Introspection for an August Evening

August 27, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

A crisis of conscience can be good for the soul - or the writing. So I have always believed. Over the course of nearly 17 years of writing reviews, I have had many instances of self-doubt. The roots can be varied and hard-to-define. Perhaps I listen too closely to my most militant detractors. Perhaps I don't believe enough in myself. Perhaps I'm making too many mistakes and losing faith in the movie industry. I suspect that most critics, at one time or another, go through periods of self-doubt, wondering whether there's any real value in what they're writing.

Contrary to what some might believe, I don't enjoy writing negative reviews. It's no fun penning six or seven paragraphs tearing down the work of other people, even if the work is ill-conceived on some level. Yes, some of my negative reviews are nasty and mean-spirited; they reflect my frame of mind when I wrote them. It's not that I regret writing negative reviews (and I know they can often be more entertaining than reviews of mediocre or well-received movies), but I wish they weren't necessary. There's nothing I would like more than to love every film I see. But if I was that easy to please, I wouldn't be much of a critic.

I have always viewed the value in a review not to be whether the reader agrees with me or not, but whether I get my points across. Whether I like or dislike a movie a secondary to representing why I feel that way. I also like to give a sense of what might be interesting about a film from a thematic or artistic standpoint. There's always a tug-of-war, however, because I recognize the presence of two audiences: those who have seen the movie and those who haven't. Often, members of the former community are looking for something different than members of the latter group. It can be a tightwire act to write something substantive without giving away too many spoilers. Therein lies the great challenge of writing a "populist" review.

Sometimes, I wish I had a greater appreciation for film as art. I wish I could use those 40 hours a week I devote to my "day job" to fill in holes in my history of film. There are other issues that comprise my bouts of self-doubt. What can I do to make the website more reader-friendly? How can I find the time to provide more content? Are these ReelThoughts entries substantial and compelling enough to be worth posting? Then there are the ads. The decision to start advertising on ReelViews was a difficult one. After all, for years I proudly used the slogan "The largest non-commercial movie site on the Internet." To this day, I wish I could go without them. I understand the complaints - slower loading, causing the site to choke on firewalls, security concerns, visual clutter. Sadly, the financial implications of not advertising would mean dire cutbacks to (or the death of) the site.

Not all reviews are created equal. Some are more difficult to write than others. Some are more satisfying than others. My hope is that the worst of the reviews (typically for mediocre movies about which I have little to say) remain minimally informative, while the best simultaneously enlighten, entertain, and provoke. I often worry that I'm not being provocative or insightful enough. Those are the qualities that separate the true critics from the frauds, the quote-whores, and the casual bloggers. I like to believe that my awareness of this is a positive thing.

I sometimes wonder what my life would be like if I ceased reviewing films. After 17 years and 3600 reviews, stopping cold turkey might not be possible. Writing reviews has become an integral part of who I am. The experience of watching a movie is inextricably linked to writing about it. Seeing movies without discussing them would be, for me, an empty experience. With something like The Dark Knight, writing and posting a review allows me to shout out my enthusiasm for what I believe to be a superior expression of art and entertainment. It wouldn't be the same thing to just see it and talk about it with a few friends. So, if I ceased reviewing, would I continue to watch hundreds of movies each year or would I stop almost altogether and devote myself to reading, writing, and other pursuits?

It's an academic question. I have no intention of stopping. The compulsion that has me in its grip shows no sign of releasing me. I figure that if I survived this past February, March, and April, I can survive pretty much anything Hollywood can throw at me. I will continue to wonder and worry about the quality of what I produce and, to be frank, I hope the self-doubt never goes away. For how else can one improve but to recognize the essence of one's flaws and seek to improve upon them?