Criticism, that is to say, the dissection and appraisal of ideas contained within a work, can be addictive. It’s a jumping-off point, a control against which one can compare their own thoughts on a subject and come to some conclusion, even if it’s the opposite of what the criticism argued for. It’s satisfying to know where you stand on a topic, at least for the time being.
It goes all the way from weighty, expensive tomes down to chatting with your friends after a movie. The problem is that academic criticism has become so refined and so reliant on the language of whichever medium it’s examining that the average person (like you and I) can find it more difficult to understand the criticism than to simply experience the work. As such, we find ourselves drifting toward more accessible, bite-sized forms of appraisal such as reviews, metacritic and twitter. While this can be useful for getting a sense of popular opinion, it’s practically useless at challenging thought and exploring possibilities. If we’re just looking to have our initial impressions of a movie, album or video game reinforced, what’s the point? You might as well ask a friend to give you a high-five.
There is, however, a growing body of internet commentary examining popular culture that sits very comfortably between these two points. Examples include Zero Punctuation, Errant Signal, Sequelitis, Film Crit Hulk, Extra Credits and Red Letter Media’s wildly popular “Plinkett Reviews”. Sadly, these deal exclusively with film and video game subjects, so if you’re not interested in either of those you might have to keep looking. These critics are elucidating without obfuscation, accessible without sacrificing argument. They’re collectively raising the level of discourse while excluding only those who wilfully ignore alternative points of view. And for that, as a long-time sufferer of the “la la la, I’m not listening” culture of the internet, I am immensely grateful.
About three years ago, I saw a link to a recently-released hour-long review of the catastrophic Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. My intial reaction, of course, was “Why would I spend a whole hour(!) watching a review of a ten year old movie that I already hated?” Bereft of anything better to do, I gave it a shot, and proceeded to watch the entire video in one sitting before raving to anyone who would listen about how utterly fantastic it was.
I didn’t like the Star Wars prequels, but I could never really figure out why. I’ve seen worse movies that I enjoyed more. What was it about these three in particular that so completely failed to connect with me on any level? In the first ten minutes of their review, Red Letter Media concisely, and to a degree that no-one had previously achieved, defined exactly what was so profoundly unsatisfying about the movie in a language I could understand. What’s more, it gave me a far greater understanding of what makes a typical adventure movie work than anything I’d read to that point.
The only problem I had with the review was the character of Plinkett. While very often entertaining, it occasionally serves as a distraction to what’s being said. However, I understand why it’s used. It’s a gimmick, but one that works wonderfully well in subverting the reader/viewer’s notion that the writer is attacking them personally. It’s worth noting that, with the exception of Errant Signal, all the examples I’ve mentioned have a similar gimmick. There’s an implicit reassurance that the viewer isn’t required to take the criticism seriously if they’re uncomfortable doing so. I wonder if it’s practically a necessity on the internet, where you’re likely to be roasted alive by a rabid fanbase for even daring to imply that there may be flaws in a beloved work or the popular view of it.
Consider Errant Signal’s examination of why Half-Life 2, the internet’s most beloved video game, is slightly overrated. There are 2800 votes on that video; almost a third of them are negative. Did Campster lie about the contents of his upload? Was it of an unforgivably bad quality? Did he spew vile, hate-driven rants? No, he had the sheer nerve to look over Half-Life 2 with a critical eye. If you watch the video, it’s completely calm and rational, and his points have significant weight. He even stuffs it full of “I think Half-Life 2 is great, please don’t crucify me!” disclaimers in an attempt to pacify The Resentment Machine, but to no avail. This is the culture we’re dealing with online: unreasonably defensive and vitriolic over benign entertainment.
I’m glad he made the video though, because, like with The Phantom Menace, there’s a sense of dissatisfaction I get from Half-Life 2 that is completely at odds with its popular reception. I could read volumes on why it’s a landmark, a watershed moment in a medium that is still very young, and I would be completely convinced of its importance – but I still wouldn’t like the game itself. I don’t find its basic mechanics satisfying (like, say, a racing game), and I don’t care for its theme park ride affectations. Had Errant Signal not braved the dangerous waters of the internet to tell the truth as he sees it, I could be left thinking that I was being unreasonable. Or worse: that everyone was stupid except me.
We need critics like this to challenge our views or bring our hazy feelings into focus while remaining accessible to all. We need them now more than ever in this age of soundbites, top 10 lists, 140 character limits and the culture of backslapping and anti-criticism we have online. If you have any interest in movies or video games at all, I strongly urge you give them a try. You’ll be glad you did.
Zero Punctuation – the original fast-talkin’ game review channel by Yahtzee. Very heavily influenced by Charlie Brooker’s 90s work in PC Zone.
Extra Punctuation – Slower and deeper written column by Yahtzee.
Film Crit Hulk – Eye-straining insistence on capital letters, but unabashed love and respect for movies is evident.
Red Letter Media – movie channel full of all sorts, but Plinkett’s reviews are the draw.
Errant Signal – the man who dared to take on Half-Life 2.
Extra Credits – long running series of short, easy-to-digest ruminations on the medium of gaming. A bit cutesy, but I suppose that’s the near-mandatory gimmick.
Sequelitis – sadly under-stocked channel of popular Youtube entertainer/animator Egoraptor. Occasionally hilarious, if reliant on cringeworthy Family Guy style humour at times, but genuinely insightful.