When I was twelve the family got a new computer and it spent a couple years in my dad’s den before finding its way into my room – which was haunted thereafter by my mom, who still needed to use it, and by my brother and his friends who were never as discreet in their porn quests and weed research as they thought. But at night the computer was mine, for porn quests and research of my own, and with the help of message boards and file-sharing sites I was able to eavesdrop on conversations among film enthusiasts and track down the movies they fawned over. Seemingly every title was available online but, then as now, I needed curators, guides, to not only show me what was worth watching but also explain to me, in the simplest terms, why they were so good, so different. Apart from frequenting message boards, I started reading a lot of criticism, most of which went over my head, until I came across a message board about At the Movies, a movie review show, still on television, wherein two critics, Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, sat across from each other and talked about the movies being released that week.
Siskel had recently died, and been replaced by Richard Roeper, but the conversation was still lively, the critics’ passion on display.
There were old clips online and I watched Siskel and Ebert and Roeper talk about movies that I liked or dislike and then I revised my thoughts accordingly. I recorded new episodes and woke up at 5 a.m. on Mondays to play them back over breakfast, when everybody was asleep and the house was still quiet, and – hokey as it sounds – would enjoy the company of people who shared my interest, embraced that interest as a lifestyle, and had a lot to teach me.
Red Letter Media is a film studio founded by Mike Stoklasa and Jay Bauman and made famous, initially, by 90-minute video reviews of the Star Wars prequels (Phantom Menace, 1999; Attack of the Clones, 2002; Revenge of the Sith, 2005). The reviews are written and narrated by Stoklasa, in character as Harry S. Plinkett, a sex-obsessed, murderous, obese cinephile whose wife is dead, son a delinquent, and whose hatred for the prequels is informed and fueled by his love for the original trilogy.
Using the voice of his depraved Plinkett persona, who splices profanity with flashes of remarkably clearheaded erudition and insight, Stoklasa has gone on to make (write, record, film and edit) critiques of Baby’s Day Out, Star Trek films of past and present generations, James Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 2016’s Ghostbusters reboot, and a couple of awful straight-to-video children’s movies. The Plinkett character, who speaks in a tired or inebriated-sounding gargle, oscillates between rage and delight and pops up, between movie excerpts, in flashes of grainy home footage, filmed in the first person, set in his dimly-lit home where he celebrates Pizza Roles and sadism, retail printers, movie memorabilia and masturbation. As the Plinkett reviews became more popular, and the character evolved, Red Letter Media launched a separate web series called Half in the Bag where, abandoning the Plinkett persona, Stoklasa sits across from his colleague Jay Bauman, both in the guise of 21st century VCR repairmen, and here they adopt the Siskel & Ebert dynamic, discussing new releases and sandwiching their discussion with little sketches about how they’re exploiting an elderly customer, the aforementioned Plinkett, who’s been waiting years for them to fix his VCR.
Breaking off into Half in the Bag was a good move. The thought of using his Plinkett persona more often, feeding off of its growing popularity, must have been tempting. Wisely, however, Plinkett has been mostly relegated to punchline appearances at the show’s corners, and appears, in full, only for Stoklasa’s larger, more personal critiques.
The Plinkett reviews are enormous projects whose compositions are forged in probably five or more viewings of their subject, plus the mining of DVD extras (which are bountifully supplied in the Star Wars disks), and the culling of extraneous interviews from cable talk shows and red carpets and press junkets (his research for The Force Awakens is particularly impressive). The reviews are masterworks of their medium, the film essay, and Stoklasa seems keen to let them gestate without rush. Years will sometimes pass between one and the next. Stoklasa doesn’t seem to give interviews, so it’s hard to tell exactly what his process is, or what compels him toward certain movies (an invitation in the comment section, years ago, for fans to vote on the next review subject – The Matrix was the overwhelming winner – seems to have amounted to nothing), but having addressed Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and Ghostbusters in his videos we can imagine that he’s compelled toward his subjects, largely, by nostalgia, an emotion shaped as much by love as by grief. One thing these franchises all have in common, apart from their generational influence, is that they’ve all been subject – through sequels or prequels or reboots – to corporate efforts at resuscitation. Th upside to those efforts, which are almost always failures, is that they affirm the strength of the original movies, which stand tall by comparison to their offshoots, and validate the fandom. The downside, however, is that every effort to recapture tehir magic only makes clearer the fact that there will never again be anything quite like them. That the great movies of the apst will stay there. It’s bittersweet.
And Plinkett, in his own way, reflects this.
The evolution of Half in the Bag over nearly 150 episodes is more remarkable than the evolution of the Plinkett character, and while the dynamic between Stoklasa and Bauman never affords us the Siskel & Ebert drama of talking over and challenging one another, occasionally lapsing into passive aggressive barbs, their conversations offer at least as much insight, if not so formally delivered.
Bauman’s role is less performative than Stoklasa’s, less comedic, but he’s a perfect foil on account of his encyclopedic familiarity with the medium, its history and practitioners. While Stoklasa’s gift as a critic is dissection, the analysis of storytelling structures and conventions, Bauman’s gift is for context, and reference, and comparison. He’s the one, at roundtable discussions, to elaborate on the resumes and career arcs of obscure 1980s actors and directors, or explain how a certain effect was achieved, or dish on some sordid Hollywood gossip.
Bauman, though a quieter personality than Stoklasa on camera, showcases, with his editing of nearly every video, just as sharp an eye and ear for comedic timing as his colleague. In the same way that I’ve always had a hard time singling out and appreciating the drums in rock songs, I’ve always had a hard time seeing editing in film – which is often maybe a testament to the editor’s skill. Peter Bogdanovich says here that filmmakers of his generation liked to obscure the editor’s hand with tricks like cutting during movement. This lends the scene fluidity. It’s efficient in telling the story, getting our characters from Point A to B. So to see editing, arguably, is a sign of its weakness. Nonetheless, it’s something I wanted to develop an eye for.
There’s nothing flashy in Bauman’s cutting of one scene into the next. For the most part he’s just doing the job, making things clear. Where his hand comes through, and where his work has shown me how to be a little more mindful of the craft overall, is in his editing of the roundtable discussions in Red Letter Media’s more explicitly comedic show, Best of the Worst, wherein the group watches old, low-budget, almost uniformly terrible movies and discusses them, afterward, with plenty of ridicule and humor, sure, but also more serious consideration than the titles have probably ever received. When a particularly notable image or phrase catches the group’s attention, Bauman cuts to it, over the course of their discussion, with so keen a sense of comedic rhythm, both visual and auditory, that almost every episode creates a new inside joke among fans.
Joining them occasionally on Half in the Bag, in the physical guise of Stoklasa’s alter ego Plinkett, is the third member of RLM’s trinity: Rich Evans. Shrill, rotund, noisy and occasionally correct, Rich Evans is the band’s Lou Costello. While Jay is the straight man in a comedy duo with Stoklasa, Stoklasa becomes the straight man opposite Rich. Rich Evans is the most eager for a laugh, and his physical humor sometimes goes overboard, knocking over cameras and breaking cassettes by accident, thus rupturing not only the attempted joke but the mood in the room.
Evans’s popularity on RLM began with his laugh, a comic-book villain’s cackle, which unspools at twelve-second intervals while his face changes colors, and his head reels back, and his hands go quickly to his mouth as though to stifle it. But his role has since evolved to something else. While he’s an avid comic book fan, and thus provides a valuably rounded perspective when it comes to conversation about superhero movies and fandom in general, Evans has mostly come to accept, with troubled grace, his position as the group’s heel. He garbles words (whose phonetic mispronunciation Bauman, in post-production, then spells out on the screen), and he’s mocked for it. When his jokes don’t land, the whole table goes quiet, and he lowers his head.
Stoklasa’s exasperation with Evans’s histrionics looks genuine at times, as does Rich’s occasional frustration at being mocked (maybe it’s all a Kaufman-esque game?), but the two appear to be the oldest friends of the group, with a virtually indistinguishable sense of humor. Evans is also second to Stoklasa when it comes to predicting a movie’s outcome, assessing its flaws, illustrating why a certain trope or character arc does or doesn’t work.
But his major bent is toward comedy. Evans is always laughing, or mocking something, or telling a joke – he says insightful things but, for his perpetually levity, somehow doesn’t sport the authority of his counterparts when it comes to assessing movies. He’s the perpetual comic relief, and, as such, is no less crucial than the others.
The trio of Stoklasa, Bauman, and Evans, through their work on Half in the Bag, the Plinkett reviews, and two other programs called Re:View (discussion of overlooked modern classics) and Pre-Rec (video game discussions), has proven to be one of the most engaging voices in movie criticism. Red Letter Media is finally, after more than a decade of experimentation and consistent output, a wholly-forged and distinct critical entity. Despite their vulgarity, and occasional abrasiveness (they can be offputtingly vocal about finding their followers annoying), the group’s intelligence and humor and accessibility make me think of their studio as the heir to At the Movies.
One of the distinct qualities of RLM, what both separates them from their peers and aligns them with Siskel & Ebert, is the integrity that underscores their work. See Roger Ebert’s outrage here with what he considers the frivolous, misohynistic, sadistic Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter – a compelling display of insight and ethics and passion, whether you agree with him or not – and compare it with this more subdued, but equally principled, indictment of Adam Sandler’s Jack & Jill on Half in the Bag. The guys are exploring Sandler’s (possible) scuzziness. Their idea is that Sandler commands enormous budgets for his movies, awards his mostly-out-of-work friends inflated paychecks to join the cast, and then makes a film worth a tenth of its original budget – gussying the scenes up with cash from unconscionably frequent product placements. Stoklasa says in the video that he feels like more of an adult after making these connections, not because of the acumen called into play by doing so, but because it shines a light into the rapacious commercial interests of an industry that pretends to be a workhouse for art. It’s one of the quick glimpses, through all of RLM’s footage, of Stoklasa’s sincere emotional investment in film, and of the vulnerability inherent to that investment.
That sentimentality comes up in the Plinkett reviews, too. The culmination of his 4+-hour indictment of the Star Wars prequels is a feeling of reasoned loss. There’ve been a hundred jokes about bodily fluids and functions, and the guys find a clear delight in mocking George Lucas (“It’s like poetry,” says Lucas, regarding similarities between the two trilogies, “they rhyme”), but this isn’t a roast of the films or their maker. It isn’t a histrionic attack wherein the internet critic uses a mediocre movie as a platform on which to flaunt their vocabulary and lord over something. The strange subtext to Plinkett’s trilogy of reviews is of an adult coming to patient, thorough, maybe painful terms with the passage of time. Plinkett’s goal here isn’t to excoriate the prequels so much as to use them as a contrast against the original trilogy, and to thereby emphasize the magic of those movies, and to prove that his (our) love for them wasn’t the product of childish naivete. At the same time as he celebrates the original trilogy, he’s mourning their passage. Resigning himself to the fact that their magic can’t be recaptured.
Plinkett’s juvenilia is as much a mask as it is a vehicle for Stoklasa’s maturity. Th ereviews are an artistic platform for Stoklasa to confront the landmarks of his youth, as they look today. It’s like visitng your hometown after several years away and seeing that the moviehouse has been replaced with an Applebees, the pub a Starbucks. Reconciling yourself to the demolition of those spaces that housed some of your most prized memories, and grieving the inferiority of their replacements.
And having a sense of humor about it.
The work being put out by Red Letter Media offers a solid model for how to look critically at both movies and the industry behind them. And, just as their precursors in Siskel & Ebert, they offer an accessible gateway for seasoned and burgeoning cinephiles to explore new ground. I learn something with almost every episode of every show and laugh, walk away with a joke or a comment or an insight that stays with me and influences my appraisal of movies thereafter. And there’s something bittersweet about enjoying it now, in my mid-twenties, and thinking of how much I would have adored and quoted and been molded by them at thirteen or fourteen, when I was in much greater need of smart, funny, relatable voices.
A buried treasure on the internet, just as Siskel & Ebert began as a small public access series, I predict Red Letter media will grow into one of the most influential voices in movie criticism for the next generation of filmmakers.