The troubling rise of nitpicking as criticism


The popularity of Cinema Sins is detrimental to the future of film criticism. But it’s only the latest example of an unsettling trend: Nitpicking completely meaningless details in a movie is now seen as an objective analysis of its overall quality, and that has to stop.

Cinema Sins is a popular YouTube channel dedicated to identifying “everything wrong with” a particular film.  If you’re not an active subscriber, you’ve almost certainly seen their content pop up on your Facebook timeline at some point, usually couched in filler articles with headlines about how the video EVISCERATES or COMPLETELY DESTROYS its subject matter.

The format is always the same: The creators spend between 10 and 20 minutes running through a movie from beginning to end and identifying its “sins,” i.e. anything it does wrong that is worthy of derision. Imagine watching a teacher grade a paper and underline mistakes with red pen.

It’s a delightful premise, but instead of assessing anything of actual consequence – character development, pacing, tone, cinematography – Cinema Sins instead harps on unimportant “plot holes,” extremely minor flubs, and observations that don’t add anything of value to the cultural conversation whatsoever.

When viewed as comedy, that can be entertaining. A typical video usually offers a few amusing insights, and really zoning in on overlooked components can, in some cases, enhance our appreciation. I certainly do not fault the team behind Cinema Sins, made up of people who are undoubtedly good at what they do. But the problem is that the vast majority of Cinema Sins’ audience treats any given video the same way they might treat an actual review, and they point to it as the final word on whether a film is any good.

Too often, I will bring up my love for a movie that many others strongly disliked. As a horror fan, being able to admire the package despite its ocassional misstep is essential. But inevitably, when I express this positive take, I am directed to the Cinema Sins takedown as if it’s the movie equivalent of Politifact. “Wait, you like Unfriended? Didn’t you know it was proven to be terrible? Here’s a link. Educate yourself.”

Taking a random example, here are just a few sins from the channel’s Jurassic World video to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. According to Cinema Sins, it is a bad film because:

  • It features a kid who is obsessed with dinosaurs.
  • People have to take a ferry to get the island.
  • The kids are named Zach and Gray.
  • “Jurassic Tennis” is a thing. The video points to the fact that the park has something called Jurassic Tennis and adds a sin to the counter with no explanation.
  • When the Jurassic Park theme kicks in, Cinema Sins complains that “the music in this scene is so obvious.”
  • Raptors can be trained, and the plan is to use them during war. Cinema Sins does not attempt to explain why this is dumb other than making a sarcastic “Makes perfect sense!” quip.
  • The cell phone reception is too good.
  • The park does not shut down all rides once the I-Rex gets out. (This decision is explained explicitly in the film)
  • Owen has access to the elevator in the control room.
  • The gyrosphere ride can be controlled by park-goers.
  • The park is over-capacity.

And the list goes on and on. Each of these sins is either 1) A fundamental misreading of the plot for comedic purposes 2) Cinema Sins simply pointing out what’s on screen and declaring it to be bad with little to no reasoning 3) A ridiculously insignificant aspect of the movie.

Now, can this all be enjoyed as sort of a parody of nitpicking, and as an opportunity to make random, Mystery Science Theater style jokes at a film’s expense? Absolutely, and it’s certainly not an issue that millions of people watch and laugh at Cinema Sins. The problem arises when this format is interpreted as analysis and not as comedy. Never do I see a Cinema Sins video shared because it’s hilarious; It’s shared because it’s seen as finally telling it like it is and ripping the movie apart. Is it criticism to, rather than review a film as two-hour experience, point and laugh at tiny details that are only apparent when watching with the pause button handy? Certainly not, yet that is how the videos are interpreted by fans.

Just take a look at the YouTube comments for any given installment, mostly full of reactions akin to “Thank God you finally nailed this movie!” or audience members chiming in with more meaningless bullshit that wasn’t mentioned.

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 1.18.20 PM

How could Claire run in heels? How did this character survive when they wouldn’t in real life? Who fucking cares?

For the record, this is a negative opinion of Jurassic World that is well-reasoned and based on the complete movie (though I disagree with it): “Jurassic World was not a good film because the characters were not as well-developed as the original, the relationship between Owen and Claire felt unnatural, the villain was too over-the-top, and the film seemed to awkwardly condemn ‘bigger-is-better’ sequels while at the same time itself being unnecessarily big.”

But this is a negative opinion of Jurassic World in the universe of Cinema Sins: “Jurassic World was a terrible film because, I mean, how would that park even get opened? The insurance issues must be a nightmare! And how was Claire able to run in heels without falling over? What a piece of shit!” Literally any film, right down to The Godfather, could be dismantled when applying this treatment.

That attitude is spreading across the Internet like the plague, and Cinema Sins is just the latest incarnation. There have also been channels like the Nostalgia Critic, in which Doug Walker spends about 20 minutes picking apart a movie and, like Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, playing scenes he deems to be stupid and providing an over-the-top reaction. It takes literally zero thought to play a clip of a cheesy kids’ film and then scream, point a gun to your head and say, “Fuck this movie!” So why is that viewed as a brutal expose? Walker can be a funny guy, but the issue again comes down to his fanbase, which embraces the content not simply as comedy, but as a beacon of truth.

Today, all across the Internet, films are critiqued based on gut-reactions to individual moments and not the entire creation. If these moments add up to a larger flaw, then doing so makes sense. But does Claire running in high heels speak to a global issue with Jurassic World? Not really. It’s a three-second-long shot that, before the Internet, nobody would even remember after the credits roll. And then, of course, we all encourage this type of behavior by spreading the video around everywhere and writing entire articles about how “This guy DESTROYS Jurassic World! Wow!”

Here’s a radical ideal: How about you destroy Jurassic World with a thoughtful review of it rather than by uncovering plot holes like it’s 1972 and you’re reporting on Watergate?

But although I might sound completely opposed to nitpicking films, that’s certainly not the case. What we need more of is content that expresses the joys of nitpicking, using it not as a tool to destroy, but as a way to add to what is already an enjoyable movie.

Take, for example, the wonderful podcast Star Wars Minute. In each episode, hosts Alex Robinson and Pete Bonavita spend the entire length of the show discussing one minute of the Star Wars movies. Yes, 60 seconds. Could you possibly get any more nitpicky than that? Yet in doing so, they and their listeners come away loving the Star Wars franchise more than ever.

Alex and Pete ponder inane elements of Lucas’ space epics, including what was going through that guys’ mind who pops his head out of Jabba’s barge for roughly two seconds in Return of the Jedi . They see this strange beat not as a reason Star Wars is garbage; Alex, Pete and their guests instead dedicate nearly a full episode to laughing about this bizarre touch while never letting it impact how they view the movie as a whole.

They understand what the rest of the Internet needs to learn: That you can critique, mock, or even hate certain decisions made by a director, while still thinking the end product is worthwhile. It’s time to recognize that a movie can have two, four, six, or ten minor plot holes, but still be fabulous. It’s time to recognize that if you wish to condemn art, you should put some thought into its universal issues instead of its individual stumbles. Basically, it’s time to be like Alex and Pete.

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