ReelThoughts: January 26, 2014

"Coming of Age"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


This past week's snowstorm, with its foot of snow, howling winds, and frigid temperatures, brought back memories of a similar (although bigger) storm a little more than 18 years ago. The snow totals from that epic early 1996 blizzard were more than twice those from this one but the results were the same: canceled schools, snarled traffic, and a self-imposed confinement inside. This year, much of my time and energy were applied to keeping my 3 1/2-year old entertained (due to a fever, he couldn't go out and play in the snow). 18 years ago, I hunkered down and learned how to code html. Three weeks later, on January 26, ReelViews was born.

This site is old by Internet standards. Ancient, in fact. Some would argue it looks it age and I'd be the first to admit that I want to update its appearance sometime in the near future. When it comes to websites, content is still king but the packaging has become increasingly more important. But it's no longer a simple matter of buying a "how to" book and adapting what's between the covers. Professional web design has become too sophisticated for me to dabble in.

The original ReelViews wasn't much to look at. Just a handful of links to review of the latest movie reviews. No archives. No ReelThoughts. In fact, the site wasn't even called "ReelViews" (I first started using that title some time in 1997). Initially, it was simply "James Berardinelli's Movie Review Page." Throughout 1996, I took the text reviews I originally posted to the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews and converted them into html to build the archives. By April, the site hosted about 700 reviews.

It's odd to consider that this site is now older than many of its readers. It's equally startling to consider that, of my entire post-college adult life, I have been writing reviews for all but one year. Sometimes it's hard to fathom where the impulse came from and what strange compulsion has kept me at it for 22+ years. When it comes to film criticism, I'm not the New Kid on the Block anymore and the Internet isn't the unfathomable realm it once was.

The late Roger Ebert got "it" early on. He was one of the few mainstream critics who became on-line savvy at a time when most people didn't even know what an "e-mail" was. It wasn't surprising that someone in my position would have an early grasp on the Internet. I worked in a tech company. My education included an e-mail account. But Roger was a true pioneer - an older gentleman who embraced the Internet rather than fleeing in fear from it. He didn't find me through ReelViews; he discovered me through rec.arts.movie.reviews. I remember being somewhat stunned by the first e-mail I got from him. Back then, the Internet was a kinder, gentler place. One wasn't suspicious of imposters. I never questioned whether the e-mail I received, from someone who identified himself as "Roger Ebert" and had an e-mail address of "rebert@compuserve.com," was the famous film critic. I simply accepted it. I was one of Roger's first e-mail critic buddies - not surprising since few film critics were on-line at the time. That changed over the years as the pendulum swung. (Somewhere, I still have a copy of that e-mail archived although it may no longer be readable.)

I wasn't a child of the Internet. Growing up, I had to rely on magazines like Starlog for information about upcoming movies. There was no "global community." Star Trek fans kept in touch via fanzines and met up at conventions. If you wanted to maintain contact with someone who lived a distance away, you either wrote a letter or made a phone call. Childhood friendships and crushes rarely survived physical relocations. I'm not regularly in touch with anyone outside my family who I knew in the pre-Internet days.

At my 1985 University of Pennsylvania orientation, I was given an "e-mail address." Don't quote me, but I think it was jamesber@seas.upenn.edu (now defunct for about 24 years). I didn't know what the hell an "e-mail address" was but I was told to go to the computer lab and "log in." So I did. Over the course of five years at Penn, I didn't get many e-mail messages, although I had one forward-thinking professor who used it for assignments. But I started spending increasing amounts of time in the computer lab once I discovered the Usenet newsgroups.

By 1996, most people in universities and tech companies knew about the Internet and used it for at least e-mail. The World Wide Web, still in its infancy, was more obscure but gaining popularity. Roger was on it. Alas, publicists didn't know what I was babbling about when I tried to explain to them why I should be given press credentials. "We only provide those to people who write for newspapers," I was told. I showed them samples of about ten reviews. "That's all very nice but who do you write for?" Dead-end. I did this dance for about eight months until, in February 1997, I finally encountered an intern who knew what the Internet was. He set me up.

Initially, I was regarded with skepticism. Most of the established critics treated me nicely enough but you could tell a few of them didn't think I belonged in their ranks. The publicists generally ignored me, pretending my inclusion was a mistake that would eventually correct itself. The second-class citizen mentality persisted. At the Toronto Film Festival in 1997, I asked Roger about it. His response was that it would take some time and patience, but advised me not to be passive about it. I was, in his words, blazing a trail. The sense of exclusion was frustrating. He saw the future more clearly than I did. His years in the industry gave him greater insight.

At the time when ReelViews was born, no "film critic" wanted a website and, to my knowledge, no one had one (except Roger, who had his own little corner on Compuserve). There were a small handful of regular contributors to rec.arts.movies.reviews, most of whom were college students (Mark Leeper being a notable exception) and stopped writing when they graduated. In those days, if you wanted to be taken seriously as a movie reviewer, you needed to work for a newspaper. In the late '90s, Roger tried to help me procure such a position but most papers weren't hiring full-time critics and those that were paid too little for me to be willing to uproot my life, give up my day job, and relocate.

In a column Roger wrote for the long-defunct (print) magazine, Yahoo! Internet Life (June 1996 edition): "A newspaper looking for a film critic would be well-advised to head for [Berardinelli's] URL and hire him immediately…" The year of Roger's death was the year I finally got that newspaper job. It came to me, as so many things do, as a result of favorable circumstances. I didn't seek out the position but when a critic I have been friends with for more than 15 years announced his retirement, he submitted my name as a freelance replacement. My terms were simple: ReelViews would still have primacy and would be the #1 location for all of my reviews. The three papers (and their associated websites) could reprint the reviews. So I began a new phase of my career - writing for The Burlington County Times, The Bucks County Courier Times, and The Intelligencer.

One surprise was to discover that my reputation, such as it was, received an immediate boost. One could make a claim that writing for a medium-traffic website is more impressive than writing for three local papers, but there's an ingrained respect within the film community that gives an edge to the "old school" means of communication.

So today ReelViews turns 18. Old enough to vote. Old enough to go to war. Old enough to consent to sex in all 50 states. But not old enough to drink. It has been a constant in my life for nearly two decades. During its "lifetime," it has changed addresses three times (Cybernex, Colossus, Reelviews.net). I have moved from a townhouse to a small ranch house to a larger suburban dwelling. I have gone from being single and profoundly unattached to having a wife and a son. My writings remain at the heart of ReelViews. I have scribbled nearly 4000 reviews (2700 of which are available via the site) over 22 years. And, though some things about the site change, I hope to keep the central elements the same. In one way or another, this will always be "James Berardinelli's Movie Review Page."


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