PATIENTLY HATING #4: Letterboxd
Against meme reviews and aesthetic sameness
A spectre is haunting criticism – the spectre of Poptimism. Whether or not poptimism as it’s currently understood is responsible for the decline of popular culture into a sort of soulless, algorithmically-generated slop is incidental to the fact that it has become the default critical posture during the exact moment that all culture became pop and all nearly pop became bland and uninspiring. The once-radical instinct to identify, uplift, and take seriously strains of the outré or the transcendent in pop culture has morphed into a sort of widespread knee-bend of the critical class at the sword of PR firms. If you can’t ignore event albums, at least you can gawk at them. Where “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” is a fundamentally true insight that has also enabled hedonistic solipsism, so too has poptimism’s mantra: “let people enjoy things.”
There is spiritual and critical value in hating. Haters are often tarred as misanthropes, philistines, snobs; there is some truth in every smear. But haters also provide a certain public service: they are friction, cynical or not, in a world dedicated to becoming frictionless. Still, a toxicity and stigma overpowers hating in the moment. Criticism, whether serious or reflexive, threatens to be interpreted as close-mindedness or contrarianism. It’s safer to hold on to your hate. To let it mature, ferment. PATIENTLY HATING is a space dedicated to this kind of hate: the hate that, with time, has taken on a life of its own.
In the face of writer’s block-induced desperation, I did something I never could have imagined and rented Chris
topher Nolan’s Tenet. At first blush, I hoped to mine material for an inevitably dreadful Nolan re-appraisal in light of Oppenheimer’s upcoming release; upon reflection, I realized that I wanted to watch something I thought was stupid because I, myself, was feeling quite stupid. Whatever it was I came in search of, I found. Chief among these findings was that Tenet was a fun movie: incoherent enough to free me from any serious analytical work, choreographed well enough (with the exception of its overcooked final military sequence) to amuse, flatly acted enough to work as the defining Covid blockbuster. The film struck me as unfairly maligned, deserving popular re-acceptance if not wholescale re-evaluation.
A pleased customer, I did what I often do when I want to keep thinking about something: I searched it on Twitter. Sifting through the results, I saw a lot of what I’ve come to expect from film Twitter: pithy, over-serious takes, Robert Pattinson thirst-edits, Nolan fanboy film trivia. Then, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks: Tenet, it seems, has become a cult meme movie in the vein of kitschy disasters like The Room. I thought: how, in fewer than three years, has the internet moved this fast? I thought, with inescapable and horrible clarity: is this, like nearly every other problem with film discussion on the Internet, the fault of Letterboxd?
Letterboxd, the wildly popular film criticism-cum-database-cum-social media site, has existed in some form since 2011, but became inescapable during pandemic lockdowns and the multi-year societal stupor in their wake. I remember the moment, early in quarantine, when the site seemed to explode in real time. Ostensibly normal or casual cultural participants traded Letterboxd usernames like secret codenames, wading into a site that seemed, at first glance, to offer a better solution to the existential panic of lockdowns than any other. Letterboxd, as treasure trove and vibrant network, promised both to help fill the time we had in unwelcome excess and to simulate something like social connection at a moment of intense loneliness. The premise is simple enough: Letterboxd is a site where one can discover new films, log watched ones, and opine freely upon both. Better yet, Letterboxd purports to put you in conversation with followers, the people you follow, and the micro-celebrities who, as anyone who spends enough time on the site will come to discover, have come to dominate the site with a proprietary blend of pithy in-jokes, aesthetic codes, and cloying sensibilities.
At its surface, Letterboxd appears to be a sort of revalation. Its promise, at essence, is the democratization and massive expansion of film criticism; in place of the old, entrenched critical class imposing their preferences, top-down, upon a resentful mass, Letterboxd promises to let the masses speak for themselves. Star scores are aggregated, reviews and comments populate under each and every film, canons and collections are formed anew through popular lists. As with the original appeal of any wildly popular website, there is an extent to which all of these promises are realized. In a time where the critical consensus continues to be eviscerated by layoffs and disinvestment in writing, these promises are of essential importance. More often than not, though, to scroll through Letterboxd—or, worse yet, to read the reviews of a film you want to think more about—is to encounter a wall of stifling, infuriating sameness.
Letterboxd, like any social media site running for long enough (and, make no mistake, this is a social media site first and foremost), has reached the point of no return: that at which everybody talks the same. Nearly every Letterboxd review falls into one of a few archetypes. There is the review of the legacy critic, nearly always ending with a hyperlink to “read more” on the page of a website that presumably pays its writers; there is the multi-page schizoid review, almost always obsessively focusing upon a film’s most obvious trait (I’ve read reviews longer than most standard college papers grappling with themes of militarism in Marvel movies); there is the review identifying precisely how the film in question is problematic; and, most popular by magnitudes, there is the cheeky one-liner joke review. Encounter any of these stock reviews enough, as anybody who spends even a cursory amount of time on Letterboxd does, and feel an overpowering pang of dread.
Sameness, as (among others) Kate Lindsay sharply identified in a recent piece on the abortive mass-migration to Threads, is everywhere now. Whether or not social media ever could have connected people now seems beyond the point; as Lindsay writes, we approach social media with behavior befitting not connection, but performance. We crave engagement, which means internalizing the blinkered patterns of speech and presentation demonstrated by those with the most engagement and parroting them back like broken, cringe-worthy toys. The social media user wants nothing more than to be recognized, an impulse that pushes them into a cruel charade of sameness that transforms them beyond all recognition.
Of course, the crisis of sameness is not just one happening online. The physical world around us appears to have morphed into a sort of endlessly repetitive facsimile of a real place. Every city is a tech hub with a hip food hall and brewery; every apartment is an Airbnb. We live in an era of imaginary austerity masquerading as tasteful minimalism—what Jonah Weiner at Blackbird Spyplane has dubbed “the era of mids”—in which everything is mediocre and from which transcendence appears possible only through becoming an elect exemplar of mediocrity. You can hope only to be the person who blows up the underwhelming bagel spot on TikTok, the person who most timely notes that Anya Taylor-Joy ate in The Menu.
Enable 3rd party cookies or use another browser
Letterboxd does more than just accelerate social mediatized culture’s descent into repetitive mediocrity; in its own way, it defangs and neutralizes the genuinely thrilling prospect of masses of people appraising and interpreting art in conversation with one another. There is no real loss when every journalist on Bluesky runs Dril tweets into the ground; there is when taste becomes not just something with which to brand yourself but a meme unto itself, when something as potentially rewarding as cultural conversation becomes a wasteland of recycled, cheeky stock sentences. Come seeking genuine connection, both with yourself and something far greater; leave a Barbie gf or an Oppenheimer bf. If you’re lucky, you’ll get enough hearts on the way to make the whole charade feel worth your while.
Join millions of subscribers to read more invective and fewer one-sentence meme reviews.