If you have ever tried to explain your deep appreciation of a piece of art anywhere on the internet, you likely understand how much amateur criticism and intense posturing exists online.
At best, this negativity is an aggravating byproduct of crowdsourcing artistic validation. At worst, this persistent and indiscriminate criticism is a symptom of a relatively new and alarmingly widespread brand of groupthink. One that is unquestioningly unimpressed—always.
Either way, we seem to be entering a modern era of discontent, and this problem is worth dissecting.
With that in mind, meet a proud part of the problem: Cinema Sins.
“We’re not reviewers. We’re assholes.”
This is Cinema Sins‘ defense of itself. Or, at least, this is a version of Cinema Sins’ usual defense of itself masquerading as a lighthearted self-critique in “Everything Wrong With Cinema Sins In 3 Minutes Or Less,” a video by Cinema Sins in which the creators bemoan the fact that people “don’t understand sarcasm.”
Given that Cinema Sins offers petty critiques of popular films, the “assholes” defense is both dismissive and deceptively self-aggrandizing. By renouncing the title of “reviewer” yet continuing to review films, the folks at Cinema Sins attempt to position themselves above the barbarous brouhaha of most YouTube-fueled film criticism. The writers of Cinema Sins want to influence your opinions, but they don’t want you to debate their claims. In this way, Cinema Sins is the vlog version of someone who laughs and says “Nah, just kidding” after telling you that you smell bad. Kidding or not, you still want to take a shower. Being a kidder doesn’t eliminate the impact of the comment.
And here’s the rub: Some movies do “smell bad.” We are experiencing, as social analyst and actually talented YouTuber Nerdwriter says, an “epidemic of passable movies,” which means that thoughtful film criticism, on YouTube or elsewhere, is becoming increasingly important. Though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences eventually dropped its proposed “popular film” category, the fact that the Academy even considered such an idea (to the point of announcing it to the world) means that the Academy acknowledged a desire to distinguish between “popular” and “best,” between a well-liked film and a well-made one. (Arguably, the proposal was also a severely misguided attempt by the Academy to attract a wider audience, but that claim is less relevant here.)
By labeling themselves as assholes (and even acknowledging that being an asshole is something “wrong with Cinema Sins”), but continuing to dress themselves up as film critics, the Cinema Sins crew belittle the very tool that they seem to use to shape public discourse. (I say “seem to use” here because the tool that Cinema Sins uses isn’t really film criticism at all—it’s hysteria and unquestioning indignation.)
And this hypocrisy seems to go unnoticed or unexamined by most. But not all.
Enter BobVids. BobVids is an unassuming vlogger—”This is where the fish lives” is all that exists on his YouTube About page—who enjoys shoving a mirror in front of the YouTube community. His “YouTube Reacts” videos shine a light on the often vulgar remarks made by internet commenters in response to things like the 2016 Ghostbusters remake, Gamergate, and “Bill Nye on Creationism.” And, more importantly, he has posted a number of his own “Everything Wrong With…” videos that highlight all of the misinterpretations and lazy lies that exist in Cinema Sins’ videos.
Bob hates Cinema Sins. And on November 13, 2017, he explained his disapproval in a 35-minute video essay titled “Sustaining Stupidity – Why CinemaSins is Terrible.” (With 1.6 million views as of today, that video is almost BobVids’ most-watched video, second only to a 44-second video called “EXTREME RICE” that has an impressive 1.7 million views.) BobVids’ critique of Cinema Sins begins with a simple, three-pronged thesis: the Cinema Sins videos are “bad for film criticism, they’re bad for YouTube, and they’re bad for critical thinking and intellectual honesty.” And the first few minutes of his essay are dedicated to discrediting Cinema Sins’ go-to “sarcasm,” “satire,” and “asshole” defenses:
“But if The Onion executed satire the way that Cinema Sins does, their site would be purposefully incorrect, vaguely serious articles next to actual news with zero differentiation between the two. The only way you’d know if an article is real or not is if you researched it yourself. And when your audience has to figure out whether or not you’re kidding, you’ve messed up the joke. There’s a line that needs to be drawn between satire like The Onion and fake news on Facebook. Cinema Sins just don’t draw it. Either because they enjoy satire’s perceived immunity to criticism, or they simply don’t care.”
BobVids’ deconstruction of Cinema Sins and its “fundamentally flawed understanding of writing and filmmaking” continues with a side-by-side comparison of Cinema Sins and Mystery Science Theater 3000, an analysis of the impact that Cinema Sins’ videos have on moviegoers, and an explanation of clickbait-style vlogging. BobVids argues that the Cinema Sins creators are less comedians, satirists, or film critics and more internet marketers who understand how to manipulate an audience to make a profit.
I agree with BobVids and others who believe that Cinema Sins is a behemoth of subpar content, but what intrigues me is the impact that creators like Jeremy Scott and Chris Atkinson of Cinema Sins are having on culture at large.
Because our culture—specifically how we talk to one another about art—is changing. When Zach Braff told Sam Jones in a 2016 interview that, because of the internet, he didn’t think a “pull-at-your-heartstrings” and “sincere” and “sentimental” movie like Garden State (2004) could be made today, he was describing a distinct shift in the types of interactions that moviegoers, as a whole, have with films. Zach Braff labels it as cynicism—”the internet has clearly made everyone more cynical”—but, given the types of comments highlighted in BobVids’ “YouTube Reacts” videos, cynicism (a belief that people are generally awful) seems to be only one part of a much more distasteful cocktail of discontentment (and ultimately hate) that exists online. Cynicism and art appreciation are not mutually exclusive, but stubborn and irrational dissatisfaction is incompatible with genuine appreciation of art. And, these days, many people seem consistently and inexplicably dissatisfied.
Internet content like Cinema Sins’ “Everything Wrong With…” videos propagate an increasingly popular belief that nothing is worthy of admiration. “No movie is without sin,” they say. And, technically, they may be correct. But art is, and always has been, less of a structure to observe and more of a terraqueous landscape to experience, and effective art criticism acknowledges nuance and complexity. So when a creator gains 7.449 million followers (as of January 11, 2018) by indiscriminately and unintelligently mocking the creations of others, we should take note.
We live in a new culture of discontent. A culture that is defined by its increasing inability to achieve sincere and unironic appreciation of newly created artwork. A culture that is increasingly unable to articulate earnest positivity. A culture that has allowed discontent and, in some cases, hate to become its default reaction to new things.
And, holy hell, it is exhausting. And disheartening.
Consider the rise of toxic fandoms. Steven Universe fans ridiculed and chastised a fan artist until she attempted suicide. Actress Ruby Rose quit Twitter last summer because of aggressive Batwoman/superhero fans. And in July of 2018, Logan director James Mangold warned fans that creators will simply stop creating if fans don’t minimize the vitriol: “At the point when writing and directing big franchises has become the emotionally loaded equivalent of writing a new chapter of The Bible (with the probable danger of being stoned and called a blasphemer), then a lot of bolder minds are gonna leave these films to hacks and corporate boards.” Countless other examples of toxic fandoms exist—Google Star Wars or “diversity in comics” at your own risk—and these types of situations are increasing in both number and intensity.
So what can we do about pervasive discontentment? This:
- Stop watching Cinema Sins and similar YouTube channels.
- Call out toxic fandom and bullying when you see it (and do so constructively and articulately, lest you contribute to the toxicity).
- Hold artists to a reasonably high standard—nothing more, nothing less.
- Remind yourself that fans don’t own art. Fans can have hopes, but artists can ignore those hopes—because it’s their art.
- Acknowledge the difference between educated art criticism and internet noise.
- Enjoy what you enjoy, and don’t feel the need to defend it so aggressively. Just enjoy it.
- Try creating your own art. One of the best ways to dispel dissatisfaction with a genre is to create something of your own.
YouTuber Lindsay Ellis analyzes the mechanics and purposes of YouTube videos:
Nerdwriter shows us what an insightful critique of a film looks like:
Markiplier offers some thoughts on YouTube and pessimism:
Ben Boruff is a co-founder of Big B and Mo’ Money, and he has reviewed comics for ComicBastards.com and ImpulseGamer.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMagicAwesome. And read more at BenBoruff.com.