Red Letter Media, Cinema Sins, and the nature of criticism in the digital age

There’s a brilliant bit, toward the end of the newest installment of Red Letter Media’s film review segment, Half in the Bag, where Mike Stoklasa totally owns the new film, A Quiet Place, rattling off its problems like lines off a list, all of this transcendently brilliant criticism showing you, dear watcher, that the film is in fact an incoherent mess, and that Stoklasa is, well, very perceptive. Very perceptive.

This opening, like Stoklasa’s breathless sequence, is a joke, of course. Stoklasa, who founded Red Letter Media in 2004 and is currently based in Milwaukee, Wisc., was taking aim at Cinema Sins, a YouTube channel devoted to finding flaws within films because, as it says in every one of its videos, No movie is without sin.

You might have noticed Cinema Sins popping into the mainstream in late summer of last year, when director Jordan Vogt-Roberts launched a tweet storm of criticism in response to a video Cinema Sins had made of Kong, Skull Island, which Vogt-Roberts had helmed.

If you’re unfamiliar with Cinema Sins’s modus operandi, it consists of extended breakdowns of films, sequences played and paused frequently while one of two proprietors (it’s usually the distinctly-voiced Jeremy Scott) takes aim at mistakes or problems he’s found with the film. Each of these observations is punctuated by a ping that counts as a single “sin”, (for more egregious errors, more sins are added) which are displayed, like Super Mario coins collected, in the upper-left-hand corner of the screen.

Here’s a disclaimer: I first heard of Cinema Sins in the weeks after The Dark Knight Rises was released in the summer of 2012, and I initially found their premise charming. They picked out small mistakes: for example, the infamous Nipple Bed in the opening minutes of DKR, but these takedowns were charmingly irreverent, and often side stitch-inducingly funny.

Cinema Sins currently holds a lead of some 7 million subscribers over Red Letter Media on YouTube, and as their fame grew, fans clamoring for longer videos, Cinema Sins became yet another victim of excess bred from success. What had once been pithy, quick musings grew into bloated exercises that could be mistaken for thinly-veiled contempt. Not that this was Cinema Sins’s intent: I have a feeling they were taken aback by the vociferousness of Vogt-Roberts’s response. They simply hadn’t thought through how their approach might be perceived.

No longer were they taking aim at funny-looking beds; they were splitting hairs, and condemning entire films for it. As Vogt-Roberts mused, they would’ve chastised Pulp Fiction for the scene in which Jules and Vincent miraculously emerge unscathed in the Big Kahuna Burger massacre. I once read a salient critique of CS that stipulated, They say it’s satire, but they can never say what’s satirical about it.

All of which leads to the important question: what is the nature of criticism, and is it being bastardized in the internet-swamped era. In his newest book, Enlightenment Now, the Harvard cognitive psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker lists criticism as an art form. He’s right. Like so many things we struggle to quantify (like, well, art), you know a good piece of criticism when you see it, because it becomes an essential component of your experience with a film, like a guide, or a good Blu Ray extra. Maybe there’s a reference you missed that a critic, more learned and steeped in the knowledge of film, helps you with. That in turn increases your appreciation of the artwork.

It’s why Anthony Lane noted, in his review of Birdman, that critics, “though often mean, are not preemptively so, and that anybody who said, as Tabitha does, ‘I’m going to destroy your play,’ before actually seeing it, would not stay long in the job.” (Tabitha Dickinson is the New York Times theater critic in Birdman). Sheer vindictiveness and spite serve no one well in any profession; it’s not enough to point out what’s wrong, you have to explain why.

These days, the film critic, classically defined, is a single voice often drowned out in the ever-increasing drone of online noise. Most of their work, once pored over in the daily paper before a prospective viewer headed to the cinema, is now simply filtered into the Rotten Tomatoes formula. The casual viewer simply checks the aggregate percentage meter, and picks a film accordingly.

The film critic of old was granted a level of respect because of outlet he or she worked for. Pauline Kael at the New Yorker. Now, Anthony Lane. Roger Ebert and on and on. They rose to the top of their profession because of their talent.

Compare that to Cinema Sins and the digital age conundrum. The millions of subscribers that site can claim, yet one wonders if this is simply a blockbuster-ication of their worth. Bigger ain’t always better.

Red Letter Media’s work has inspired a passionate following, which can be perceived in the comment sections of its videos, or the Reddit thread devoted entirely to its entity. Their broad array of videos runs from the ruminative to the witheringly satirical (often within the span of ten seconds), which adds to its appeal. It is criticism done right, in this day and age.

The proprietors are well-versed in film technique, and their videos reflect that. Most importantly, they get to the root of what they find fair, or foul, within each movie they cover. That earnest approach resonates with the ones making the movies. It’s a reason Vogt-Roberts singled them out as valid criticism.

This isn’t simply racking up points, and followers, while producing nothing of value. Red Letter Media does it the right way, and for that, they should be commended.

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