ReelThoughts: January 26, 2013


Commentary by James Berardinelli

For me, January is a month of anniversaries. When it comes to my relationship with movies, all the major milestones except one have come in the first month of the year. It's hard to believe that it has been 21 years since I first committed thoughts about a movie to paper. Or that it has been 20 years since I shared my scribblings with the world at large. Or that it has been 17 years since I started the website that became known as ReelViews.

Tracking the whys and wherefores of writing that first review in the wintery cold of early 1992 takes me on an uncertain journey of nostalgia. It goes back, as many things did in those years, to Star Trek. Truth be told, I have never fully shaken off the Trekkie mantle. It's a little tattered but it still clings to me. That's why Star Trek into Darkness is one of the two movies I'm most eager to see in 2013. (The other is Before Midnight.) In 1991, however, I was much more of a fervent fan than I am today. At age 24, I hadn't begun to outgrow Star Trek - not even by a little.

One of the newsgroups I regularly read at the time was devoted to Star Trek (rec.arts.star_trek.current). In 1991, that pretty much meant The Next Generation. I liked "TNG" (as it was dubbed), but my passion was for The Original Series (TOS). I was first and foremost a Kirk/Spock/McCoy follower. After reading copious reviews of new TNG episodes, I decided to embark upon a personal project leading up to the release of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Beginning in September 1991, I started watching one episode per day of TOS and writing down some thoughts. They weren't proper "reviews" but that's where it started.

Technically, the first movie review I wrote was for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (November 1991). Two reviews of that movie appear on this site: a view of the theatrical version, written in the late 1990s and an essay about the DVD-only Director's Cut. Neither uses any material from the unpublished 1991 review.

To provide a flavor of how I was writing back then, here's an excerpt (150 words out of a 3000 word review): "After 10 years and 6 months without new, live Trek, fans eagerly lined up in December of 1979 to see the much heralded return of Star Trek. The Motion Picture is not an unqualified success and, until The Final Frontier's inauspicious debut in June 1989, it was regarded as the worst of the series. However, STTMP has a number of redeeming qualities and, as long as the viewer isn't expecting a rattling adventure yarn or series of space battles, he shouldn't be too disappointed. The Motion Picture boasts terrific (but overused) SFX and grand theme music, as well as appearances by almost every member of the original cast (including Rand and Chapel). Rating: 7.0/10 - A fairly solid movie with a Trek plot and a better first half than second. The characters are all there but the SFX are given too much precedence. More enjoyable for a Trek fan than a non-aficionado, who will probably find it long and boring."

But once the three-month Star Trek project was over, I discovered that I missed the watching/writing combination; the natural way to continue it was to do something similar for movies. Grand Canyon. Fried Green Tomatoes. The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. Those were the first three non-Star Trek reviews I wrote. One paragraph each. A letter grade. Most of the 1992 reviews have never been published on-line. They were produced for an in-house BBS at the company where I worked and were never intended to have a wide audience. I had a regular readership of about three dozen. I remember a degree of excitement when one review hit the "100 reads" mark.

I was methodical and obsessive in those days. One could argue I haven't changed much in that regard. Without access to advance screenings, I developed an approach I continued to use until I was accredited in February 1997. After work on Friday, I would see two movies. Then, on Saturday, depending on the release schedule for the weekend, I would see between one and four additional films. I typically wrote one review Friday night after the double feature, another on Saturday, and the rest on Sunday. The only times I saw movies on Sundays were on those rare weekends when there were more than six releases.

Starting in January 1993, I began posting reviews to rec.arts.movies and It was the first time I submitted anything I had written for consumption by a wide audience. Initial reaction, as I recall, was mostly positive. The reviews were primitive but this was a time when there were only a handful of amateur on-line movie reviewers. I don't think any of those other early pioneers are still writing reviews. For them, it was a hobby and, over time, they lost interest (and at least one of them has died). For me, it became something a little more. My first published review was for Scent of a Woman. The version currently available on the website is close to the original, although it has been tweaked a little.

Over the years, the most frequent criticism leveled against me is that my reviews are superficial. I don't deny that claim, but these reviews were never intended to be deep, introspective, insightful pieces. They are meant to be light opinion pieces. I see a movie, react to the movie, then try to put some thoughts together in a coherent piece of writing. Are there times when I completely misread a director's intentions or miss something buried in the subtext? Yes. That comes with the territory. Some movies inspire me to write longer, more eloquent pieces. For others, it's a matter of putting together a few hundred words and getting the job done. When it comes to reviews, writing trumps analysis. I spend a lot of time of the flow of the piece and engage in frequent word-play (much of which goes largely unnoticed by all but a few). I enjoy writing about why I like or don't like a film but I don't enjoy film school level dissection. If that's the kind of thing you're looking for, I'm not the right critic to consult. (Note: I resisted being called a "critic" for many years, preferring the term "reviewer," until Roger Ebert told me I was being silly.) I write easily consumable pieces that are designed to give a flavor of a movie and a sense of how I reacted to it. That was my mission statement in 1993. It hasn't changed much since then. And I don't see it ever changing. Those who criticize my reviews often commit the fallacy of attacking them for not being something they were never intended to be.

By 1996, I was growing dissatisfied with the way my reviews were distributed. The Internet was changing. The Usenet newsgroups were declining in popularity (they probably peaked in 1994). People outside of academia were beginning to discover the World Wide Web. I realized that if I wanted complete control over my reviews, I needed to publish them myself on my own website. So, in late 1995, I started the process: signing up with an ISP, learning basic html, and converting a few reviews. By Christmas 1995, I had a functional bare-bones website, "James Berardinelli's Movie Reviews," available for a readership of one: me. There were all sorts of early teething problems, primarily because the ISP didn't have much experience with people whose websites were more than a few pages. As I converted text reviews to html during the early part of January, the website expanded from a few pages to 800. I spent a lot of time in the phone with Cybernex's technical support explaining to them why I needed my page allotment increased. The site went "live" on January 26, 1996.

When did I start calling it ReelViews? I can't recall. It was sometime in late 1996. The first capture of the site archived by The Wayback Machine is from May 5, 1997. It was called "ReelViews" by then; clicking on that link will give some long-time readers a blast from the past and provide everyone else with a chuckle. Hey, I never claimed to be a graphic designer. Maybe someday I'll hire someone to create a professional-looking website. I know, I know - I've been saying that for years.

Reflections on the past inevitably lead to thoughts about the future. I don't foresee any major changes for ReelViews during 2013. Ad revenue has stabilized, although not at the level where I'd like it, but at least it's no longer in a death spiral. (Thanks to those who regularly "click" and use the amazon links - it's gratefully appreciated.) I plan to continue reviewing between 2-4 new theatrical releases per week. As for reviews of older movies… I can't make any promises. The books I'm working on consume a lot of the time that I previously spent on video review projects. (More on that during the coming months as the first book of the trilogy, called The Last Whisper of the Gods, gets closer to seeing the light of day.) The one thing I would like to change is, not surprisingly, ReelThoughts.

The means by which ReelThoughts can be resuscitated is by transforming it into more of a traditional blog. That means short, frequent posts. The average length for a ReelThought is between 1200 and 1700 words, and many come close to 2000 words. It takes a surprising amount of time and effort to write something that long. (This one has absorbed more than two hours.) By cutting back the average length to 300-500 words, I should be able to post regular ReelThoughts. That's not to say there won't be any longer ReelThoughts (as this one illustrates), but those will be reserved for specific topics that demand a lot of space. So I'll give that a try and see how it works.

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