The Rocky Horror Picture Show flopped in the United States in its original limited release in 1975, but found new life when a shrewd 20th Century Fox executive suggested rebooking the film for midnight shows, targeting a market that back then was becoming increasingly viable. Gradually, a cult developed, consisting partly of movie buffs who loved the B-pictures Rocky Horror was referencing, and partly of gay viewers drawn to the film’s transgressive sexuality. Then the phenomenon exploded when a group of dedicated fans started turning screenings into audience participation experiences, complete with costumes, dances, props, and lines shouted in unison. This new way of watching Rocky Horror sprung up spontaneously in a few theaters, then became codified at showings around the world.
At some point, amid all the scripted insults and role-playing, moviegoers forgot something important: The Rocky Horror Picture Show is pretty good. Even without all the peripherals, it features catchy songs, suitably campy performances, fantastic costumes and art direction, and a gender-bending eroticism that’s daring even now. The Rocky Horror rituals have overtaken the movie’s reputation as a piece of cinema, to the extent that “virgins” typically arrive at their first screening with their reactions pre-sorted, and never take the time to actually watch the film.
Something similar has happened across the internet over the past few years, where the performative aspect of fandom has become as big a part of the way that films are processed as reviews and ordinary online conversations. This isn’t an inherently bad trend. If nothing else, the rise of the internet as a populist entertainment platform has allowed for some reassuring insight into our shared capacity for creativity and wit. And a lot of the ways that people remix and react to what’s at the multiplex is inspired by genuine passion.
But a lot… isn’t. In the place of spontaneous, honest, imaginative responses, I’m increasingly seeing a pro forma set of filters through which movies new and old are being considered—often at the expense of what those pictures actually are, and what they have to say.
Here are some of the most common:
The fan theory
Did you know that Riley in Inside Out is actually Boo from Monsters, Inc.? Or that Jack in Titanic is a figment of Rose’s imagination? Or that Chris Pratt’s character in Jurassic World is the adult version of that annoying kid from the paleontological dig in Jurassic Park? At their best, fan theories can be diverting “what if”s, and demonstrate the kind of close watching that movie buffs should be doing, just as a matter of course. At their worst, these little parlor games come across like a desperate attempt to see something in a film that’s never been there (and are advanced with a smugness that suggests that if the theory’s not correct, the movie either makes no sense or is worthless). Mostly, all this theorizing seems to stem from an admirable impulse to find an original perspective on a piece of popular culture that’s already been over analyzed. But originality alone doesn’t make them more insightful than a simple, well written review that digs into a movie’s aesthetics and themes.
The Wes Anderson version
Here’s a different kind of fan theory for you: Does the box office success of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel have anything to with both being released in the era of “If Wes Anderson directed…” videos? If there’s some causation there, that almost justifies the glut of short sketches that imagine a superhero blockbuster or horror picture or what-have-you rendered with Andersonian whimsy. Otherwise, what started as a clever idea—rooted in the rigidity of one artist’s style and the absurdity of applying it to other genres—has become the viral video equivalent of a stand-up comedian telling jokes about airplane food.
When YouTubers aren’t giving popular movies the Wes Anderson treatment, they’re recreating posters and trailers with tiny Lego bricks. The time and care that goes into something like this is undeniably impressive, but after looking at a dozen or so, they cease to provoke much more than a, “Huh. Cute.” Unlike some of the other examples on this list, Lego-fied films don’t comment on their subject so much as they just shrink and simplify it. (Note: The lightly comic official Lego cartoon and video game versions of movies get a pass here. Also, that time when 20th Century Fox commissioned a Lego reproduction of the hotel from The Grand Budapest Hotel was actually pretty adorable.)
The 1980s trailer (or 1970s, or 1940s, et cetera)
Here’s another case where the original inspiration for a now-stale trend was smart and instructive. A few years ago, reimagining a Marvel superhero movie as an old VHS “sneak preview” or WWII-era “coming attraction” exposed both the grammar of vintage advertising and the pulp roots of the modern blockbuster. But how many times does this point need to keep getting made? Does doing a 1970s porn-themed Magic Mike XXL trailer really say anything new about porn or Magic Mike? Or is it just “a thing that is done?”
The “honest trailer” (or “Everything wrong with…,” or how this and that “…are the same movie”)
The less said about these the better. There’s scarcely a movie that’s been made that can’t be nitpicked, smirked at, or reduced to a formula. It’d be one thing if these videos were always sparked by some kind of righteous “This must be said!” fury, but their clockwork quality counts against them. More often than not, they seem to pop up because it’s time for another one.
“This is problematic.”
Just as nearly any movie can be forced through the “Everything wrong with…” mill, it doesn’t take much to find something in any given film that’s socially regressive—or at least insufficiently progressive. Articles that focus exclusively on those issues have some value, in that it’s healthy to consider the ways in which we can all be closed off or insensitive. But too many of these pieces try to double as a review, serving as the definitive “takedown” of a film due to one element being out of whack. Too few consider whether the “problematic” parts are intentional—meant to depict behavior and attitudes that actually exist in the real world. When artistry and intent are excluded from opinion pieces, in the long run that can make them seem shortsighted or needlessly priggish. There’s a lot that a writer could say, for example, about The Wolf Of Wall Street’s perspective on masculine culture. It’s not that fruitful though to have a conversation about whether its perspective makes that film “bad.”
“No, you’re problematic!”
This is a relatively new phenomenon, but an often disturbing one, where the pushback against critics of a film—especially if they’re taking a sociopolitical angle—explodes into harassment and name calling. Social media and comment sections make it all too easy for even a half-dozen disgruntled readers to come across like an angry mob, demanding contrition or even calling for wholesale changes to a review they dislike.
Okay, I’m mostly being ironic here. But as someone who’s spent plenty of time looking at the weekend’s new releases and brainstorming lists to capitalize on them, I’m well aware of how the media piggybacks on big movies via listicles.
That said, a good list can serve a function, if only by prompting readers to watch some older films that are similar to the big hit of the week (and thus putting a blockbuster into a broader historical/cultural context). Really, that’s the case with of a lot of the ways that the internet turns movies into original content. Not every example is insidious or lazy. Consider “the supercut.” Done right, a mega-montage of film clips calls attention to common beats and images, revealing either their hidden power or how they’ve become cliché. Supercuts can be sharp critical tools—as in Dylan Marron’s recent “Every Single Word Spoken By A Person Of Color In ___” videos, which indict a lack of inclusiveness in American independent cinema in particular.
The same is true of think pieces. There are ways to discuss what’s “problematic” about a film without registering complaints that are too broad or too nitpicky to be relevant. Multiple articles were inspired by Bryce Dallas Howard’s distractingly weak heroine in Jurassic World, and many of those made valuable points about how one poorly conceived character can hurt a story—which is very different from complaining that she sets a bad example. Several of those pieces also suggested that the character’s flimsiness was the inevitable byproduct of Hollywood’s tendency to exclude women from positions of creative control. That’s the kind of argument that could lead to actual institutional change someday—or at least provide a record of legitimate social concerns, so that future generations won’t watch Jurassic World and presume that we were all cool with it in 2015.
The primary problem with the new rituals of reaction and repurposing is that they’re becoming played out. There’s very little surprise left in “this in the style of that” craft projects. And often there’s not much need to read outraged essays—or the response pieces, for that matter—to know exactly what they’re going to say.
My main worry is that the ways our culture responds to film may have less and less to do with the actual art. Whatever ultimately became of Rocky Horror cult, it did start as fandom. Today it seems like the hubbub surrounding cinema is about more finding a spotlight and jumping into it. Filmmakers spend years of their lives working on a project, only to jump online and hear, “Okay, you’ve had your turn. Now look at this thing I scribbled all over it.”