Have you ever sat down and thought about the role of criticism in culture? That may be a strange question to lead off with, but it’s been the question nagging at me the last few weeks and, well, a lot further than that if I’m honest with everyone. Still, this nagging question bubbled back up to the surface of late for me. Why?
Because I had Oscar Fever.
No, not for the actual Academy Awards. I’ll watch those occasionally and try to watch the films that win the top categories every year, but I’m not talking about the Oscars themselves. No, I had Oscar Fever, or, as the raging fictional id of Tim Heidecker sang in the opening to the Eighth Annual On Cinema at the Cinema Oscar Special theme song, I had an HEI fever. HEI referring to the fictional version of Tim Heidecker’s HEI Network, a website created to be the new home of On Cinema at the Cinema, a long-running series created by both the real Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, to satirize a movie review show like you’d see on a cable public access network in the 80s and 90s, or most recently on YouTube.
The initial premise was simple: they create a low-budget, poorly produced, and embarrassing to watch film review series where both Tim and Gregg portray fictional versions of themselves that genuinely want to create a film review show but know nothing about films, producing an entertaining show and lack the self-awareness to be embarrassed or make any improvements to the show or their own behavior. Early episodes focused on the friction between Tim, a raging egotist with zero passion for anything but the vapidest of action films, and Gregg, a quiet, gentle soul with a genuine love for films but the complete inability to think critically about them, why he likes them or how anyone in the industry should ever face criticism. Storylines such as Tim’s deteriorating relationship with his wife, an affair with another woman, brain tumors, and a lot more buoyed the show to become something much more. Gregg always wanted it to be about the movies, while Tim wanted the show to be a launchpad for everything from his poorly done action series Decker, his embarrassing rock band Dekkar and whatever other bad idea he cooked up.
After nine years of the On Cinema universe’s existence, the films have virtually nothing to do with the show, which still exists as a show about film criticism. There’s been a nutritional vape fiasco at a [fictional] music festival hosted by Tim that led to the death of 20 people and the staggering work of genius that was the Trial of Tim Heidecker. A subsequent film created about the fictional Tim running for District Attorney against a fictional DA from his trial followed that and so much more. Yet the original conceit remains: On Cinema at the Cinema is about the movies, or at least as much as fictional Gregg can rein in Tim.
In this multimedia hellscape, they’ve done a fascinating job of holding up a mirror to our own world and showing how the binding of fandoms for fictional media properties with the identity of the viewers has left us at the whims of the Tims and Greggs. While I never loved the film Annihilation (nor the book), this video from editor and critic Dan Olson about Annihilation has stuck with me for years now. In it, he discusses the state of film criticism and how seemingly no one can look beyond the surface to understand the metaphor involved with the story.
Take this quote from Olson on the ambiguity of the film Annihilation’s ending; “The purpose of ambiguity is to frustrate the audience, to deny a clean sense of diegetic closure and thusly force engagement with the metaphorical. Most ambiguous endings make perfect sense if you read them thematically, and nine times out of ten, the diegetic answer is obvious once you approach the ending from this direction.”
Annihilation seems like a great place to dissect this kind of uncritical analysis because if you watch the film and throw aside the ideas of aliens and “the Shimmer” and instead look for what the film was trying to say on a deeper level, it’s right there staring you back in the face. The video above shows a litany of YouTube critics giving their take on the film, and most fell into line talking about aliens, clones and trying to tie up the “meaning” of the film through surface-level elements. The film works for deeper analysis because it’s surrealist in nature and, in a lot of ways, denies most logic, yet it served as a stumbling block.
Here’s the thing, though. If you don’t want to engage in films, art, books, entertainment, content, or whatever you want to call what you consume in this way, you don’t have to. There’s a lot of pop entertainment created to be fun and, well, entertaining, without a need for deeper analysis. That doesn’t mean they’re created to be wholly shallow experiences but can be viewed that way. Not everyone is always in the mood to ruminate on existence after watching action set pieces, which is how films like The Matrix could exist for so long with metaphors about gender and identity clearly baked into them and see the core interpretations by many be something about batteries and digital consciousness and whatnot. I will not preach that everyone needs to be a critic or view their entertainment through the lens of deeper analysis all the time, as that’s unreasonable, and everyone has their own tastes, schedules, stressors, and the like. Life is tough.
Something like On Cinema, or the comedy of Tim and Gregg in general, forces the viewer to face the absurdity of how we view the world and the content we consume. From Tim’s awkward aesthetic comedy alongside Eric Wareheim with Tim and Eric Show Great Job to Tim’s bad cooking show (which I’d say was a precursor to On Cinema) to Gregg’s satirical music and Neil Hamburger character, which was the subject of the film Entertainment. Entertainment was a difficult movie in a lot of ways, eschewing traditional narrative for an unflinching deconstruction of the Neil Hamburger character Gregg created and looking at what life would be like for this strange, sad individual beyond his standup appearances.
While you could watch On Cinema for the goofy characters, over-the-top storylines, and strange Hollywood-adjacent world, the experience rewards patience and analysis from the viewer, unlike most shows or films do on this scale. Throughout the Eighth Annual On Cinema Oscar Special, it was striking how the show forked off, forced onto two separate streams; one on the HEI Network being the official special and the second via YouTube for Gregg’s Our Cinema special, including opening to a [mostly] complete viewing of the film Affairs of Cappy Ricks before fans got greeted with his typical “hey guys.” Big streamers on Twitch and other sites will routinely pull in massive numbers, making the fact that the show attracted around 8,000 live viewers seem minuscule in comparison, but once you recognize both streams retained almost the same exact viewership numbers throughout, even while most of Gregg’s stream was garbage, it was remarkable.
On Cinema not only asks its fans to sit through what would be considered difficult comedy, not only asked for money after almost a decade of being provided by Adult Swim, but also asked to watch dueling shows, and the people who truly love the show did exactly that without question. So many weren’t just resigned to doing this but excited to see where it went next. While this may not be a huge number in the grand scheme of things, its creators making what they want under their own rules and an audience that trusts them to do exactly this, knowing they’re going to not just be entertained but challenged.
After watching friends and acquaintances get into inane arguments about Mortal Kombat, years of battles over the value of the MCU films stoked ad nauseam by any time Martin Scorsese speaks in public, it should be clear to most people that our greater society’s relationship with our media and how we consume it can border on unhealthy. Ultimately, entertainment and art serve many purposes, and there’s no right or wrong way to consume them. When we get downtime, we find something that makes us feel something, be that contentment, inspiration, excitement, fear, introspection, or just something to break up the monotony of every day. What we choose to engage with isn’t as important as it makes us feel.
But even then, it’s my vain hope that in between those moments where our entertainment or art gives us what we want, that we can all take a step back and ask ourselves the all-important question: why does this make me feel this way? That will always be a personal answer, indifferent to the quality, value, or perception of anyone else. Find those parts that make you feel something and try to figure out why. Analyze the moving parts that go into it, the mechanics of storytelling, cinematography, sound editing, or whatever else went into making it special to you and deepen that bond wherever you can, then see where it leads you.
Oh, God! (1977, 98 minutes).