Real Thoughts

January 31, 2011
A thought by James Berardinelli

"Dear Mr. Berardinelli, I have been reading your site for many years now and enjoy your reviews and reelthoughts. Actually, I like the reelthoughts better so that's what I'm writing about. I noticed you aren't writing them as often as you used to. I know with the baby you may not have as much time any more but the baby was born last summer and you kept writing for most of the year. But not so much any more. The last reelthought I can find is from the end of December and that was just your Top 10 and such. The last time you wrote what I consider to be a reelthought was before Thanksgiving! Now you've gone all of January without one. So are reelthoughts dead? Are we going to see them again or have you retired them?"

I have gotten several e-mails asking the same thing, so I decided to "resurrect" ReelThoughts for the express purpose of answering the question. This can be considered and explanation or an excuse, and perhaps it's a little of both.

Excepting the obligatory end-of-the-year columns, it is true that I haven't written a ReelThought since November 21, 2010. That has not gone unnoticed by me (or my wife, who has commented upon it face-to-face). So, to answer the obvious question: Is ReelThoughts dead or merely in hibernation? The latter. The frequency with which I have written these commentaries/blog entries over the years has varied. Some months, there are as many as ten or twelve (not in a while, though). Some months, there are significantly fewer. Recently, I averaged three to five per month, or about one per week, and that output level seems about right.

Why so few of late? I could blame it on Michael, who has absorbed many hours of my life that once might have been devoted to watching movies and/or writing about them. But that's unfair; as was pointed out by the e-mailer, my ReelThoughts productivity did not drop off dramatically in the wake of his birth. I could blame the cold that has plagued me for most of January but, though it sapped my stamina at night, that doesn't explain why nothing was written during the day. I could blame the weather, which has had me poring over runs of the GFS, NAM, and ECMF, or the new aquarium I set up, which has had me huddled over test tubes measuring pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. But none of those things gets to the root of the matter.

Part of it is that I have had a sense - commented upon by many in the forums - that I'm repeating myself. This is true. There are about ten "pet topics" I return to whenever I have something new to say, and that "new" statement is often just a rephrasing of an older sentiment. Sorry, but that's the way it goes. I have, however, evolved - naked women and piracy have been replaced by 3-D and video games. I don't plan to stop writing about these things because they're among the few topics that energize me. And it's tough to write about something that doesn't capture one's interest.

And that brings me to the core reason why I haven't been writing ReelThoughts: the movies themselves. The fare out there is so relentlessly mediocre that it has created within me a sense of apathy regarding all things associated with motion pictures. To be fair, there are some very good films out there (and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of good-to-great ones available to a Netflix subscriber in an instant), but new theatrical releases have always been my bread-and-butter, and what's coming out these days is depressing. I'm not the only one who thinks this. A local theater manager tells me he can't remember the last time his multiplex was this empty. Hard numbers indicate that attendance is down about 30% over this time last year. This past weekend's top grossing film couldn't pass the $15M mark. 3-D was a band-aid to hide declining ticket sales. Now it's becoming apparent that the stuff in theaters isn't enticing enough to lure people away from their TVs. That will change when the big summer howitzers start unloading but Hollywood will suffer if people attend movies only in May, June, July, November, and December.

My enthusiasm for cinema in general simply isn't there right now. I still go to screenings - what few there are - a couple times per week, and write the reviews after I get home. I watch a lot of movies using Netflix's instant streaming feature. I don't review them and there's sometimes a sense of freedom in not having to organize my thoughts as rigorously as I do if I watch with the intent to review. And I am slowly continuing to make my way through my Best Pictures series. But the fire isn't there, and it's directly attributable to how uninspired everything is at the multiplexes. I can't summon up the energy to write a good rant about the Oscars because I simply don't care. I'm not angry about them. I'm not disappointed about them. I'm mostly bored. I didn't get up early to watch the live announcements of the nominations - I read about them later in the day on-line. It's doubtful I'll be doing "live" coverage of the telecast as I have the past two years because I don't think I'll be watching.

ReelViews no longer exists as it once did - as a stepping stone to a full-time career as a film critic. It's back to where it was at the beginning - an avocation. It's a good thing I don't rely on ReelViews revenue to survive because, especially in January, it has been pitiful. Traffic is actually about the same as it was in November and December but ad rates have plummeted. If I needed website advertising to put food on my family's plates, I'd be in trouble now. I'm guessing that my 2011 revenue will be about 40% what my 2008 revenue was. And, although I don't do this for money, it's more enjoyable knowing all the ticket prices, bridge tolls, and tanks of gas will be covered with a little left to spare. The business side of things has made me more cynical. I do a weekly spreadsheet analysis of all incoming revenue (as well as expenses) and, after a nice little spike in December (when there's always a spike), it has been dismal in January. But I can't blame people for not spending as much time at the site because enthusiasm for ReelViews is correlated with enthusiasm for Hollywood's output, and there's not much of that these days. It's a universal multiplex malaise.

On a certain level, I'm not even sad that the movies aren't better because, to be frank, they don't mean as much to me as they did ten or 20 years ago. Back in the early '90s, my life consisted of three things: going to work, watching baseball (from 1992 through 1996, I was a Phillies full season ticket holder), and sitting through & reviewing movies. I was obsessive about seeing everything I could find. But as my reality changed, the piece of pie devoted to movies shrunk. Home ownership, marriage, and fatherhood all took significant bites out of it. Once, I was a writer and film critic first; now, that description comes below father and husband.

Once, I would have compartmentalized my life so things other than movies were squeezed out. Pay someone to cut the lawn. Stop wasting time with the damn iPad. Don't bother with a new aquarium. Give Michael and Sheryl the time they need and save all of the "me" time for watching and writing about movies. Then there would be frequent ReelThoughts, more reviews of older movies, and even a few more of obscure and/or really bad current ones. But my love affair with cinema has gone a little stale. I want to stray into other areas. I want the solitude of cutting the lawn, the challenges of running an aquarium, and the relaxation of fiddling with Apple's newest gadget. Those things satisfy in ways that movies no longer do. Sure, some of it is because I have changed. But some of it is because the motion picture industry has developed the kind of tunnel vision that makes it difficult to differentiate big screen fare from small screen fare. Once, I got a little thrill every time I went to a movie theater. Now, I get annoyed because some burly security guard is going to wand me to find out whether I'm sneaking a camera in.

I have no plans to quit attending screenings, because there's an exultation to equal none other when I see something that really works for me. I can feed off a good movie for days and a great one for weeks. Those ***1/2 movies re-energize my batteries and they're not as rare as they sometimes seem to be. The good movies are out there but, too often, you have to look longer and harder to find them and they are rarely in multiplexes. I enjoy writing reviews, especially of bad movies. Writing snarky things about something I hate is my revenge upon the filmmaker who stole my time and money. ReelThoughts allows me to rant and reminisce, and it will continue to fulfill that function. It, like the rest of the site, will exist for as long as there's someone out there who continues to read what I write.

I don't live in fear of my readership evaporating. For years now, I have had a regular audience beyond what I could have imagined when I started this endeavor in the '90s. ReelViews just turned 15 a few days ago, and I am in my 20th year writing reviews. (I started in December 1991.) Back in those days, if anyone had told me that thousands of people would read my reviews and commentaries, I would have been elated. Five or seven years ago, I dared to dream bigger, but the shoals of reality dashed those hopes. So ReelViews remains a one-person endeavor and, as such, its output ebbs and flows with my whims. Even in "down times" such as these, I try to provide new content every week. Sometimes that's in the form of new theatrical reviews. Sometimes it's video reviews. And sometimes, like now, it's a ReelThought about real thoughts.