There was an independent cinema in Folly Beach, South Carolina, that was showing Good Time (Josh and Benny Safdie, 2017). A film set in the marginal spaces of Queens? Count me in. I left the theater spellbound by its fringe depiction of NYC, and I yearned to get back home from this family getaway, to reinsert myself among the hysteria of Queens, and Brooklyn, and Manhattan, to go on my long walks through eclectic neighborhoods that distracted me from my debilitating mental illness (which I had refused to get medicated for at the time), to absorb the ever-changing architecture and cultural imprint of the city I had come to call home. 

Contrastingly, there was that other time when I attended an all-day (12-hour, to be exact) horror film festival in Poughkeepsie, New York. It was winter, the kind of cold that cut right through bone marrow. A few beers and sandwiches out of a friend’s trunk, tailgating in the parking lot between the first and second half of the day’s slate. There was a mystery movie on the docket, which ended up being An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981). The festival had an unofficial, but intimidating, nondisclosure agreement that strongly urged patrons to never speak of the mystery film to anyone outside any given year’s event – I think it’s far enough along that I’m allowed to say this. This was during a period in which I had just started medicating, getting into things I had previously been terrified of, stumbling out of my comfort zone, reconnecting with old friends whom I naively assumed would never welcome me back.

Savage Streets

Horror, something I had previously been so averse to, was becoming my beloved genre, and so I was prepared for the mystery film and practically anything else the festival hit me with. What I wasn’t prepared for was Savage Streets (Danny Steinmann, 1984), a rape revenge featuring a gang rape of a 13-year-old girl in its first 20 minutes. The sequence went on for what seemed a lifetime, and was so rattling that I rushed to the bathroom in a cold sweat – stark-white in the face, nearly green – and blacked out while standing over the toilet. Somehow, either no one had come into the bathroom in the meantime or at least hadn’t noticed me on the floor, because I came to consciousness about 45 minutes later, a throbbing welt on my scalp, lying belly-up on a freezing, not-necessarily-pristine tiled floor. I grabbed a soda in the lobby and sheepishly inched back into the theater, grateful to find the movie in its third act. Nothing but B-movie kills and Linda Blair wielding a badass crossbow from here on out. 

These experiences run the gamut of high and low engagement with a film. They were immediate, reactionary moments induced by a piece of cinema. I would argue that the entire spectrum of such experience is important, and beautiful, and offers a trove of insight that long-term research or criticism cannot. I don’t mean for this to sound like shameless PR, but it’s going to no matter how you slice it: I only wish I had had a Letterboxd account when I had seen those films. Maybe then, instead of ruminating on it long after the fact, I could have logged in and chronicled my feelings in a more direct sense. Maybe I could have captured the exhausting duration of a rape scene that left me dirty and concussed in a bathroom stall. Or the life-changing clarity that Good Time left me with, a renewed appreciation of my home city and its sprawling urban identity, that made me want to plunge into its depths and never stop exploring when I returned. Writing a piece about it now would seem dishonest, analytical, cold.

In her provocative essay “The Politics of I-Dropping,” feminist scholar Gesa Kirsch argues that “…uses of an authorial I (or lack thereof) have social, moral, and political consequences for which authors bear responsibility,” going as far as to claim that “omitting [it] is a rhetorical strategy that can be (and has been) used to turn opinions into truth, to silence women and other marginalized groups, and to trivialize their concerns.”1 Film criticism is a professional niche guilty of neglecting this I in its lexicon of filmspeak. On one end of its narrow spectrum, it’s densely academic: Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” was a groundbreaking essay that famously conceptualised the “male gaze,” yet Mulvey is also so steeped in psychoanalytic jargon that the essay is admittedly (I speak on behalf of both myself and my students) an incredibly difficult one to parse.2 Further towards the middle, film criticism becomes a bit more inclusive in its language, but still aimed at a “sophisticated” readership: publications like The New Yorker, Film Comment, and 4Columns act as purveyors of “highbrow” criticism that prefer the rigor of academia to be dressed down a little bit (but not too much!) for wider import. Finally we reach the other terminus of this strange spectrum: the cynical, consumerist outlets that range from corporate mouthpieces (ScreenRant’s3 obsession with superhero trends, for example) to measurement tools (Rotten Tomatoes’ questionable consensus empire4) that drive public taste based on exclusive clusters of notable critics. This latter classification is, paradoxically, just as exclusionary as the first – rather than a careful evaluation of a film’s cultural impact, it risks descending into nothing more than a selling point (or a thrashing).

While there are strong examples and cases to be made for all of the above, they ultimately fall short of finding room for that communal I of the average moviegoer, the spectator who is neither a scholar nor an industry insider, who might be obsessed with watching movies or only casually watch them – nevertheless, they have something to add to the discourse that too often gets overlooked. Maybe it’s something preposterous; still, engaging with it might lend further cultural or political context to the film in question. Maybe it’s something overreaching and trying too hard to be profound; nevertheless, it might speak volumes to the film’s social significance. I’m looking at you, people who praise Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019) for its “artistic ambition”…5

I Spit On Your Grave

One of the earliest “unprofessional” film reviews I can think of is, coincidentally, written by a (now-deceased) professional critic. Roger Ebert’s review of the original I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978) opens with “A vile bag of garbage … is playing in Chicago theaters this week.” He goes on to only briefly describe the film’s plot (sparse as it is) and instead observe the array of disturbing reactions from people sitting around him in the audience, some cheering on the film’s vicious rapists, others laughing obnoxiously in moments of horrific trauma. It becomes a fascinating study of spectacle and what Ebert saw as despicable reactions prompted by a culturally bankrupt movie.6 It is, in fact, a review of the audience that says more about the film’s legacy than a straightforward evaluation of its cinematographic elements could ever hope to.

More recently, “out-of-theater” reactions7 on YouTube and TikTok have sprung up, as well as written alternatives like Letterboxd. The latter is an app that, perhaps too democratically, provides a platform for just about anyone to voice their opinions on a film – I’ve come across user watchlists titled “The most racist films of all time” and can tell you with certainty that its creator is not a researcher looking into the history of discriminatory cinema. 

Not everyone uses Letterboxd to record their immediate reactions, but I’d argue that this is the best way to participate. Keeping a log of every movie you watch, along with as many gut-reaction writeups as possible, provides an exciting, humorous, and sobering record of the spectator’s experience. The philosopher Sianne Ngai might classify this brand of marginal criticism by the various “aesthetic categories” it derives opinions from.8 “Zany,” “cute,” and “interesting” are her main focal points, each bearing sociopolitical weight despite how trivial they might sound. But we could easily expand that to include “dollar-store Scooby Doo” – my Letterboxd review of From Justin to Kelly (Robert Iscove, 2003) – or “manufactured by a secret NFL supercomputer” – 80 for Brady (Kyle Marvin, 2023) – or “literally just a porno, but with worse acting” – Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong (Charles Band, 2013). The point is that “aesthetic experience is attached, in some way, to our nonaesthetic encounters with the world… To judge something ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is to participate in a bigger conversation about what kinds of aesthetic choices are culturally valid.”9 In other words, we all have different tastes, and what professional criticism does is fashion taste (or feeling) into something more authoritative – the best of such criticism has historically influenced public reception. What if, however, we considered reactionary criticism, such as any number of off-the-cuff Letterboxd reviews, as seriously as the work of professionals?

Here’s my out-of-theater (off-the-couch, technically) writeup for To All the Boys: Always and Forever (Michael Fimognari, 2021):

No high school like the one in this film has ever existed anywhere or at any point in time. But overall, solid cutesy romance that serves as an extravagant advertisement for NYU.

I’m not even specifying “good” or “bad” here, but very bluntly implying that it is “not good” due to a commercialised ulterior motive and a sanitised depiction of high school – although a taste-based judgment (with some humour, if I’m allowed to give myself such credit), this short writeup is “connected to … evaluations of the artwork’s ethical and political commitments.”10 I had a viewing experience that went beyond just disliking the film on an aesthetic level, but tapped into capitalistic intentions that seemed to permeate the film, which betrays its “cutesy” veneer. Who would have thought that a harmless teen romance on Netflix could shamelessly plug NYU without ever mentioning its egregious tuition fees?

Beyond aesthetic categories and questions of taste, reactionary criticism can get away with stylistic flourishes that might otherwise be discouraged in academic or journalistic media – in other words, Letterboxd reviews11 can play fast and loose with ethical conventions while proving a salient point. On the nature of evidence, Jenny Rice argues that “[an] abundance of words produces a rhetorical effect beyond the contents themselves. There is something significant about proliferation.”12

Take my review of Southland Tales (Richard Kelly, 2006), for instance:

So, there’s sentient cars having penetrative sex in shitty circa-1997 computer-graphic animation, The Rock has an interdimensional doppelgänger and is walking around Los Angeles drinking beer straight from the six-pack without removing the cans individually, Justin Timberlake is a disgruntled Fallujah veteran who breaks out in song and dance to The Killers and narrates the film while either perched at an oversized sniper rifle or lounging on a skiball machine, and neo-Marxist terrorist cells are located in Venice Beach tattoo parlours. Also, Sean William Scott says the N word a few times. Truly the most bat-shit film I have ever watched.

Southland Tales

Rice tactfully distinguishes evidence from “fact” in that the former is more of a process or what happens with the facts beyond themselves. In this short writeup, I am not simply cataloguing facts (in this case, objective things that happen in the film), but using them in proliferation towards a certain end. It’s a stylistic choice with the aim of puzzling and intriguing any reader who may want to watch Southland Tales at some point in time. It’s a buildup, an “adding up”13 of increasingly absurd sequences in order to get the simple argument across that it is exactly that: absurd. And yet, there are concerning mentions of a white character using the N word, of Marxists being portrayed as terrorists, of a seemingly irrelevant, pornographic scene involving literal cars. No need to unpack all of this; I’m hinting at the film’s cultural oddities that speak to an off-camera political context. In an out-of-theatre blurb, that’s all I need to be able to generate conversation. An academic article or New Yorker review would be tasked with examining what these moments signify, or what they illuminate about American society in 2006, or comparing its themes and techniques with contemporaries to form a more holistic view of the political moment in which Southland Tales is situated.

My Letterboxd reviews flirt with ambiguity and abundance while trying to voice an opinion. On one hand, this allows them to be creative and vividly worded, enriched with humour and personality and nudging the conversation around a film in new or unexpected directions – perhaps more so than professional criticism, with its ethical commitment to existing literature, continuum of genre tropes and aesthetic traditions, citation standards, and insider knowledge. However, this is also where reactionary criticism can get especially dicey – important to study and pay attention to, but risky nonetheless. My review of (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009) is, to put it very lightly, short:

Surprisingly subversive.

That’s it – the whole review. For context, I’m being strategically vague because, at the time, I was hoping to shop this around to magazines as a pitch for a longer piece on the film and its subversive qualities. Yet as a contained writeup on Letterboxd, it’s both provocative and problematic; the film already has a divisive reputation for pushing the manic pixie dream girl14 trope and thus being regressive in its vision of a turbulent romance, so calling it subversive raises some questions. How so? Is the male protagonist actually the villain when we look more closely? Is the trope leaned into for the sake of satire? Who really holds agency by the end of the film, if anyone? This is where my use of evidence might have to be enhanced, even for an out-of-theatre reaction. If you’re calling a film with such a polarising place in culture “subversive” right after watching, you must know why. 

But then again, these mere two words in my writeup are still evocative of something more than a baseline opinion of “It sucks” or “This was actually good.” Sure, it helps that I’m attuned to the film’s sexual politics and critical interventions that have emerged around it, but for any average browser of Letterboxd reviews, the term “subversive” used so absolutely in reference to a rom-com…that’s got to raise some interest, no? Invoke further questioning? Spark research into what’s been previously discussed? Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s chemistry wasn’t enough for this guy, huh? Reinforcing this brief claim would eliminate that dimension of gut reaction that makes it exciting – it’s a gateway to conversation and debate, a heat-of-the-moment diatribe, a half-formed idea with the aching need to be documented somewhere just moments after the credits roll. It’s an intimate window into not only the spectator but the moment in which they experienced a movie for the first time. Add anything more to “Surprisingly subversive” and it would become an afterthought, an exercise made for a first-year writing course, a wannabe op-ed. A gut writeup is imperfect, often vague, other times overwhelming—but it’s fresh, and it doesn’t purport to be a comprehensive survey of a film’s content, craft, or cultural influence. It hints at all of these things or injects curiosity about stuff “beyond its contents,” but it doesn’t have the time or retrospect to analyse them, which is undeniably its distinct feature from other forms of criticism that undergo multiple drafts and become less immediate by the hour, or day, or week.

I suppose the question I set out to answer with writing this piece is: Can a reactionary piece of criticism (short, imbued with feeling, dependent on taste and immediate experience rather than rigorous, longform analysis) encapsulate a film’s internal and external influence? Well, let’s look at one more review of mine, for Werewolf by Night (Michael Giacchino, 2022):

It’s a solidly fun Universal monster homage, but within the framework of the MCU it fails to reach its full, campy potential.

The answer is yes. It can attain that “social, moral, and political” I that Kirsch advocates for. Sometimes in productive ways, other times in harmful ways. For example, the review above isn’t an accumulation like my Southland Tales review, nor is it as morally ambiguous as my (500) Days of Summer claim. It’s a concise little blurb written during a time of Marvel Cinematic Universe oversaturation. With so many Hollywood blockbusters being tied to that franchise, it was at once exciting to watch a Halloween special that experimented with the form and dispiriting to discover that it was still bound to the rules and continuity of the multiverse.15

What was it about Good Time and Savage Streets that struck me with such blunt force? I covered it a little bit, and could easily continue to proliferate the details to hammer home the point, but it’s too late. All I can do now is, if I really wanted to, create a research study or critical examination of these films. I’m pretty sure I could write these well, maybe to the point of being publishable. Doing so, however, would quell any sense of wonder or danger about these formative experiences, since “if the reviewer so effaces the ‘I,’ whether by calculation or not, the reader of the review … forgets that the judgements she’s perusing originated in a similarly localized and distractible head.”16 Only an out-of-theatre writeup could have grasped these films by the throat, shed a direct spotlight on what they did to me as a viewer, beckoned a reader (and prospective film-watcher) to feel what I felt. Reactionary reviews dilute the critical process to the point that unflinchingly honest commentary is all that remains. Maybe unsupported, maybe strange or confusing, maybe complicated by existing discourse around a film if you decide to pry – but also, most definitely, a significant primary source through which to understand a film and its audience. A film’s cultural influence is the ether, the “beyond the contents,” that reactionary criticism leaves us to grapple with well into the future. If only Letterboxd was around during The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915).


  1. Gesa Kirsch, “The Politics of I-Dropping,” College Composition and Communication, Volume 45, Issue 3 (October 1994): 381-83.
  2. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 833-44.
  3. I used to work for this website on a freelance basis. Their business model was more so about maximizing clicks and views than delivering incisive criticism.
  4. Scott Detrow and Marc Rivers, “Rotten Tomatoes Can Make Or Break a Film’s Success – Is That a Problem?,” NPR, 16 September 2023.
  5. Mark Hughes, “Review: ‘Joker’ Is One Of The Best Films Of 2019,” Forbes, 31 August 2019.
  6. Roger Ebert, “Review: ‘I Spit on Your Grave’,” Rogerebert.com (blog), 16 July 1980.
  7. A couple of my favorite critics, Christy Lemire and Alonso Duralde, have recently started uploading “out-of-theater” reaction videos upon exiting a screening.
  8. Sianne Ngai, “Our Aesthetic Categories,” PMLA, Volume 125, Issue 4 (October 2010): pp. 948-58.
  9. Rebecca Porte, “The Zany, the Cute, and the Interesting: On Ngai’s ‘Our Aesthetic Categories’.” LA Review of Books, 14 October 2012.
  10. Ibid.
  11. My Letterboxd account, in all its…glory?
  12. Jenny Rice, Awful Archives: Conspiracy Theory, Rhetoric, and Acts of Evidence (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2020), p 66.
  13. Ibid, pp 48-52.
  14. Nathan Rabin, “I’m sorry for coining the phrase ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’,” Salon, 15 July 2014.
  15. A fairly recent, dizzying pop culture trend involving alternate universes, overlapping universes, shared universes, and an infinite “soup” of intellectual property.
  16. Kirsch, op. cit., pp 381-82.

About The Author

Tyler Thier lives in NYC and works as an adjunct professor at Hofstra University. His poetry, criticism, and scholarship can be found in various places, and his teaching and research are concerned with manifestos and experimental writing. Otherwise, he just loves frogs and really bad movies.

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