Over the last decade, a number of people, including critics, have wondered about the future of film criticism and I think it’s a valid concern.
In theory, the film critic is an individual who, having studied many films, is an expert and has a truly informed opinion. Someone like Pauline Kael or Andre Bazin was to be respected because it was just a given that they would know more about films than any layperson. A major factor in this is that, prior to the 1980’s, the average person would simply not be able to see as many films with the same frequency as a professional critic. Then came the release of home video and now audiences could study movies at home. The names of directors began to come up in regular conversation. IMDb became a hub for the average person to write their own reviews and rate those of others. The digital revolution happened, college students began making their own films with better technology than ever before, YouTube arrived, and suddenly audiences seemed to be very “hip” and “with it.” Today you’ll find 20-year old hipsters doing movie reviews on YouTube and they know A LOT! You may argue “A kid could never know as much as Vincent Canby or John Simon,” but don’t be too sure!
I watched SISKEL & EBERT every week from middle school through college and followed it as it later became EBERT & ROEPER and then other incarnations. It didn’t matter if I actually cared about the movies they were reviewing or not; it simply was my weekly tradition of keeping up with whatever was coming out. Sometimes I’d discover great flicks. A perfect example is MIRRORMASK (2005, dir. Dave McKean) a visual marvel of a film that I ended up enjoying. It never got a wide release, I never saw any TV promos; indeed, the only reason I ever even heard of it was from hearing Roger Ebert review it, and ironically, it was a negative review! This is one of the great ways film criticism is beneficial in raising awareness of smaller films and helping filmmakers get noticed. To this day, I still think Ebert’s written reviews are some of the finest of the entire medium, and don’t doubt that an entire generation of film critics owe him a debt.
But if you were to ask me who I consider the modern-day successor to SISKEL & EBERT, well, it wouldn’t be anyone in television or print. It would be Grace Randolph and her webseries BEYOND THE TRAILER, which profiles every week’s major releases, gives box office reports, interviews audience members, and even allows Grace to give her own reviews sometimes, all directly for YouTube. Yes, that’s right, I just referred to Grace Randolph by her first name rather than last because I realized that is actually how I think of her. She interacts directly with the fans (okay, I should mention that I did actually appear on the show once; I’m one of the audience members interviewed in the IRON MAN 2 review). Today, BEYOND THE TRAILER holds the place in my routine that SISKEL & EBERT did; it’s how I discover on a weekly basis about every new release, whether it’s a movie I’m actually interested in or not. Click here to discover BEYOND THE TRAILER.
And then, of course, came the rise of ThatGuyWithTheGlasses and satirical reviews that are part critique and part comedy skit. Doug Walker’s THE NOSTALGIA CRITIC became one of the most popular webseries in history, evolving from just a comedy routine built around a movie to moments of actual insightful criticism. Same with James Rolfe and THE ANGRY VIDEO GAME NERD, who also does his own movie reviews on the side. One of my favorites is the underrated CONFUSED MATTHEW, ironically due to the fact that he admittedly has little knowledge of filmmaking and thus approaches his critiques by focusing entirely on Story and Character. I recommend any aspiring screenwriter to watch CONFUSED MATTHEW’s reviews. Check him out here!
But the strangest of all of these satirical reviews remains RedLetterMedia and their PLINKETT REVIEWS, as well as their webseries HALF IN THE BAG. Originally founder Mike Stoklasa simply did a video review of STAR TREK: GENERATIONS recorded in his normal voice. Feeling that it was bland and needed a more compelling kick, he reformatted the review, adopting the persona of Harry S. Plinkett, a fictional character he had created in a previous film, and used the character’s odd voice and traits (including senility and being prone to crimes of misogyny and murder) as elements to bounce off of throughout the review. Now, think about that: a movie review written specifically in a way that it is filtered through a fictional voice. The Nostalgia Critic may be a fictional character, but most of the time we could sense he was just a stand-in for Doug Walker, exaggerated for comedic effect. With RedLetterMedia’s reviews, the Harry S. Plinkett character truly takes over, and the reviews blend seamlessly between insightful criticism and humor coming out of this character’s stream of conscious narration. Basically, a Plinkett review is a “mashup video essay.” To understand what I’m talking about, watch the video below:
RedLetterMedia has even launched MR. PLINKETT: THE ANIMATED SERIES; the character has become the corporate mascot of a growing franchise! Many people adore these reviews but I’ve always had a mixed response: I like the content of the review itself, but find the jokes a little disturbed and the Plinkett character is more creepy than funny a lot of the time. I do admit that HALF IN THE BAG has slowly won me over, but I do feel the humor is often just weird for the sake of being weird. In any case, the bottom-line is this: when watching RedLetterMedia’s content, you’re watching something with fictional characters, planned skits, scripted material, production value…basically you’re watching a film review that is its own film! The line between Artist and Critic is being obliterated.
What would Pauline Kael think of Harry Plinkett? These two figures really do represent the extremes: film criticism going from the intellectual to the crassest of the crass (though in reality Stoklasa is a filmmaker and smart guy and I would venture to guess could probably hold his own opposite many professional critics. Still, he started out as just a guy with an opinion and a YouTube account). I think Kael would probably say to Plinkett: “Your entire format of review is so different from mine, yet your critiques are insightful and well-informed.” Plinkett would probably respond by asking her for a pizza roll as well as “What’s wrong with your faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace?”
So what is the future of film criticism? While I think there will always be a place for the conventional critic like Rex Reed or Jeffrey Lyons, more and more people are going to Internet celebrities, and some feel they can be critics themselves. The days when no one knew who Francois Truffaut was except snobs and industry folks is long gone! Here in New York, I can assure you that arthouse venues like Film Forum and IFC Center cater very much to the young. I’ve even attended live Q&A’s by Oscar-winners Tom Hooper and Pedro Almodovar discussing their craft to packed audiences of young people…free of charge! We are living in a truly indie time where YOU can be the filmmaker, YOU can be the critic, YOU can be your own studio, and YOU can cater to your own audience. Stay tuned to G. Rod Buzz for more news as the system continues to evolve.