On this evening, as the drugs begin to take hold, I begin to play with my fear. Fear feel good, I suppose it stimulates the mind, causing adrenaline to inject deep into the body, like an orgasmic rush. I wonder, what do people fear? I watch as my mind generates some answers to that query, blood dripping down from the walls, shadows raping each other within the light… yawn. I take more drugs and become a shadow, for the moment, only because I’m terminally bored and need to do something refreshing.
A few hours later, I can answer at least part of that question? I know what studios and filmmakers fear: a bad film, perhaps, or maybe even losing money. Somewhere in that thought, I realize that critics are feared. I don’t know why, but in my latest interview, I’m going to try and find out. Meet James Berardinelli, a man who’s very name sends thoughts of carpal tunnel syndrome into secretaries everywhere. This guy is arguably the most storied and powerful ‘online’ critic, and here’s what he had to spew.
DS: Welcome to my head, James. As one of the Internet’s most storied film critics, has anyone ever attempted to bribe you for a good review with money, drugs, or sexual favors? And, of course, did you accept or decline?
JB: Don’t I wish… the closest I have come to being offered a bribe is being given the chance to go on a junket (basically, a paid vacation and the chance to schmooze with stars), but I turned it down. I want to review films on my terms, not the studios. If I was offered a bribe, I’d like to think I would have the integrity to turn it down. Of course, it would probably have a lot to do with what was being offered. I think every person has his or her price (maybe I’m cynical in my view of humanity), but I’m not sure the studios would be willing to meet mine.
DS: Okay, I’ll bite, what is your price?
JB: Enough for me to retire from my day job.
DS: For one movie? Wow. So what’s the worst film you’ve ever seen — and what punishment would you bestow upon the so-called creative heads of such [fucking bullshit]?
JB: On video: Zombie Vs. Mardi Gras. In a theater: Freddie Got Fingered.
DS: Oh come on, you can do better than that. Besides, Tom Green does that shit for breakfast; you really think that would put a dent in his act? Back on subject. Being a warrior of over 2,000+ screenings, have you ever gotten a mad, unstoppable erection in a theater? Since you’re a guy (so my spies tell me!) and I will not accept ‘no’ for this answer, during what film & scene did it happen, and how did you, uhm, deal with it?
JB: I don’t have anything against Tom Green personally, but I think he’s an incompetent director. As for the erection question, it’s not really a matter of “have I ever”, but of “how many times”. However, since erections are rather unremarkable events and occur on a fairly regular basis in males, coming up with a particular movie is difficult. I don’t scribble little notes in my notebook when I get one. I’d probably have to say the most recent time was during Under the Sand. How do I deal with it? I don’t. If you ignore it, it will go away on its own.
DS: Awww, you mean you didn’t pull a Pee-Wee? Okay, so opinion-time: who is the most underrated director working today? Overrated? Director with a horrid track record but with potential for true greatness? Director with a great track record but has been a fluke?
JB: Underrated: Atom Egoyan. He doesn’t get nearly the kind of recognition he deserves. Overrated: Difficult to say. No one really leaps to mind except schlock directors, and they’re not really overrated, except by mass-market audiences who like schlock. Oh, wait, I just thought of someone: Jane Campion. Director with a horrid track record but with potential for true greatness: can’t think of anyone. Usually, a horrid track record indicates an inept director. Unless [you?re] talking about a horrid track record at the box office, which could mean that he’s a genius. Director with a great track record but has been a fluke: Quentin Tarantino. He has made two great movies and one watchable one, but I don’t think there’s much left in the tank. Plus, the guy strikes me as a major ass. I’ve never met him and I don’t want to.
DS: I’m always curious if a critic is attempting a totally selfish endeavor from which to satisfy themselves through the dissection of someone’s work and dreams, or if they’re actually trying to influence the public by warning them of bad shit and steering them to good shit. In the latter case, why bother telling people anything about the plot at all, and thus, forming an opinion and an expectation for them? Let me ask, what are your goals/motivations when you review a film? Are you bothered knowing that you’re influencing, tampering, and fucking with money flow and opinion, or is that the point?
JB: I view a review as a piece of writing like any other piece of writing – a short story, a novel, or an article. My intention with each review is to present my opinion, explain why I hold that opinion, and give the reader an idea what to expect from a film. The point of the review is not to influence people to share my feelings – that won’t happen – but to give them a reference point by which they can determine whether or not they want to see the movie (if they read the review beforehand) or whether my interpretation agrees with theirs (if they read it afterwards). I want every review to be informative and entertaining, but it’s not intended as a piece of propaganda. Admittedly, if I like a movie a lot, I will champion the cause, much as I will try to discourage people from seeing movies I dislike. But I recognize that my influence, to the degree that I have influence, is minimal. Basically, when I write a review, I write it for myself, without considering what readers might think of it. I write the same way whether it’s something I don’t intend to put up on the website (and which will only be read by a few others), or whether it’s a review of the latest Star Trek movie, which will be read by 100,000 people. The creative process is much the same. And, as far as criticism goes, my intent really isn’t to tear down any movie. I wish that I could write good things about each film I see. What I try to do is to identify good points and bad points and illuminate them in the review.
DS: I’ve noticed that you often review films before they release wide (or at all) — are you attending the official press screenings? If you are, gimme some pointers because I’d like to go.
JB: Yes, I’m an accredited member of the press, so I get to go to advance screenings. The only way to get into these is to get acknowledged by the studios or their local reps (typically, publicity/advertising agencies) as being legitimate. It took a lot of stumping and name dropping in early 1997 before I was finally acknowledged; it’s not an easy process, and it makes you aware how easily a studio can cut off anyone’s access to advance screenings.
DS: What happens at those advance screenings? I’ve always imagined critics showing up with notepads, chicks, cocaine, whatever. Is it anywhere near that exciting, like a party, or is it very solemn and focused?
JB: Critics walk in, get a cup of coffee (they’re usually offered for free), say a few words of greeting to each other, sit in their preferred seats (with the mentioned notepads in hand), and watch the movie. Afterwards, a few of us may talk a little about it in groups outside of the theater. Then we go home. It’s all pretty boring, actually. No parties or women, unless you’re at a film festival. Then there are plenty of the former, if not necessarily the latter, to be found.
DS: Here’s a screwball I love asking anyone who’s a diehard movie veteran. I’ve noticed that an overwhelming majority of mediocre films are NOT done in by their script, or dialogue, acting, or directing, but the pacing and timing of the edits. Have you noticed a common thread between films that hit the mark? What’s the secret formula, the magic, to a really ‘gripping’ film?
JB: Great editing cannot save an inherently bad film. On the other hand, bad editing can trash an inherently bad film. In motion pictures, it’s really a synthesis of everything. One bad element – be it cinematography, direction, acting, screenwriting, or editing – can wreck the whole project. I don’t subscribe to the theory that any one of those elements is paramount (although, if I had to, I’d lean towards the script or the direction).
DS: A lot of critics these days seem to demand an absolute balance between those elements, as you say. For example, some will trash a nearly-perfect film (by their own admission) if they feel the project grows pretentious, as in, the film seems to carry a sort of self-importance about itself and/or its message. In another example, Roger Ebert has implied that he grants films ‘bonus points’ when they take risks, as well as punishing a film that he feels could have been much greater. Do you reward a film when it takes risks, even if they fail? And do you punish films for failure, or worse, unrealized potential?
JB: I’m more likely to punish a film for unrealized potential than to award it for taking risks that don’t work. Admittedly, I keep in mind the conditions under which a film was made (low-budget vs. Hollywood, etc.), but the rating ultimately comes down to two things: whether I liked or in some way appreciated the film and whether I would recommend it. Movies that take lots of risks but don’t work are often more interesting than Hollywood bombs, but that doesn’t mean they’re more watchable or worth sitting through. I think of myself as a mainstream critic, not an [avant-garde] or offbeat one. I leave the lauding of film school-type projects to the men and women who write for the audiences who enjoy that sort of thing.
DS: Since you’re a press member, I don’t suppose you go to the movies with the rest of us mortals anymore… however, I still do, and when I do, there’s always some fucking asshole who’s talking during the film, or fingering his bird (that’s Brit-speak for ‘chick’), or doing whatever to mess up my filmic experience. I always want to take that guy and crucify him by the testicles on a cross of barbed wire and anal jock-itch-infested wood… wait, I had a question in here somewhere… Oh yeah, let me ask, do you get pissed off watching 30 minutes of trailers before the feature, or do you feel trailers are a good/necessary part of seeing a movie?
JB: Sometimes I have to deal with annoying patrons, especially at press/promotional screenings, when they try to fill the theater up so that the critics get a sense of what it’s like seeing a movie with a “real” audience. This is usually the case for loud, mindless action films and dumb comedies. I think the publicists believe that if the audience is cheering or laughing, it will mutate our views. As far as trailers are concerned, I find them to be useful only if I don’t intend to see the movie, because they essentially summarize it accurately (to the point of giving away the ending) in about 2 minutes. Why see the movie when you’ve seen the trailer? I have been known to walk out of a theater during the trailers, or, if a movie that I want to see is being previewed, to close my eyes. Lately, when I go to non-press screenings at a regular multiplex, I show up about 10 minutes late in the hope that I’ll miss most of the pre-movie garbage. I’m getting pretty accurate at this.
DS: Do you believe in UFO’s and/or other paranormal phenomena?
JB: Easy question. No. I’m a doubting Thomas. I do not believe what I do not see, and I have never seen anything to indicate that there are any UFOs or paranormal phenomena. Makes for good movies, but that’s all.
DS: I want to know your opinion on the following types of websites: movie rumor sites, movie review sites, general fan sites, and fanfic sites, such as the kind where bored fans write love stories about Kirk and Spock, naked, with one poor, lubricated tribble.
JB: I occasionally visit review sites and rumor sites, although I’m not overly impressed by many of the latter. Review sites are a mixed bag. When I find a writer who is thoughtful, knowledgeable, and knows how to write, I will keep going back, even if I don’t often agree with him/her. I have little use for fan sites, whether or not they include fiction, and almost never visit them. Just not my kind of thing. Hands down, the site I visit the most often, is the IMDb, which I probably stop by three or four times during an average day.
DS: One more question for you, guy. Do you think that most Hollywood movies are complete shit, and do you feel there’s any hope of raising the standard of filmmaking with the studios in control?
JB: I do think that about 5 out of 10 Hollywood movies are worthless, 3 out of 10 are marginally entertaining, and only about 2 out of 10 are truly worth going out of one’s way to see. That’s a pretty poor ratio. The future for the discriminating film-goer lies in the independent market, which should see a boom now that digital video has dramatically reduced the cost of making a film. I don’t see Hollywood productions getting better in the near future. If anything, I see them getting worse.
DS: Worthless? Worthless? You’re worthless. I drove an $80,000 BMW here, you drove a? (Savant looks out the window to see a red Lamborghini parked in the handicapped spot.) This interview is over.
Be sure to check out James’ little review-o-rama, Reelviews.net, and remember, he gets advance screenings on everything, just because he’s special. So if you want to know about a film a few days early, go there. Good shit, man. Now, for Savant’s Thought of the Day. I want you to visit FilmJerk.com as much as you can. Tell your friends to come. Take care of yourself, and each other. See you next week.