With an increasing number of ways for anyone to express their opinions, the era of the non-professional reviewer has dawned.
Earlier in the year a new website emerged, Letterboxd.com. Never heard of it? That’s understandable, since from its March launch it has remained in a private, invitation-only beta testing status – meaning you need to know someone on the inside to get you in. However, while a sense of exclusivity surrounds its users, it recently became publicly available to view. The website offers a unique platform for those passionate about film to share their opinions in an online community. Its users range from industry professionals and aspiring writers to movie enthusiasts and critics. Having been a beta-tester for the past few months, this rapidly expanding and increasingly addictive film website is altering the shape of film criticism.
Co-founders Matthew Buchanan and Karl von Randow, and their small development crew based in Auckland, New Zealand, sought to introduce a film-centric social app that focuses on a niche market and could contend with other available services. What they’ve created is an online film community, a Facebook for film – without the constant and often tedious status updates. Letterboxd sources its format from rival websites, IMDb, MUBI and Miso, which have provided users with an online diary to record and share their opinions on films as they watch them, but takes it further, allowing users to keep track of every film they’ve ever seen. The site’s beautiful simplicity, user-friendly functionality and sparkling aesthetic eclipses these other competitors, resulting in the first social networking platform dedicated to film. Welcome to the Filmbook.
The beauty of Letterboxd derives from the lack of any established way in which a user should approach the site. Each user shows their originality – where some may only review new releases, others will write reviews for every film they’ve ever seen and still others will avoid the review system altogether, dedicating themselves to creating comical lists.
Due to the vast array of personal blogs dedicated to film, typically developed through WordPress or Tumblr, the non-professional writers’ reviews are typically simple, stylised and presented in unique ways. Unlike the vast majority of professional critics, Letterboxd writers are allowed to take differing approaches in their reviews. The text box in Letterboxd has an unrestricted word count, a traditional five-star rating system and basic HTML coding, allowing for different formatting of every review. The most common form of review on the site is the one-liner. This often light-hearted presentation lacks the deep analysis of an academically trained journalist, but provides an opinion of a film in clear, clever and often hilarious ways.
In contemporary journalism, while aspiring journalists are taught to find a unique angle for their reviews, professional writers tend to follow the same time-worn format – introduction to the film, a brief synopsis, analysis of the film’s positive and negative aspects and finally a conclusion, often shown in a five-star rating system. Before this summary system emerged, readers and writers had to rely on the review as a whole for the opinion on the film. Now that the five-star rating is the most common form, the reader is able to quickly asses the reviewer’s opinion, but more often than not it fails to reflect the full opinion of the review. There are a few publications that have successfully altered this style. For example, film publication Little White Lies presents their conclusion in a unique format. The summary is written in three steps, consisting of (i) ‘anticipation’ which looks at the marketing and excitement of the film, (ii) ‘enjoyment’ which displays the experience of watching the film and finally (iii) ‘in retrospect’ which considers everything surrounding the film some time after watch it. The problem often doesn’t lie with what angle the reviewer takes, but the format in which the reviews are written.
In the 1960s and 1970s a new style of journalism emerged, at the forefront of which were writers Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and Truman Capote. Their articles were a form of embedded reportage, where the authors would connect on a deeply personal and emotional level with their subjects. The effects on these writers have been depicted by film in Capote, Where the Buffalo Roam and The Rum Diary. Their writing style applied the literary devices usually associated with novels and short stories, but used them for non-fiction. Their opinions would be submerged within the text, surrounded by dialogisms and stream-of-consciousness. The new journalist approach presents every scene in connection to a character within the story, which gives the reader the feeling of being inside it. This was a golden age of journalism that was as intellectually engaging as it was exciting.
This style is used by a select few in terms of contemporary journalism, and it tends to appear more in the tool-kit of the cynic. Unlike the work of these “new journalists”, which were typically based upon romanticism, these contemporary writers adapt this style by soaking their articles in satire and irony, and providing emotional responses to the subject matter, most often in the form of a rant. These commentators compare everything new with their supposedly classic favourites, slamming anything that fails to match these “classics”. For film, there’s Kermode, who relies upon his Kermodian rants when reviewing films as he toes the line of being a contrarian and often reviewing films with little more than a grunt. For television there’s Charlie Brooker, whose television show Screenwipe was focussed on satirical and critical analysis of television series. And for video games there’s Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw, whose animated video game reviews entitled Zero Punctuation appear in online publication The Escapist are solely based on rants. Unlike the new journalists, who were often criticised for being too connected and personal within their articles, contemporary cynics seem to be praised more than any other.
The format each of these reviews includes audio and video. Using Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee’s rants are edited together to make it sound like an unrelenting seven minute rant brimming with hilarious references. So the contemporary cynic approaches their subject in a similar way to the new journalist, but without using the written word.
While these cynics are doing their thing, providing entertaining and brilliantly opinionated responses to their subject matter, there are few, if any contemporary commentators who present the same style as the new journalists in a positive way – presenting a celebration of film and an experiential response to the subject.
What’s so unique about Letterboxd is how it presents a space for every voice to be heard on the same level, within the same social sphere. Users are able to create and share their original lists as well as a watchlist which is updated automatically whenever a film is recorded as seen. Also, Letterboxd integrates Twitter, Facebook and Netflix, which increases the size of the community, allowing for more people to lend their voice to a discussion and share favourite films from the online film rental site. A comments section below each review encourages debate and better connectivity.
Much like Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and Love Film, Letterboxd includes reviews from industry professionals as well as the cinema-going public. However, these other websites subordinate these groups, presenting the professional opinions above the others and suggesting a hierarchy of value. Obviously within their group, these expert commentators often differ in opinion, but the problems arise when you look at the overall opinion of the critics and non-professionals. Take Marvel’s Avengers Assemble for example. Critic scores on Metacritic currently stand at 69% whereas public opinion is at 87%.
But why should one opinion matter more than another? These established film journalists are often academics, but recently, and increasingly, the current format balances professional and non-professional opinion.
For television there’s The Film Programme, currently presented by Claudia Winkleman and Danny Leigh. Winkleman is a television personality and movie enthusiast while her co-host is an academically trained film journalist. The show has also been previously presented by celebrity film-fan Jonathon Ross and originally by film critic Barry Norman. The Norman era where the reviews were much more traditional, was successful, but the format has altered since Ross replaced him and more recently with Winkleman at the helm. The show doesn’t rely on the host just to introduce the subjects, with the criticism provided by the expert, but rather their opinions are given equal time and treated with the same respect.
The same can be said for radio, with Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s Film Reviews, which airs on Friday afternoons on Five Live. While Kermode is academically trained and has been reviewing films for over twenty years, week after week the show’s host Mayo’s opinions of films are becoming equally valid as the critic’s – if not more so.
With an increasing number of tools at their disposal, and an environment that is becoming increasingly tolerant and welcoming of their opinions, perhaps we are moving into a new golden age, this time of the non-professional reviewer.