This is the second installment of my interview series, where I speak with a fellow online film critic. Today’s guest:
Calling Jonathan Paula simply “a film critic” downplays the total reach of his work. The owner of Jogwheel Productions, a set of YouTube channels, Paula has been involved with numerous different YouTube shows, from being the camera guy and editor on Is it a Good Idea to Microwave This?, to the host of the let’s play series Game Time, to The World According to Jon, where he simply offers his opinions (or rants) on a piece of recent news. But his biggest project right now is arguably Movie Night, a weekly series where he reviews a handful of movies under a central theme. Featuring viewer feedback on each title, Paula has crafted a unique format that makes his show one worth returning to. He recently agreed to an interview with the site. Here it is:
Ken B.: When people think of film criticism, or maybe reviewing in general, it’s usually as a written form — a newspaper column, a blog, whatever. Siskel and Ebert were on TV, but they had been respected print critics for a while until then. Have you encountered a subset of people that won’t take you or other YouTube reviewers seriously, simply because of the fact that you present your reviews as YouTube videos? What would you do to convince them that people who post reviews online as videos can still potentially have as worthwhile insight as a traditional, seasoned newspaper critic?
Jon Paula: There is definitely a contingent of the reviewing-digesting public that take YouTubers less seriously than our written counterparts – but there’s a good reason for that. With the exception of myself and a small handful of others, the majority of YouTuber reviewers (especially the most popular) are undisciplined critics that show no hint of planning, scripting, or thought organization: it’s just jumbled jump-cut streams of consciousness. So, as someone who does take the extra time to research and script my reviews, I can understand the position some may have against YouTube reviewers: they don’t appreciate the ‘art-form’ of the process… the analytic breakdown, and strengths of a compelling, well-written argument.
But to those who do write their YouTube reviews, I see no compelling reason why anyone would shun this medium over another – especially if film footage is included in their reviews – as sharing video clips/evidence to support your review is inherently the biggest and most unique advantage of doing reviews on YouTube: unlike written criticism, I can actually show you what I’m referring to. Anyone YouTuber who doesn’t take advantage of this is honestly doing themselves a great disservice.
As for “convincing” others that YouTube reviewers are “worthwhile”? I can only address my own content, which I believe speaks for itself. Even a small sample of Movie Night will hopefully illustrate to any naysayer that I can not only compete with the “written”-reviewing community, but I am actually adding additional value to film criticism by including footage and audio of the works I’m discussing. And while the views on YouTube don’t always bear this out, my audience definitely does appreciate the extra effort and discipline I put forward with my content.
(All this being said, if you’re dead-set on enjoying only written reviews, copies of all my video-reviews can be found “in print” at Letterboxd.com/JonPaula.)
KB: A big aspect of Movie Night is how each week’s show has a theme (horror movies, famous spoofs, etc.). Through this kind of format, have you found your views on certain genres, directors, or actors change because of viewing multiple movies in that category in a relatively short period of time?
JP: I have found grouping pictures of similar theme, actor, or genre does tend to strengthen viewer appreciation, as the ability to compare and contrast the films against one another is easier and fresher in your mind. It is through this format that I’m more aware of what I’m rating a film – as the parallels to its counterparts are often included immediately adjacent. It would be easier, for example, to rate Child’s Play a bit higher, if I hadn’t just given The Exorcist below-average marks a moment earlier. It keeps me honest, and my reviews more objective.
Plus, it spurs a great deal of discussion, and allows for a much stronger video. I have always aimed to make Movie Night a more involved, long-form viewing experience that gets really in-depth with a particular topic. It also allows me to feature lesser known films and reviews alongside their more popular brethren.
KB: So is there any particular process to choosing a theme and the movies within? Or do they each fall into place in different ways?
JP: I’m always planning and mapping out “themes” for future episodes – and I do my best to schedule them around relevant tent-pole events. Generally, I’m looking for 3, 5, or 7 films related to a particular actor, franchise, subject, genre, or event that can be packaged together, and ones I think deserve reviewing, and more importantly: ones I actually want to review, and haven’t discussed yet. I for know for instance, that Warner Bros. is planning a Peter Pan remake of sorts slated for summer 2015… which would be a great time to critique the other, older adaptations of the famous fairy tale.
I’d say the biggest “anchor” to determining a theme on any particular date revolves around current releases. Big Hero 6 is going to be a huge release next week, so I’ve decided to use that opportunity to not only review Disney’s latest, but also some of their classics.
KB: By using current releases as an indicator over what the theme for that episode will be, do you think watching or re-watching those related movies gives you better context over what to look for when reviewing that particular new release?
JP: Referring back to my earlier answer: absolutely. Film criticism is nothing if not a comparative process. Declaring Interstellar to be the best sci-fi film of the year is one thing, but to suggest it’s Christopher Nolan’s best movie is entirely another: and this only happens with foreknowledge of those respective categories. Familiarity with a picture’s predecessors and contemporaries helps you understand where it resides amongst the pantheon of film history.
KB: This is a very good point, and it is important to remain grounded with one’s comparisons and have a base of knowledge when doing so. But there are many critics who don’t do so, and harm the reputation of everyone else, as is true with any profession or group of people. To what extent do you believe that bad reviewers or bad YouTubers hold the progress of what you do back?
JP: I take an immense amount of pride in what I do, especially Movie Night, which is why I’m confident my work can speak for itself, regardless of the quality of peers. If anything, such comparisons only serve to make my program look better, as it is generally unrivaled in terms of quality and professionalism – well, at least I’d like to think so.
KB: So let’s change the topic a bit and talk about your process when reviewing. Do you take notes when watching a movie? How long do you wait after finishing the film and writing your review?
JP: I definitely take notes – especially regarding specific quotes or examples I want to make sure I remember later. Over-arching themes or acting ability are generally less important to write down, as they stick with me longer. If it’s a movie I’m watching at home, which is the case a majority of the time, I often pause the film just to quickly jot down a complete thought or phrase to include in my review later.
In the rare instances where I don’t take notes (either because I had no intention of reviewing the film while watching, or if I forgot) I try to review it as soon as possible after viewing. But if I do have my notes, they’re saved to a folder where they’ll sometimes sit for an entire year before I write the review proper. Generally though, I’ll watch and write within the same week – as maintaining that immediacy always yields my strongest writing.
KB: I used to take notes, but I stopped sometime last year after I realized I rarely used them. And I can’t imagine waiting for more than 24 hours to begin writing, but every reviewer is different. Speaking of different reviewers, which critics would you say most influence your approach to film, and the style of your reviews? Likewise, are there any other YouTubers that you look up to when trying to hone your craft?
JP: I’ve always been influenced by Roger Ebert. His command of the English language was unparalleled… able to describe a thought or feeling effortlessly with just the right words. But moreso than that, it was his ability to connect with his audience, and tap into an emotional cord that made his reviews so poignant, personal, and effective. I sometimes fear that through my scripting process I lose a bit of that “personal” touch that makes these words my own – so I’m always cognizant of using precise language and a more lively delivery to maintain that.
Unfortunately, Ebert is no longer with us – and these days, my go-to critic is Dustin Putnam, who similarly astonishes me with his deep lexicon and careful understanding of what makes films good. I don’t always agree with him, but it’s his ability to convince the reader of a dissenting opinion that makes him such a powerful and important reviewer.
There are definitely traits I envy in my YouTuber peers – some are far better at humor and maintaining that “personal” touch than I am, while others sacrifice quality or depth for speed… but in terms of “honing my craft”, Movie Night is such a polished show, it’s hard to compare to someone who just spends five minutes jump-cutting around his room. I will say that I’ve been very impressed with Adam Olinger over at Feud Nation who combines a very unique concept with slick production skills and effective humor. If there are more shows like this, I would love to hear about them!
KB: I’ve always admired how Dustin Putman can make every argument so measured, even when I have a directly opposing opinion. It’s a shame more people don’t talk about him. I think it’s important that somebody should read writers, and be around people in general, that have opinions on issues that can differ from theirs. We might be ranging a bit off topic, but I want to ask, to what degree do you think varying the kind of views you’re exposed to is important in having a well-balanced worldview?
JP: Diversity of opinion is absolutely paramount in film criticism. Reviewers shouldn’t be afraid to share an unpopular view, as that is inherently the whole point of the craft: to spark debates and discussions about an art-form we all love. It was with this in mind that I modeled Movie Night’s trademark ratings into a two-party-system, to reflect these differences in opinions. And indeed, the most interesting episodes for me are often the ones where I disagree with the popular discourse.
Everything in our lives affects our character, and in doing so, affects how we approach our work: whether that’s pushing papers in an office building, or reviewing films on YouTube. Surrounding myself with like-minded people might feel cozy and safe, but it’s when I meet other individuals, either online, or through my various travels around the world, that really expand my perspective on things. It’s with this balanced understanding of how other people live, and where they come from – that helps us understand ourselves, and our own experiences. While I won’t presume to suggest this is necessary for film criticism, it can certainly be a useful advantage.
KB: That was an excellently articulated response. And with that, I think we can begin to wrap up. Jon, thank you so much for agreeing to answer my questions for this interview. Before we go, are there any final comments that you want to make?
JP: Well, thank you for the kind words Ken, and for graciously inviting me onto your blog, it has been a pleasure answering your questions. As you can no doubt tell, talking about myself is one of my favorite hobbies, haha 🙂
Seriously though, film has always been a passion of mine – and being able to talk about it each week, and recreate some of my favorite scenes in front of a green screen is something I enjoy immensely. Being part of the community on YouTube is privilege and a pleasure. And while I may not be very funny, or quick with my uploads – I’d like to think I bring sometihng unique and valuable to the table: as does everyone else who shares this passion.
Thanks for listening to my egotistical ramblings… hopefully you and your readers will subscribe to me on YouTube, and follow me on Letterboxd, so we can continue this wonderful conversation about film long into the future. Thanks again for listening!