Wednesday, August 23, 2023

So... let's talk about the 'Tok

The conversation about MovieTok reviews has to do with more than expertise. It has to do with the way media companies have succeeded in outsourcing their perception management

Image by Ron Lach on Pexels

Remember when everyone was excited for BookTok? At least publishers were; a wave of free publicity is always welcome, even when its credibility is marred by blatant conflicts of interest and performative consumption. And yet, there are undeniable redeeming qualities to a movement that spreads the love of the written word before millions of consumers of digital orality eager to find the exact subgenre of fiction that will match their microniche tastes. Doesn't the news complain all the time that books don't get enough respect? When was the last time your teenager browsed Zoetrope, or Lapham's Quarterly, or The Times Literary Supplement? At least in principle, we should celebrate any trend that raises mass literacy, as long as we can pretend not to notice the branded tote bags and sponsored segments.

The controversy around TikTok reviews has recently shifted venues. Last week, The New York Times published a piece on rising TikTok celebrities who comment on movies yet eschew the traditional label of critics. The author, Reggie Ugwu, doesn't explain how he picked which content creators to showcase. The selection comes off as mixed: some of the quoted reviewers routinely make posts that abound in hyperbolic praise, are happy to stay at the most superficial level of analysis, rely excessively on listicles to fill up space, recoil against the use of sophisticated layers of meaning, and prioritize the immediate sensations of the watching experience to the point that it often seems like they're not judging and rating the films but judging and rating their response to them. To the extent that film criticism is its own art form, and therefore TikTokers are, in a sense, making art (not so much a descendant of the Lindsay Ellis school of video essays, more properly an offshoot of knee-jerk reaction culture), MovieTok operates as an extreme version of an Expressionist movement, more interested in communicating the creator's feeling than in referring to the object that caused the feeling. This refusal to engage with the tough elements of narrative imposes a self-inflicted handicap on their possible contributions to film discourse, even if we count only the videos that aren't obviously ads.

Fortunately, bad habits are not universal across MovieTok. As deep as movie studios have put their hands inside this yummy cookie jar, other creators mentioned in the same article are clearly able to speak about media with the same perceptiveness, thoughtfulness, insight, subtlety, and sharpness that you'd demand from any professional critic. The short video format inevitably leads to rhetorical shortcuts, but there is quality to be found there. So Pajiba's response to Ugwu is unfairly reductive with its blanket verdict that "MovieTok Creators Are Corrupt." Even allowing for Sturgeon's Law, there is competent commentary to be found in every space and format. However, Ugwu doesn't paint a realistic picture of the issue either. Consider this baffling comparison he makes (quick, drink a cup of coffee so you can do the appropriate spit take):

"MovieTok creators are not the first in the history of film criticism to rebel against their elders. In the 1950s, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and other writers of the journal Cahiers du Cinéma disavowed the nationalism of mainstream French criticism."

I strongly suspect I'm at no risk of being called snobbish if I point out that "Highest Grossing Movie per Sport" and "2023 Movies that Need MORE Excitement" (whatever that means) don't quite match the areas where Cahiers du Cinéma prefers to set its focus. To give you a quick glimpse at the way the venerable French magazine talks about media: It finds the eponymous train network in The Underground Railroad "a glimmer of hope and a bottomless pit, phantasmagoria and nightmare;" it describes Stranger Things season 4 as "at the same time a continuation and an eternal return," where "the subversive potential of horror is undermined in favor of a binary prism;" chastises the latest Indiana Jones as "a saga that had already in its previous entry made fun of its aging hero," who is "apparently cursed to see his death endlessly postponed;" upon reviewing Oppenheimer, it identifies a fitting resonance in the origin of the word blockbuster as the name of a weapon capable of leveling city blocks, and thus a parallel between deadly radioactive sequelae and our current plague of film sequelitis; and in Barbie it finds that "the rigidity, emptiness and asepsis of the toys appear as hypostases of American Puritanism" and, even more damningly, "the didacticism of empowerment acts as an equally stifling discursive counterweight that prohibits any possibility of an event."

So, no. Definitely, no. MovieTok does have commentators who know what they're talking about, but in aggregate, it's nowhere near the ballpark, or the postal code, or the tectonic plate, or the galaxy cluster of what's going on at Cahiers du Cinéma. One of the TikTokers featured by The New York Times complains, "When you read a critic’s review, it almost sounds like a computer wrote it." That's sad to hear from someone who purports to be interested in enjoying art. Moviegoers who search in TikTok for personal flavor may want to try for a change the refreshing sincerity and unmistakable voice of Jessie Earl, or Rory Doherty, or Tim Grierson, or Sam Adams, or Tom van der Linden, or Leila Jordan, or Evan Puschak, or Darren Mooney, or Rowan Ellis, or Matthew Nando Kelly, or Jacob Oller, or David Ehrlich, or Matt Baume, or Trace Sauveur, or Georg Rockall-Schmidt, or Angelica Jade Bastién, or Thomas Flight, or Joshua Rivera, or Sage Hyden, or Michael Tucker, or Jonathan McIntosh, or Taylor J. Williams, or Lina Morgan, or Patrick Willems, or Jake Cole, or Kyle Anderson, or Isaac Feldberg, or Kaiya Shunyata, or Glenn Kenny, or A. A. Dowd, or Mikey Neumann, or Lars van der Peet, or Jack Nugent, or Maggie Mae Fish, or Chris Winkle. I mention this many names to underscore the point I'm making here: to utter the barefaced claim that film critics lack a distinctive personality, you have to be afflicted by a malignant incuriosity.

Patrick Sproull and Matt Goldberg have written more measured responses than Pajiba's, and several of the arguments they present coincide with my own stance. On one of my more cynical days, I'd daresay that TikTokers' reluctance to call themselves critics comes from a decidedly uncritical approach to films. The once wholesome "let people enjoy things" meme became so poisonous a weapon against any form of media criticism that its creator had to kill it. There truly is a serious problem going on in film criticism, but MovieTok is not that problem. If you'll allow me a brief moment of bragging, Nerds of a Feather itself is proof that knowledgeable, eloquent and fun reviewers exist outside of professional publications. So I'm not going to try to build the full, reasoned case for more respect for independent reviewers, because we've proved our worth more than enough. What interests me here is not to counter the narrative that MovieTok is any sort of threat to traditional critics. There's no monopoly on good criticism (or bad; both "serious" and "informal" media can commit crimes of embarrassing cluelessness). As for conflicts of interest, TikTokers are more open about them than alarmists allege. What I want to point out is the underlying malaise of which MovieTok is only a symptom.

A portion of fandom has mutated into a curious cultish devotion, one that doesn't only swear eternal obedience to its idols, but in exchange demands eternal obedience from them, unaware that those idols still hold the reins of the relationship, and that the favors they grant are actually an insult to the followers. The crisis of movie discourse mirrors the ongoing crisis of moviemaking: after the Snyderbros and the Fandom Menace discovered how easy it was to bully studios into risk-avoidance, we've reached a volatile state where fans and executives know exactly which buttons to push on each other. Meanwhile, in the age of ChatGPT, art is in growing danger of being standardized and converted to automated formulas. Studios figured out they can get away with insulting viewers' intelligence with mediocre sameness, empty nostalgia and pointless pandering, because fans refuse to see themselves as more than consumers. The result is that the few works that still try to make sincere art from within the Hollywood machine, such as The Last Jedi or The Matrix Resurrections, are received with undeserved hostility.

TikTok is not the enemy. Anti-intellectualism is the enemy, and the internet gives it countless chances to spread and put down roots. What critics can do to counter it is what they're already doing: speak as honestly as they can and give audiences the tools of discernment that enrich the viewing experience. And what moviegoers can do is what art has been trying to tell them all this time: Be more curious. Have more empathy. Don't be afraid of difficult ideas. And above all, don't let someone else, like an obscenely wealthy movie studio, decide what you feed to your mind.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mentioned James Somerton as one of the film reviewers worth listening to. After his extensive history of plagiarism was known, he has been removed from this article.