chat room

Be Kind Rewind Might Just Be a Film Critic

Cloris Leachman. Photo: The Legacy Collection/THA/Shutterstock

Be Kind Rewind feels like an anachronism. A YouTube channel focused on classic Hollywood films, it features video essays that are smart, well scripted, and modern in tone, all while keeping both of its eyes trained on the past. The channel, which is the brainchild of Izzy Custodio, began in 2018 with an analysis of the “doppelgänger motif” in 1946’s A Stolen Life, then quickly became known for videos examining the historical contexts of various Best Actress races at the Oscars, from Olivia de Havilland to Greer Garson to Cher. Soon, she branched out from the Oscars, introducing her fans to The Misfits, Miyoshi Umeki, and Ida Lupino, often with a political slant. While she’s a YouTuber creator — perceived as something akin to an influencer — she makes sure her videos are diligently researched and scripted works of criticism clearly argued and articulated. But with the current SAG and WGA strikes, that creator categorization has suddenly become extremely relevant, as criticism is considered okay and influencers promoting struck work not. “I’ve never been paid by a studio, I’ve never been invited to anything, I’ve never been sent anything,” Custodio says. “I’m not an influencer, but I’m not technically a critic. It’s a gray area.”

Using your most recent video, on Cloris Leachman, as an example, can you walk me through how you create a Be Kind Rewind video?
It depends on what I’m trying to do for the month. I try to not talk about similar things one after the other, so if I talk about the 1934 Best Actress race, I’m not going to do 1935 the next month. Typically, my patrons are choosing my videos. I give my $10-level patrons a list of five or six options to choose from. It’s usually a variety of deep dives into films that I’m curious about, actresses I want to know more about, or comparisons to things that are coming out that are relevant to wider audiences.

Once I have that, I kind of think about the presumptions I have. With Cloris Leachman, I think of her as a comic actress, but I also know intellectually that she won an Oscar for a very dramatic film. I wanted to think about why I thought of her that way and what we can learn about her filmography from breaking down that contrast.

Then I look up interviews and see what they have to say about what they’ve been in. I look for threads that connect between different interviews and news articles and start carving out an argument.

How do you think “the video essay,” as a medium, affects your approach?
Being able to show examples is useful, especially with someone like Cloris Leachman, who is a very detailed actress. But really, my scripts could double easily as an article. It would be less meme friendly because I try to inject things that bring humor and often those are from internet culture.

On YouTube, the video essay sometimes extends past a medium and into a genre. What is your relationship to that genre?
I’m in such a gray area, in the center of a Venn diagram of so many different things. It could be documentary. It could be a video essay. It is kind of social media because it’s YouTube, but I’m not really an influencer. I sit in a weird space where I don’t think there are too many people. But a lot of my friends whom I’ve connected with online are very traditional video essayists. I do include myself with them because our process is so similar and we have a lot of similar concerns about copyright or the way you interact with people online. There’s no job description to teach you how to do those things. I’m in their cohort, kind of.

Could you define where, tonally, you differ from classic video essayists?
I’ll watch Broey Deschenel or Princess Weekes, but I don’t watch a lot of classic video essayists. I don’t want to copy anybody. I don’t want to accidentally pick up stuff from people or retread the same path. But I try to be accessible because I don’t want people to feel like classic film is scary. I don’t want people to assume that because it’s old that it’s antiquated or has poor quality. People take classic film too seriously or think of it as an intellectual exercise because it’s “film.”

You’re like the antithesis of that meme “When he wants to watch that four-hour documentary about a Polish bird.”
And I get it! Sometimes I try to describe something that I’m watching to people that I’m so enthusiastic about. I’m like, “You cannot relate to this at all, and I’m so sorry for that.” But at the end of the day, I think it’s about framing more than anything.

I’m curious about how you think the Be Kind Rewind persona has developed over time?
It’s gotten more shamelessly political. I’m very interested in politics in my personal life. When I started the channel, it wasn’t meant to have political resonance. I was making these videos because I needed to build out a video résumé. Now, I feel more comfortable commenting on current political events through history and making my point of view known by telling stories about things that have happened before. I see the same arguments being had that we had in 1931. That can be frustrating, but it’s also a really good opportunity to tell those stories, so people can be more attuned.

You mentioned that you started the channel with the intention of building out a video résumé. When did that change? 
The reason I started it was because I wanted a job in film and I didn’t know how to do that. I wanted to prove that I had learned a skill set in tech — learning our audience, making videos, whatever. The A Star Is Born video is the first one that blew up, and that’s when I realized people had expectations for the channel and were interested in seeing more. I wasn’t putting them on YouTube for people to actually watch. I just thought they would be like sitting there so I could point people to them in a job interview. When you get to a point where you’re getting sponsors, you start to think about how you can actually make it into a career.

Did turning it into a career change the content?
It didn’t much. One of my goals is to make sure that I’m staying true to myself. I’m never going to be a creator that’s for everybody. I know that. I want to make sure I’m making intelligent work that I love, and I hope that other people will kind of feel the same way.
There are incentives to make videos about big upcoming films, just because that’s what people are talking about. I’ll do it if it’s Mank, but I’m not going to do it with Fantastic Beasts.

Is that pressure from advertisers or just from yourself?
Myself. I want to make sure there’s relevant content.

You started as an Oscar-focused channel, and though awards still come up, they aren’t your primary focus anymore. Why that change?
I thought of the Oscars videos as using the Oscars as a MacGuffin to tell other stories about film history and, specifically, about the women who won them. Very quickly, I was branded as an “awards content” creator. It’s not that I hate awards, but it misbrands what I want people to take away from the channel. When I think about awards season, I’m interested in the business aspect, in how current events or new filmmaking trends affect it, but the horse race isn’t that interesting. I didn’t want people to think I was saying, “This is who I think should have won!” There’s so much of that. I wanted to build something different.

It’s also a barrier to entry for new viewers because a lot of people don’t like awards and think they’re bad for the industry. I don’t want people to be put off from my channel because they think I’m only awards.

It also gave you a freedom to talk about actresses who don’t have an Oscar story.
That’s a huge part of it too! It’s almost only white women. I’m already looking at a subset of history that’s focused on one type of person, and that sucks. Breaking away from that formula allows me to raise up other figures that don’t get attention from institutions.

The channel focuses on systemic problems within the industry, but by focusing primarily on classic Hollywood films, you don’t have a wide berth of subject matter that isn’t white. How do you approach that tension?
One thing I’ve been trying to do more is getting people from marginalized groups to participate in making the video. When I talked about Michelle Yeoh, it wasn’t for me to say, “This is how the Asian American experience has been in film.” I can quote other people and do research, and I diligently do that. But I should bring someone in to talk about her experience as someone who grew up watching Yeoh’s movies, which is what I did. I didn’t get it right in the beginning because I was leaning on the research, so that’s something I’ve been excited to implement more.

Be Kind Rewind does have an inherent oxymoron, which is that you’re using the most modern of mediums, the YouTube video essay, to talk about classic film. How do you think about that tension?
I feel it in the way it’s perceived rather than in the crafting of the video. It’s tough in terms of audience because so many classic film fans are older and they’re not on YouTube. When you tell them, “You might be interested in this,” they’re not sure what to make of it. “Well, it’s not an authoritative source, so what does it mean that I’m watching this?” YouTube encompasses so many different types of content, and if you want to sell yourself as a very serious cinephile, then it’s kind of strange to be on the platform with a lot of other things that are not very serious. At the end of the day, I’m talking about All About Eve the same way somebody would talk about something that came out yesterday. We’re both analyzing them through our own lenses and looking at them in context. Classic film is not something that’s talked about a lot on YouTube, so it feels strange to see a YouTube-y thumbnail with a classic-film figure.

Do you feel the need to show your work more because of YouTube?
Totally. One of the contradictions comes when I’m writing the video title. I could write a very clickbait-y title, but I think that would turn off the people most interested in the content. I do try to show my work (a) to prove my research is true but (b) to show that I’m working really hard and I’m not just pulling it out of my ass.

People who regularly watch your channel who weren’t educated on classic film before can get involved in the full world of Classic Hollywood. Narratives from your video about Deborah Kerr butt up against the narratives of other women you’ve covered, for example. Do you think about the larger picture you’re painting?
The Deborah Kerr example is great because I’d already made a video about Ingrid Bergman winning for Anastasia, so did I have to write the whole story into the Kerr video? So instead, I just did, “Here’s that video, if you’re curious,” and wrote a two-sentence summary. It is like filling in gaps in a world. I think about them as interconnected and telling a singular story in a separate way.

Did you read the recent Guardian article about critics versus influencers?
[Laughs] Yeah.

How did you feel about that as someone in the middle of a self-described Venn diagram?
Since the strikes started, a lot of video essayists who are in the same boat as me and I have been DM-ing each other saying, “Oh my God, can I make a video about Barbie?” You have this group of people who feel more akin to critics, but because our work is tied to an identity and a brand that isn’t a well-known or legacy outlet, we get lumped in with influencers. What’s strange about the dichotomy is that getting into film criticism is harder than ever. Even critics who work for reputable outlets struggle because you can’t make a ton of money. People are turning to the internet as a way to talk about films in a way that can give them a career, and some people are doing it in a way that attracts studios. But there is a subset of this group that wants to be taken seriously and shouldn’t be lumped in with people who just want clout or are paid by studios. That requires nuance in the way that we read influencer or creator culture around film.

At the same time, I’m sympathetic with critics because it is going to suck when you’re not able to do an interview with a cast member because someone is asking that cast member what their favorite pizza is. Not having access to films is frustrating as well. It’s a difficult situation that I don’t think blaming influencers is going to solve. This comes from studios and marketing.

Were you intending to make a video about Barbie?
I thought about it. I kind of had an idea, but then it became easier not to.

Are the strike guidelines clear to you?
They are now. It wasn’t clear within the first 48 hours. A bit of that was just being too cautious. Everyone who I was talking with behind the scenes are all well-intentioned people, and we all want to support the union, so we didn’t want to do the wrong thing. “Just tell me what to do!” But now everybody knows what to do.

What can and can’t you do?
Again, I fall into a unique position because most of the people I talk about are dead. It’s not like I’m giving 20th Century Fox attention for Young Frankenstein. I think anything I want to say that is criticism in the work I do online is fair game. I don’t mind logging anything on LetterBoxd, I don’t mind tweeting about stuff. If I had to do a video about a current release, I probably would do it. The work I’m talking about is older; some of them are on streaming services. When I was writing the Cloris Leachman video’s description, I had to decide if I wanted to point out that Young Frankenstein is streaming on Max. Do I support Max right now? But the only people who know the streaming services’ watch data are the streamers themselves, so if people show them that they came there to watch Young Frankenstein, then that is only good for film history and the preservation of classic film. So I don’t mind sharing that information.

Would you do a video, for example, about the history of Indigenous representation on film pegged to Lily Gladstone’s upcoming appearance in Killers of the Flower Moon?
That is one I would need a lot of assistance on! But I think I would because that is something that needs a lot of historical context, so it would be a good opportunity to use it for education about American and film history. I would feel comfortable doing that because I don’t think it would be mostly about her; it would be about everything else leading up to her.

It does sound like it’s coming, at least partly, down to personal judgment. 
Different people might feel differently about it. I’m going off the official SAG statements, where they’ve said, “We’re not trying to rob you of the joy of movies, we’re just trying to get a fair contract.” So criticism is fair game. At the same time, I am willing, if they change that, to do what they need us to do to support them. I’m going to check in with my friends who are in SAG and the WGA and make sure that they are keeping me up to date.

You don’t call yourself a critic, but earlier you said your pieces could largely function as articles. Where does the reticence to call yourself a critic come from?
It’s partly impostor syndrome. I admire critics so much, and I would love to be in Film Commons or write a Criterion essay or do the things that I think of my favorite critics doing. I don’t see myself as a critic because I don’t see myself as having the résumé that would get me to that place.

There are early-career critics.
It’s true. I probably do need to be a little bolder in saying that. But also being someone who primarily talks about classic film, it is criticism, but it’s not engaging in film culture as it develops. I’m not the person who’s going to Oppenheimer and writing about it as a structural piece of art. I could do that. But it’s not what I’ve been doing. I would love to be called a critic. I would feel much better about that than being a YouTuber.

Be Kind Rewind Might Just Be a Film Critic