviews was close to what I had wanted. My scheme of creating an interactive marriage of print compilation and website went by the wayside. Sales numbers were tepid, in large part because so few people were willing to pay for something they could get for free (understandable) and also because Reelviews hit the shelves around the time that review compilation books were multiplying. (This justified the publisher's desire to hurry, but they were still probably six months too late.) I did not aggressively promote the book and my opinion of it has always been mixed. It gave me a little thrill to see my name on the spine of a book offered for sale in brick-and-mortar book stores. It was gratifying to watch the stack at the shop outside the Varsity Theater disappear during the 2003 Toronto Film Festival. But I also felt vaguely cheated that this was the publisher's compromise, not the book I wanted to put out. I was na´ve, and it took a while to let go of that na´vetÚ.

Why bring this up all these years later? In part because it's something I have wanted to get off my chest for a while. The book is still available but none of the proceeds come to me - don't ask me where they go; I've never seen a cent beyond the admittedly generous advance. The publisher, Justin Charles, is no longer in business. So it doesn't really matter what I say about it. It's not as if sales are going to be impacted. This isn't being written with the hope that readers will rush out and gobble up the few remaining copies at amazon.com. I derive more revenue from ad-clicking at my website and DVD purchases through my amazon links. But if you want it (some of the used copies are really cheap), it can be had.

One very good thing came out of the book-writing experience. In early 2003, after I put the finishing touches on the first volume, I approached Roger Ebert about writing a foreword. He enthusiastically agreed. I suspect a majority of those reading this column have never read this passage, so I present it here in its entirety. As was the case in 2003 and again in 2005 when it was reprinted, I am grateful to Roger for his kind words and his support over the years. He accepted me as a peer and an equal when many other print critics looked down their noses at me.

Foreword by Roger Ebert (from Reelviews, Justin, Charles & Co., 2003, United States, p. ix-x)

Film critics are asked all the time: "Do you read the reviews of other critics?" The anticipated answer, I think, is "No, of course not! I exist in a pure and inviolate space occupied only by my own reviews." In this view, to read another critic would be cheating. My own answer is that I read other critics constantly. One of them, Stanley Kauffmann, I have been reading since 1960. I never took a film class - they were not offered when I was an undergraduate - but as a graduate student of English literature, I was expected to read the literature on an author or novel or poem before venturing to write my own essay. No serious scholar in any discipline would write about a subject without being familiar with the writing of those who had gone before.

That said, the experience of a film critic on deadline is a little different. James Berardinelli and I, and most of the other critics whose reviews appear on or before a movie's opening day, cannot read other critics most of the time, for the obvious reason that we are writing before any other reviews are available. If a film has already opened in England, say, or played for six months in San Francisco, there may be reviews online, but then there is another inhibiting factor: We don't want to come across an insight or a nice bit of phrasing that we might have thought of - and then feel we can't use it, because we know that someone else already has.

Therefore, I prefer not to discuss movies with anyone before writing my review, and I rarely talk about them with other critics after a screening. Case history. Some years ago there was a Chicago press screening of a film of truly awesome incompetence. As it happened, one of its reels was missing. In the dark, I smiled to myself, thinking, "If the missing reel contained the lost footage of Greed, it wouldn't help. The lights came up, a publicist appeared, and said "We have tracked down the missing reel and can show it to you after the second screening tomorrow." Gene Siskel said: "Even if it's the lost footage from The Magnificent Ambersons, it wouldn't help." Damn! Now how could I use my line?

So most of us write in a vacuum, sometimes by necessity, sometimes by choice. Once our reviews are written, however, of course I read others - especially if the movie is likely to divide critics, or is tricky or controversial in some interesting way. Most movies open on Fridays, and one of my Friday rituals is to visit a Web site like rottentomatoes.com, where the Tomatometer measures North American critical reaction and provides links to dozens of reviews. Other good sources are the Movie Review Query Engine (mrqe.com) and of course the invaluable Internet Movie Database (imdb.com).

For several years, one of my regular stops has been the reelviews.net site of James Berardinelli, who was online even before the dawn of the Web. In an article about the best Web-based movie sites, for the first (June 1996) issue of Yahoo! Internet Life magazine, I wrote: "... some of the Web-based critics are excellent, but there is one, James Berardinelli, who stands above the crowd. Berardinelli describes himself as an electrical engineer from Morristown, N.J., who has written some 1,000 movie reviews over the last four years. That's more than many full-time critics manage. Berardinelli is literate, opinionated, well-informed and a good writer. He's also familiar with film history; unlike many Web critics, he knows the classics. A newspaper looking for a film critic would be well-advised to head for his URL and hire him immediately (assuming he could be wrenched away from electrical engineering)."

Berardinelli and I struck up an e-mail friendship, and a year or so later I met him in person at the Philadelphia Film Festival. I found a man who was serious, focused, with a wry humor, fascinated by movies, and so thin that I never knew whether to talk movies with him, or take him out and try to get him to eat something.

I learned a little of his story. How his profession as a computer expert was matched with a passion for the cinema. How a sad loss in his life left him with a lot of free time, and he began posting reviews on the Web as a way of filling empty hours. How he had to drive to screenings in Philadelphia and New York. How nevertheless he found time to see a great many movies and to review them at full length, with insight and genuine feeling.

James and I have met several times since then, at the Toronto Film Festival and my own Overlooked Film Festival at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I still believe a newspaper is missing a bet by not hiring him full-time, but I also understand that James is not looking for that: He likes the mix between his day job and his movies.

The Web is a remarkable democracy. Anyone can post a movie review there, and sometimes it seems like everyone does. Reviews appear on personal Web sites, on host sites, on newspaper and magazine sites, in webzines, at about.com and epinions.com, as "user comments" on Amazon.com, and in places like the newsgroup rec.arts.movies.current-reviews. There are many sites dedicated to single directors or stars or genres. If you are a critic dealing with a genre you need to know more about, like Japanese anime, you can chose from dozens of sites via Google.

This vast and open democracy is like a testing-ground for the free marketplace of ideas. In theory, the best critics will rise to the top, and the lesser critics will find their sites visited only by their friends - maybe. Berardinelli's ReelViews now carries the top-page line, "The largest non-commercial movie site on the 'Net." Over a period of several years, many thousands of people looking for movie reviews have traveled the Web, and they have discovered Berardinelli, recognized the quality of his work, and kept coming back. As one who found him very early on, I agree with their discernment. I wanted to write this foreword because I admire the writing, and also because I admire the writer. Berardinelli is a valuable resource, and it is good to have his reviews - sand, accurate, passionate, generous in both praise and blame - between covers.


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