At the Dissolve, Matt Singer unleashes a righteous rant against nitpickers, the online smartalecks at Honest Trailers and CinemaSins who whittle movies down to size by cataloging their purported flaws. This sort of “Film Flubs” trainspotting has a long, persnickety history, but it’s become far more popular with the advent of online video. It used to be that if you wanted to catch, say, the moment in “North By Northwest” when a boy plugs his ears with his fingers a second before a surprising gunshot is fired, you’d have to keep your eyes glued to the screen, but now that split-second goof, which is virtually imperceptible if you’re not already looking for it, can be cut out of context and pasted alongside any number of similarly minor and insignificant errors, allowing us to sit back and relax as we bathe in the glow of second-hand superiority. Smooth move, Hitchcock.
As Singer notes, these videos tend to pick their targets based not on which movies boast the most egregious errors but which have the most passionate fanbases:
“There’s something else at work here beyond simple popularity, though. As detailed in a recent study reprinted at Smithsonian.com, while “joy moves faster than sadness or disgust,” on social media, “nothing is speedier than rage.” Targeting movies with intensely devoted fan bases — like “Frozen” or comic-book movies — and pissing those fans off until they’re angry enough to share your work with like-minded friends… That can be very good for business. A video rightfully slamming an actual piece of junk that everyone hates has a smaller chance of going viral. (“Guys, guys! You gotta check out this ‘Everything Wrong With “John Carter”‘ video! They nailed it!”) On the web, whether someone loves a video or is infuriated by it is totally irrelevant. All that matters is that they watch, and increasingly, that they share it.”
(The Honest Trailers video for “Frozen,” incidentally, thinks that Elsa is “manic-depressive” and the last great Disney musical was “Pocahontas,” which suggests they could use some fact-checking of their own.)
But what bothers me more is the mindset these videos both foster and feed on, one which rewards approaching movies like a vengeful middle-school teacher, red pen clutched firmly in humorless hand. Louis Malle once said that if any of his editors were to win an award, he’d fire them, because if viewers were paying attention to the editing they weren’t watching the film. The same goes for the “Everything Wrong With…” crowd, for whom a movie is just an opportunity to crack (not especially) wise. CinemaSins, you’re no Crow T. Robot.
I’ve railed before against decoders, people who treat stories as a puzzle to be solved: Don Draper is D.B. Cooper! Rust Cohle is the Yellow King! Nitpickers are a variant of the same species for whom movies are less to be solved than outsmarted. But by constantly trying to stay ahead of the movie, nitpickers aren’t proving their smarts so much as their shallowness, advertising their inability or unwillingness to engage with a work of art and expecting to be applauded for it.
That’s not to say clinical analysis is never appropriate: It’s a great tool if you’re looking to trace the way symbolism evolves throughout a movie, as in this close reading of Joel and Ethan Coen’s “The Hudsucker Proxy.” But that kind of close reading comes from a desire to get inside the work rather than keep it at arm’s length, and it’s only effective when it remains firmly tethered to a sense of the whole. If you’re possessed of modest intelligence and enough spare time, you can find “clues” to support any thesis in anything. But to paraphrase “South Park,” there’s a time and a place for that, and it’s called college.
Disengagement can be a powerful act when it involves a deliberate rejection of a movie’s term, whether it’s the masturbatory violence of the “Sin City” movies or the paternalistic sexism of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” But approaching with your defenses up and your mind closed off is a great way to ensure you’ll get nothing out of the movie but the smug indifference you put into it.