The Review As An Artform

The Review As An Artform

 

What is it about the internet that makes opinions so entertaining? Since its birth and integration into the everyday there has been a surge of widely consumed entertainment that now seems almost indicative of the internet itself – The Video Review. Whether it’s the lack of necessity for high production value or the ability to get recognition based on popular search terms, the internet is full of playthroughs, commentary tracks, vlogs, top 10s – entire production companies dedicated solely to media journalism. But rather than a traditional approach to a review (i.e. a list of pros and cons with the final thumbs up or thumbs down verdict), the internet has given rise to a type of review which transcends the idea of simply ‘consumer advice’ and instead takes on a level of entertainment themselves which is entirely unique.

Take the Red Letter Media review of The Phantom Menace. Running at ninety minutes, we are taken on a moment-by-moment deconstruction of the movie by the uncomfortably creepy character of Mr Plinkett: an impossibly old man with a taste for pizza rolls, whose review is constantly interjected by spliced together apparent home-movie footage of various female kidnappings.

 

The movie is picked apart in astonishing depth over a feature length running time, and the video is humorous enough simply on this level. But what becomes clear fairly rapidly is that the character’s creator, Mike Stoklasa, really knows his stuff. All of his observations on character motivation and story structure are well articulated and backed up with watertight evidence from the source itself. He has a way of pointing out the subtler pitfalls of the movie which many will agree with but would fail to fully identify themselves (the absurd number of ‘multiple endings’ for example). If ever there were to be a definitive explanation of why The Phantom Menace was terrible, this would be it.

But it’s something more than just a list of criticisms, the choice to channel them through a reprehensible character adds something to how they are received and processed. There is conflict going on between what is said and who is saying it. It generates friction and humour and allows Stoklasa to make profane un-academic statements like “The Phantom Menace is the greatest example of cinematic blue balls in the history of motion pictures”, without losing any credibility to his overall arguments. The whole thing is darkly comic, ironically a lot more enjoyable than the film itself, and cannot be described as wholly a review or wholly a character study. It exists in the murky waters somewhere between opinion and fiction.

This idea of enjoying others articulate their opinions is not something inherently exclusive to the internet (Charlie Brooker, Siskel and Ebert, Andre Bazin – all examples of reviewers who have prospered beyond the idea of consumer advice within traditional media). But to trace the evolution of the online video review is not a single linear line running from print to bytes. It is style and form of filmmaking which, in my opinion, is limited to, and only made possible by, qualities which are entirely exclusive to the internet.

Since its birth at the tail end of 2005, YouTube has always been from the get-go a (relatively – depending on your relationship with copyright infringement) consequence free platform for amateur filmmakers to try out new ideas without the pressure to appeal to a wider audience. In those exciting dawning years after its launch, around 65,000 videos were being uploaded to YouTube every day [1], and what it lead to was a surge in fringe entertainment hitherto undiscovered and untested by traditional media. Reaction videos, vlogs, mashups, Rick Rolls, remixes, live playthroughs and, yes, video reviews – all of them owe their existence to the creative freedom on the internet. To use an advertising phrase, the internet is very good at exploiting ‘gaps in the market’. In fact, it’s probably what it’s best at.

On top of this, the early twenty first century has seen the phenomenon of social media grow to become a stature of daily life. With the ability to created updates, micro-reports on ourselves and events, social media offers an outlet for its users to become opinionated and expressive. The opportunity to have your own rhetoric immortalised on the internet is a tantalising one, and what distinguishes it from, say, having your letter published in a magazine is that the independency permits, even actively encourages, everyone to take a turn. Twitter reports an average of 500 million tweets sent every day [2]; a never ending stream of observations, criticisms and witticisms made under topical hashtags. “What’s On Your Mind?” read the luring words in Facebook’s status box. Whether it’s written or read, interaction with social media always leans towards a sharing of opinions. It is used as an alter to speak from and, conversely, the pews from which to listen. By its very nature this means that all content is user generated, built entirely out of what is fed into it – something comparatively absent from traditional media.

From this, it is possible to trace the birth of the video review from a pregnancy between these two of the internet’s most liberating qualities: being a platform for creativity, and being a platform for opinions. And when these two inevitably fuse together we get creative approaches to how a review can be delivered.

Consider next one of the many video reviews by Ben “Yahtzee” Crashaw, creator of the Zero Punctuation video game review series. Well known for his pleasingly simple animation design and fast talking, his videos contrast the long-winded dissections of Red Letter Media in favour of brevity and cutting quips. His videos only ever run at a maximum of five minutes on a weekly basis and, for the space of time (both production-wise and running time), he manages to find an impressive number of new creative ways to deliver his reviews.

Take his review of Wolfenstein (2009) for example, where the whole review is delivered in the form of a limerick. As well as being well written and extremely funny, here the form of the review actually helps to affirm the opinions it contains – so bored is Yahtzee by the mediocrity of the game’s “safe and comity designed” nature that in order to review it he is forced to engage in something creative just to find something worthwhile to say, or even to compensate for the game’s own lack of imagination.

 

Here then we have two contrasting examples of online reviews which demonstrate just how versatile the genre’s form can be. This is without touching on the amateur skit based reviews of The Nostalgia Critic, the animated compare and contrasts of Sequelitis or the trope exposing parodies of Honest Trailers. However, as versatile as all of these are from each other, what becomes abundantly clear when grouping these types of videos into a genre is that very few of them are positive. Angry Video Game Nerd, Cinema Sins, Your Movie Sucks, Everything Is Terrible – internet audiences seem drawn to the scathing putdown. Why is this? Perhaps it is infinitely more entertaining to witness someone’s disappointment than their appreciation. Or maybe there is only really humour in exposing something’s flaws. Finding the merits in something is incredibly subjective, even divisive, but everyone likes to nod and laugh to a good moan about ‘the-worst-movie-ever’. On the internet, there is very little joy in the joyful.

– Dan Noall (Dec 2014)

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