ReelThoughts: May 10, 2010

"The ReelViews Shift"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


In 1996, as the snows fell heavily outside, I embarked upon the then-radical concept of establishing a "personal website." At the time, few people outside universities and tech-related corporations knew about the Web, and the idea of a site that didn't have company backing was unusual. Many of the browsers during that era were text-based and the graphical browser of choice was Mosiac. Netscape, which would soon come to dominate (until knocked off by IE), was only beginning to increase market share in a limited market.

The website started as a lark. I wanted more control over my repository of on-line reviews. To that point, they were all available, but only via the rec.arts.movie-reviews archives. I didn't like my inability to access those files and make changes. If there was a typo, there was nothing I could do to correct it. If a sentence was awkwardly constructed (something common in my pre-1996 reviews), it was locked that way. My solution to this was to build my own website and, once it was established, to stop posting to the Usenet newsgroups.

When I first began reviewing movies in 1992 (actually, the end of 1991), I didn't have a plan for where things might go. It was a way to fill time. I had graduated from college a year earlier, finally getting my Masters degree in December 1990. The biggest shock I experienced in transitioning from academia to the workforce was the upsurge in free time. Suddenly, my evenings were my own. I didn't have to study or work on my Thesis or collaborate on projects. At first, it was liberating, then it became boring.

Throughout 1991, I spent time trying to fill all those hours. During the spring and summer, baseball made it easier, and I consumed additional time by writing and playing the primitive computer games of the era. TV never compelled my attention. There were a few shows I watched, but I found most of what was available to be painful. I subscribed to HBO and Cinemax and typically watched about five movies per week on cable. I only went to a movie theater a few times per month.

When I first began my "binge movie-going," as a friend called it, I had no thought that I'd start writing opinions about the movies I saw. Looking back through the veil of almost 20 years, it's hard to remember the impulse that got me started, but I can recall the first review I wrote: Grand Canyon, for which I had much unconcealed praise. It was a lonely, inexpert paragraph expressing an opinion but lacking anything resembling insight. That same weekend, I scribbled two more: The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (which I did not like) and Fried Green Tomatoes (which I did). None of those reviews are available in their original form on line, although a cleaned-up version of Fried Green Tomatoes can be uncovered here. Some of the early 1992 fare made it as far as a local BBS but, thankfully, most of my first review misfires are lost (although I probably have paper copies somewhere - I'm a pack rat when it comes to things I have written).

Writing reviews blossomed into an obsession. It became uncomfortable if I saw a movie and didn't have a write-up completed within about 24 hours. Often, I would see two movies on Friday and another two or three on Saturday, then devote much of Sunday to writing. Over the years, my attitude toward reviewing has relaxed considerably, but that's the way it was back in the early 1990s. I discovered with the passage of time that movies were crowding out almost everything else, including my anorexic social life. In 1993, the year the Phillies went to the World Series, I placed baseball and movies on an equal footing. By September 1994, helped by the baseball strike, movies had moved far ahead. The next year, I downgraded by season tickets from the 81-game plan to a 13-game Sundays-only plan (one I have maintained since).

When I married in 2004, one of the concessions I made to my new wife was to decrease the number of movies I attended per year. Things became easier when we moved - the round-trip declined from 2 1/2 hours per movie to a little over an hour. During a four-movie week, that gave me an additional six hours at home. Six hours is enough time to write, edit, and post four reviews.

Movies have become an inextricable aspect of my life. It's hard to imagine giving up seeing them or writing about them for any period of time. I can understand what Roger Ebert means when he says he will never retire and will maintain writing and blogging about movies until the day his body gives out. I can comprehend why Gene Siskel continued as he did until the week he died. Any time I hear about a film critic "retiring," I wonder what that means. Does he no longer write about movies? Can he see a film and not offer an opinion? Does he stop going to theaters altogether?

As many faithful readers know, I'm on the cusp of fatherhood. There's nothing extraordinary in that - it happens millions of times every day. The world has six billion people, so that's a lot of fathers. I am realistic enough to recognize that the baby will make significant demands upon my time, with those demands increasing as he grows and becomes mobile. Having five nieces and nephews, I have second-hand experience with babies and recognize that, if I can stand the crying and don't mind the sleep deprivation, infants are manageable. Toddlers, on the other hand, require a single-minded devotion that eclipses most else. And I have nothing but respect for parents who juggle a toddler and an infant at the same time.

Since my life must change, so too must ReelViews shift. Daytimes will no longer be my own. They will belong to the baby and my day job. My lunch hour, which I used for writing, will now be devoted to other chores. In most cases, I will still have my evenings, when my wife will be available to care for the child. Some nights, I will catch a screening of a new movie. Some nights, I will watch something on a DVD. Some nights, I will write. And some nights, when the baby is sick or colicky, I won't do any of those things. Fortunately, I can function on little sleep (most of the time). The curse of being a light sleeper is that you never really get a good night's sleep to begin with. Waking up 10 times per night makes deep sleep an unrealized dream.

Here's what I foresee, keeping in mind the oft-uttered phrase about the best laid plans of mice and men. On average, I expect to be able to review about two new movies per week. Some weeks, maybe three, depending on what's out there and whether I get screeners of smaller indie movies. I anticipate continuing to review all the "big" releases but few of the middling ones (unless I'm especially interested in them). So there will always be a place for an Iron Man 2 review, but maybe the Date Nights and Bounty Hunters will go away. Somehow, I don't think I'll miss them. So, for those who visit ReelViews exclusively for new movie reviews, there will be a downturn in what the site has to offer. In the year from June 1, 2010 through May 31, 2011, I will probably review around 120 theatrical releases. That's half of what I managed at my peak.

But every cloud has a silver lining, so to speak. With a baby, it's easier to watch movies at home, where the pause button can accommodate interruptions and where the schedule is flexible. Theoretically, that will mean more DVD reviews. In fact, I expect to expand the website's VideoViews section in the near future, likely giving new video reviews more visibility. ReelThoughts are even easier than video reviews, so those should increase as well.

My goal - and only time will tell whether it's achievable - is to publish four to five new pieces per week. Ideally, that would be one new video view, one or two ReelThoughts, and two or three new theatrical reviews. For comparison, my current rate is four new reviews during an average week, one ReelThought every one to two weeks, and one new video review every two weeks. I don't see much change in overall output but there will be a shift in focus. And there will likely be occasional weeks when there's a fall-off, such as when the baby is sick or I am physically exhausted and need a break. (That's where the Twitter feed be helpful. The baby's birth will also be announced on Twitter.)

One of the most frequent questions I am asked is how old my child will be when I take him to a theater. That's a question I can't answer now, since his maturity will play a role. I am not an advocate of taking children under age 6 to multiplexes unless they are extremely well-behaved. Few things can remove the sense of immersion necessary for a movie to succeed than a crying or misbehaving child. Until recently, a local theater had a rule stating that no child under six was allowed... period. (Children 6-16 only with parents regardless of the rating.) I rued the day when that regulation was removed and, predictably, the quality of the movie-going experience at the venue markedly declined. I no longer frequent that theater; it's too far away to be worth the extra 10 minute trip.

Speaking of babies and movies, I can remember a time when, if a parent was accompanied by a young child, they would leave at the first sign of any disturbance. Crying would never last more than a few seconds before father, mother, and son/daughter would be headed for the exit. Sometimes they would return, sometimes not. Today, the common practice seems to be to let the child scream and carry on until he/she gets tired or enough patrons complain. If I have a cough, I don't go to the movies - not only because I'm concerned about infecting others but because I recognize that the coughing will impede the experience for others. Sadly, many people don't think that way, and that includes about 75% of parents who bring children ill-prepared to sit still for two hours. I can recall discussing this subject with a man who had his three year-old daughter in tow. His argument? If he didn't bring the little girl, he wouldn't be able to see the movie. The bottom line, in his view, is that his daughter and everyone else in the theater had to suffer so he could have immediate gratification and not wait six months for the DVD. Such a self-serving attitude, too prevalent in today's society of entitlement, boggles the mind. It's one reason why theatrical viewing has become less enjoyable.

I was nine years old when I attended my first indoor movie, and was more than ready to sit quietly for two-plus hours and watch the screen. I doubt my son will be that old when he experiences his first film, but he will be old enough to express a desire to see something and have the maturity to understand that any sort of misbehavior will lead to his immediate removal from the theater. As for the appropriateness of the content... that's another column.

The baby's arrival is imminent, so this may be the final ReelThoughts before the event. Hopefully, the transition will be seamless for regular readers. I recognize that advertising revenue will decline as a result of the decrease in new movie reviews, but that's something I'll have to manage. It can at times be discouraging to look at the site's financial profile, but then I remind myself that I'm not in this for the money. Many of the ancillary goals of ReelViews have changed since that cold January day in 1996 when it went live but the core fundamental remains the same: giving me a chance to share my views with as wide an audience as wants to read them. And, no matter how the specifics of the site may shift, that will remain constant.


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