ReelThoughts: November 20, 2011

"A Few of My Favorite Things"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


It is said we re-invent ourselves every seven years. I don't know if that's true or not, but the objects of my childhood and teenage passions are not necessarily the things that occupy my thoughts today. This inconstancy explains better than anything else why the divorce rate is 50%, why once-popular TV shows lose viewers, and why top actors slide into obscurity. Love affairs are often white hot but short lived, regardless of what the object of affection is.

As a young child, I was enamored with construction vehicles. If I was going to identify a "first love," that would be it. I remember playing with metal toy replicas of front-end loaders and dump trucks on a dirt pile near the back end of my driveway, and of watching the real-life versions of that equipment at work in the street. I was so fascinated with these big, noisy machines that I made friends with some of the drivers and greeted them every day during the summer of my fourth year. That was four decades ago and I still remember one of their names: Art.

For a while, I dreamed of growing up to become just like Art - something that might have horrified my parents if I had expressed that desire when I was in high school. Construction vehicles gave way to dinosaurs and astronomy. By the time I was seven, I had numerous books about the planets and solar system and tons of plastic dinosaurs. That's when I discovered movies.

I can't say for certain what the first movie I saw was. It might have been The Wizard of Oz. It was definitely on television. Soon after, I began watching old, mostly black & white monster movies on Saturday afternoons. These were shown as a double feature in a three hour block under the umbrella title of Creature Double Feature. In New York, this was on Channel 9 or 11 (sorry, can't remember which all these years later). In Philadelphia, it was on one of the UHF channels - 17, 29, or 48. Different "vampire" host, but the same basic format.

CDF introduced me to all the classic Universal monster movies (as well as many less-than-classics). I met Karloff's monster, Lugosi's Dracula, Cheney Jr.'s Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Godzilla, and King Kong. Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari , and Cheney Sr.'s The Phantom of the Opera remained beyond my grasp - as adventurous as CDF could be in unearthing old movies, it didn't venture into the silent realm. I eventually saw Dr. Caligary on PBS at age 9, Phantom on PBS at age 11, and Nosferatu on VHS at age 25.

My passion for monster movies led directly to my first trip to an indoor movie theater. I desperately wanted to see the Dino De Laurentiis remake of King Kong and pestered my father until he capitulated. I'm sure this was not near the top of his "things to see" list but he indulged me. I was awestruck and it may be that some lingering fondness for that movie has influenced my lasting opinion of it.

Between King Kong and Star Wars (which came out about six months apart), I saw one or two movies, but I couldn't say what they were. They left no lasting impression (although they were most likely Disney films). Star Wars didn't kill my monster movie infatuation, but it injected science fiction into my imagination. I wrote science fiction-themed stories and played with Star Wars action figures. This led to my becoming a faithful devotee of both Star Trek and Doctor Who.

Outside of school, my teenage years were devoted to three main interests: Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Dungeons & Dragons. I read a lot (mostly fantasy), wrote a lot (all fantasy), and saw the occasional movie. Star Trek movies during the 1980s were events for me - I have vivid recollections of seeing installments 2, 3, 4, and 5. Films that did not include the words Star Trek in the title were opportunities to kill time. In many ways, my cinematic likes as a teenager were typical: action, science fiction, and thrillers. I loved Bond and Schwarzenegger. I was less enamored with comedies (most of them weren't funny) and stayed away from anything that sounded remotely like a romance or a drama.

By the time I had graduated from college, I was losing my affection for the kinds of movies that enthralled me as a teenager. I still enjoyed a good action movie (one of my fondest summer memories from the late '80s was seeing Die Hard in a packed 600-seat theater), but my tastes were expanding. No longer did I avoid movies based on a genre or because they were subtitled. I started seeing all of the Best Picture Oscar nominees. Unfortunately, although my tastes were changing, those of my friends were not. When I went to see When Harry Met Sally during the summer of 1989, I did so alone - none of my friends were interested.

That was increasingly the case over the next few years. The more movies I saw in 1990 and 1991, the more often I went alone. Dozens of movies - from Dances with Wolves to Dead Again to Beauty and the Beast - were experienced solo. A funny thing happened along the way: I started enjoying movie-going by myself. Let's face it - even if you're part of a group, seeing a movie is a solitary experience. Every viewer brings his or her life's experience to the film, and that feeds how we interpret our 90 minutes in the dark. Watching a motion picture is a strangely contradictory activity. We do it in the company of hundreds of others, all seeing the same images and hearing the same music and dialogue. Yet the processing of those things is individual. The sharing comes afterward in discussion with others. Movies make lousy first dates if the sole purpose is seeing the film. They can be great first dates if a dinner or a cup of coffee is included.

By the time, I started reviewing movies at the end of 1991, I had outstripped my friends with respect to the number of movies I was seeing and my willingness to take risks. The kinds of movies I enjoyed in 1993 were more diverse than those I had devoured years earlier. A 19-year old James Berardinelli would have seen Jurassic Park but likely would have ignored Schindler's List. A story about dinosaurs come to life? Cool. A three hour black-and-white movie about the Holocaust? No thanks. But the 1993 James Berardinelli made the latter his #1 choice for that year while the former was absent from the Top 10.

This leads to the unavoidable question of whether my tastes have changed since I began reviewing. I have been doing this for nearly 20 years now; do I feel the same way about movies I saw in 1992 and 1993 as when I first saw them? It's an issue all film critics have to face, although some like to dodge it. The older we get, the more our lives change, the more receptive we become to some experiences and resistant to others. In the early '90s, I was single, living alone in a rented apartment, and experiencing life without strings or responsibilities. All four of my grandparents were alive and in good health. My sisters were unmarried (although one had an infant son) and living at home. In 2011, I am married with an 18-month old son. I have a house and a mortgage. Responsibilities define my existence. My grandparents are dead and my sisters have married and have families of their own.

For me, a review is intended to represent a snapshot of how I feel about the movie when I first see it. There's no hard-and-fast rule here, but the general process is that I see the movie, write the review, then don't change the text even if I re-watch the film at a future time and discover I don't feel quite the same about it. I'm not one for revisionism. Reviews are expressions of how I feel about a movie at a certain time and place. There are exceptions. The most notable are "new" reviews of older movies. In that case, I'm capturing my current thoughts about something I may have seen for the first time many years ago. If I have something to say about a movie, I'm not going to hold back. There's also the "film festival" exception. Movies seen at festivals, when it's possible to be watching four or five films per day for a week, are often not "absorbed" properly. When I review something I initially see at a festival, I try to do so after a regular screening.

I rarely go back and "touch up" older reviews, but there have been isolated occasions when something I wrote about a film left such a bad taste that I felt compelled to tweak the star rating and alter the text. I think there have been four or five instances of this, although I can only remember two: Casablanca and Crash. My review of the former was written early (1992) in my reviewing "career" and I initially gave it 3.5 stars. Several years later, as I was converting text files into html in preparation for the launch of ReelViews, I was horrified that I had somehow not given Casablanca its deserved four stars. I stopped what I was doing, re-watched the movie, and re-wrote the review with the appropriate rating. With Crash, the original assessment and review were based on a film festival screening. I questioned the 2.5 stars when the film received rapturous notices following its theatrical opening. So I saw it again and found it to be more compelling than when I had seen it a year earlier at Toronto. I partially re-wrote the review and changed the rating to 3 stars.

The one review about which I am most frequently asked is Heat, which garnered a two star rating. Of the nearly 4000 reviews I have written over 20 years, this may be the one for which I have received the most WTF? e-mails. About ten years ago, convinced I must have been having a bad day when I wrote the review, I purchased a copy of the movie on DVD and watched it, fully prepared to write a new review. When I was done, I re-read what I had written in 1995 and discovered I agreed with every word. Nothing in my second viewing convinced me that my initial impressions needed to be revised.

Then there's Avatar, my most recent four star movie. I freely admit that I overrated this one. A case could be made that it should be downgraded to 3.5 stars or (perhaps) even three stars. I have wrestled with this and decided to leave it as is - a testimony to the persuasive power of James Cameron and 3-D used to its full power. The weaknesses of Avatar become clear when it's viewed in 2-D in a home setting. It's a lot of fun, but it's not great. At some point, I may append a note to the review discussing this, but I have no intention of changing the star rating.

I occasionally wonder what the 19-year old James Berardinelli would think of the kinds of movies that cause me joy today. Something of him remains within me. His love of action films is there, albeit tempered by years of experience. I still have a sneaking fondness for Schwarzenegger, even after the skeletons in his closet emerged to rumba. The four movies I look forward to in the next couple of years are not serious dramas or rich character pieces. They're The Hobbit (parts 1 & 2), Skyfall, and Star Trek II (or whatever it's going to be called). And I would love nothing more than if George Lucas would make Chapters 7, 8, and 9.

And maybe there was something of me, the 44-year old James Berardinelli, in him. After all, his favorite television shows included Poldark, I, Claudius, By the Sword Divided, and Danger U.X.B. - not exactly "typical" fare for an American teenager. He also adored the TV adaptation of J. B. Priestley's Lost Empires - the final appearance of the great Laurence Olivier, who played opposite a young unknown named Colin Firth.

Not all of his favorite things are mine, and not all of mine are his. I have things he wanted - a wife and family - and he had things I envy - freedom from responsibility and the need to answer only to himself. But we share a lot, from a love of baseball and writing to a profound dislike of crowds and travel. The passage of the years imparts wisdom and the experience of living grants perspective, but the memories of youth provide the core of who we are and what we love. Indeed, one of my favorite things is remembering what I was like when I was him.


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