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Authority Figures: Movie Talk and the Rise of Review Culture

This story is part of a series on how we watch stuff—from the emotional tug of Facebook video series to crappy captions on YouTube.For me, Star Wars movies are a lot like dental appointments: I feel obligated to go at regular intervals, but I always get a little nervous as the date looms. The series…

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Authority Figures: Movie Talk and the Rise of Review Culture

This story is part of a series on how we watch stuff—from the emotional tug of Facebook video series to crappy captions on YouTube.

For me, Star Wars movies are a lot like dental appointments: I feel obligated to go at regular intervals, but I always get a little nervous as the date looms. The series is a cultural juggernaut, especially on the internet. You can’t escape the opinions about it. Problem is, I’ve never been invested enough in the story or characters to feel much about them one way or the other. So I’ll do what anyone in the digital age does when they want to learn more about something: go watch an hour-long video of people talking about it on YouTube.

As it has almost everything else, the internet has democratized critique. Anyone can set up a camera or microphone and record themselves talking about movies or shows—a few people around a table or on a couch, sitting perhaps in substitution for IRL interactions and discussions. It’s a format that owes as much to Siskel & Ebert and Mystery Science Theater as it does to the postgame analysis panels on ESPN. Podcasts and videos in this vein can garner hundreds of thousands of subscribers and millions of views.

I got into shows like this a couple years ago when I had a job digitizing thousands of pages of paperwork at the corporate headquarters of a now-defunct retail chain. Wedged into the file room, isolated from any other people, I sat hunched over an ever-churning scanner for eight hours a day. To keep my brain from melting, I listened to podcasts and streamed YouTube videos in the background. It was a way to keep myself company as I slowly bled out from the papercuts.

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My favorite of these channels was Red Letter Media, which features a group of grumpy white guys from Milwaukee whose rumpled demeanor belies their astute film knowledge. If you aren’t familiar with them, RLM rose to prominence in 2009 with a 70-minute-long deconstruction of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace that came to define the internet video essay. It was a thorough, meticulous review that explained nuanced flaws in the film (best summarized by the refrain: “You may not have noticed it, but your brain did”). The format of most of RLM’s videos since then has been more conversational, where the guys sit around and review recent films or ridicule older, bad movies together. Their commentary is often insightful, sometimes problematic, but always peppered with dark absurdist comedy. They’re funny and they make me think about movies in new ways.

There’s also something inviting about the style: I’m separated by a screen, of course, but I feel like I’m part of the discussions. Watching those group videos is like sitting around with a bunch of smart friends. Often, I even find the review of a movie more entertaining than the film itself, and I have watched many episodes in which they discuss movies that I haven’t even seen. Not only that, but these kinds of shows—not the movies they are discussing, but the commenters themselves—inspire their own fanbases. And oh boy, do those fans get invested.

I Love You, Man

An academic perspective on film discussion videos: Having a film examined from a wide array of viewpoints can help us better understand the work and how it fits into various cultural situations. YouTubers like Lindsey Ellis craft long, brilliant video essays that recontextualize broadly familiar films with unique insights. Alison Pregler’s Movie Nights are entertaining looks at the strangeness of cult classics and bad movies. Even something with no real analysis, like a trailer reaction video, invites people to share in that excited energy. “In these times of profound disconnection, people are just looking to connect in some way,” says Jennifer Holt, an associate professor of film and media studies at UC Santa Barbara, “to hear other people discussing things that interest them.”

A fan perspective on film discussion videos: “It’s ridiculous how good this [sic] reviews are,” reads one of the comments on the first part of RLM’s Phantom Menace review. “I find myself watching them over and over again. They are more enjoyable than the movies.”

Another comment, from a review of Batman V. Superman: “One of the best RLM episodes in all of recorded history. I’ve watched it so many times my unborn descendants are tired of it.”

A video by YouTuber hbomberguy titled “Sherlock is Garbage, And Here’s Why” has this comment: “I don’t have the attention span to watch films but I have watched an 110 minute long video about the TV show Sherlock four times.” That comment has nearly two thousand likes.

“People like being part of that conversation,” says Jack Packard, a frequent guest on Red Letter Media’s videos. “Even if part of the conversation is being an audience to the conversation, they just want to be in on it.”

Not only do they want to be in on it, some viewers run their own analysis of the film-analysis conversations: Meet grover51 (that’s his Reddit username), who makes intricate infographics based on data gleaned from RLM videos. So, a chart of which chairs the hosts sit in throughout a series. A tally of each individual curse word spoken by every person on every episode. He’s painted recreations of their wall art, traced the intricate timelines of recurring characters, and mapped out an unnervingly accurate estimate of their studio floor plan. (Packard told me he thought that last one went a little too far.)

“The job I have now is not too difficult,” grover51 tells me over the phone. “So I have a lot of time to do other things.”

Investing the time to make these elaborate charts seems a little odd, but the guy doesn’t come across as the creepy stalker type. He’s an accountant from Texas who likes weird movies and has a lot of mental downtime at work. He doesn’t hunt down outside information about RLM. He just watches their videos. A lot. His favorite series, Best of the Worst, has 93 videos in it. Most are around an hour long. Grover51 says he’s watched them up to a dozen times apiece.

It’s the camaraderie of the group’s onscreen interactions that has made grover51 a fan. But it was their analysis that originally drew him in.

“[They] actually helped me just understand movies more,” he says about RLM’s Star Wars reviews. “I love movies, I like watching them, but I wasn’t trying to analyze them. As I watch those reviews, it kind of helps me along with how a movie is made and what it should and shouldn’t have.”

For the most part, I feel the same way. To stick with the dental metaphor, these critics are like the toothbrushes—scraping through all the gunk and grime to make the whole thing sparkle. Except that lately, I’ve noticed my relationship with these conversations has changed.

High Anxiety

As I watched more and more videos by people like RLM, hbomberguy, and Jenny Nicholson, I came to value their unique takes and commentary on shows and movies. They helped inform how I analyzed the art form, and I found myself going back to them to make sense of the media maelstrom that we live in. At some point, though, I started to depend on them.

Life gets busy; pop culture piles up. At least a dozen Marvel movies are currently barreling down on us, more subscription services stream at me than I can count, and new devices and platforms emerge basically every day. There’s no possible way a person can consume all this content. So instead of watching most of it, now I just listen to a YouTube video or podcast about the things while I’m making dinner.

It’s a kind of FOMO, I suppose. The internet has conditioned us toward hot takes, so when it seems like everyone else has thoughts about the latest dollop of pop culture that blorps out into the public consciousness, I want to keep up. And you probably do too. You need to be able to talk about Star Wars or Game of Thrones around the kombucha cooler. You need to have an opinion on it.

It’s something Holt, the media studies professor, calls “review culture.”

“There are all these ways in which we’re being led around by these reviews and are engaging with reviews and participating or creating reviews,” Holt says. “You’re encouraged all the time to rate this and rate that and take this survey and it seems like it’s part of that larger kind of dynamic that’s taking place. You’re pressured to participate.”

The loudest voices, of course, are the ones who care the most. Fandom has always been passionate, but social media has intensified the conversations we have about entertainment just by dint of sheer volume. Even talk about superheroes and space wizards can feel like life or death when enough people express their fervor. Surrounded by that cacophony, we want something—or someone—to help us cut through the noise.

I’ve been sculpting my own opinions while a bunch of other people have their hands on the mold.

“If you are middle-of-the-road, people will lock onto a strong opinion whether you want them to or not,” Jack Packard from RLM says, talking about audience reaction to one of his own videos. Then he adds, “They don’t want ambiguity. They don’t want both sides-ism. They want tribalism and they want it one way or the other.”

Either you hate The Last Jedi or you love it. Either you hate the last season of Game of Thrones or you love it (OK, chances are you hate it). There’s no room for nuance on the internet. Spend enough time there and it can feel like there’s no room for nuance in your own brain either. The strongest take wins.

When faced with this deluge of media, we curate our own gatekeepers, choosing whom we trust to deliver and decipher what we’ll like. I’ve always loved conversation around film, but what I’m starting to realize is that I’ve been sculpting my own opinions while a bunch of other people have their hands on the mold.

“It’s easier and more convenient and, in a way, less effort and more entertaining, to just kind of siphon all of your information through people that you know,” says Shannon Strucci, a YouTuber who specializes in film analysis and internet culture. “You like their sense of humor, and you like their opinions, and you look up to them. Agreeing with them feels validating.”

The result can be a sort of feedback loop, where our opinions are influenced by critics we admire, which then drives us to seek out that same kind of affirmation from them when something new comes out. (Helloooo filter bubble.) Normally, being able to bounce thoughts off other people should balance you out. Discussion, even about trivial things like the latest superhero show on Netflix, is important. We can often best clarify ideas by talking about them with other people, workshopping them into an actual opinion. But when you only experience a conversation from the sidelines, you aren’t really processing things for yourself.

Me Without You

As we outsource our memory to search engines and augment our mating rituals with algorithms, it stands to reason that flooding ourselves with other people’s conversations might affect the way we formulate opinions. If YouTube can cause viewers to seesaw across the political spectrum, then surely it can sway how they feel about the latest Star Wars spinoff.

“I’m not saying, ‘Wake up, sheeple’ or whatever,” Strucci says. “But I think some [people] will watch a movie review just to kind of know how they should feel about that movie. And the more that they feel close to or respect the person talking about it, the more they might feel like that.”

Basically, the pressure to have a stance on every single cultural entity whirling around you means it’s so much simpler to just co-opt someone else’s video essay than to devote the significant time and energy required to properly analyze each thing. The trouble is when we start to substitute those opinions for our own.

“There is a big difference between parroting what someone says, and someone being able to articulate something you’re not,” Packard says. “And so hopefully, you watch these things and a reviewer is able to just articulate that one thing that was bothering you that you weren’t quite able to form into a thought and you go, ‘Yep, that’s it. This is my problem.’”

It’s good to be cognizant of where our opinions come from and who shapes them. Entertainment moves at such volume, so fast, that trying to analyze it in the background doesn’t really work. Sure, I’ll keep listening to people talk about movies. Nothing is going to take the fun out of that. It will just have to be more of a conscious process, one where I can recognize the difference between watching something for fun and watching it just to catch up with the zeitgeist.

Because keeping up with every pop culture installment can start to feel like flossing teeth. You’re supposed to do it every day, and only rarely should you outsource it to someone else.


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