So, what was Ultra Culture?

Thursday July 18th 2019

Hello! My name’s Charlie Lyne and from 2008 to 2014, I was the sole author — despite my use of an affected editorial ‘we’ for much of that time — of Ultra Culture, a moderately popular British film blog. It was originally intended to cover multiple art forms, hence the awful name (which, for what it’s worth, I refer to in emails from the time as ‘partially ironic’).

I was 16 when I started the blog, and 23 when it finally petered out, so it’s perhaps not surprising that some of the posts read as though they were written by a child. You have to remember though: the bar for online film criticism was considerably lower in the late 2000s. This was the era of RSS feeds, gif walls, the irritatingly small font size you’re reading now, infographics, Flash embeds, liveblogsHTML frames, and tweets sent via text because I didn’t have a smartphone. The blog was literally half a decade old by the time I reviewed a cool new service called Netflix, which allowed you to watch ‘flicks’ right here on the ‘net’.

I can almost precisely pinpoint the moment when the quality of the writing became passable, which happened to coincide with a minor existential crisis I had in December 2011, so if you decide to dig back into the archives, please go no further than that. At its best, the blog had a breezily mischievous tone; at worst, that tendency tipped over into either apathy or spite. This was a genuinely good post, I think.

In a time before Film Twitter, Ultra Culture wallowed in the minutiae of being a film critic, and the indignities of doing so online. I posted matter-of-fact accounts of unremarkable press screenings, and immortalised the closest thing the 2010s London film scene ever had to a Haight-Ashbury-style love-in. Over several years I peppered the blog with hyperbolic references to the then-Artistic Director of the London Film Festival, Sandra Hebron — allusions that were so ill-defined I later had to clarify that they were intended as affectionate.

^^ Me, disguised as Sandra Hebron, on the cover of the blog’s 2010 end-of-year zine.
Inside was an interview with Hebron herself, alongside contributions from Garth Jennings (Sing), Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) and Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers)

There were countless other running jokes, and just as many lame gags I repeated by accident. On two separate occasions I referred to Ivan Reitman as ‘Beethoven producer Ivan Reitman’. And for a while after the movie Unstoppable came out, I kept describing things as ‘the size of the Chrysler Building’, including the grief I felt following the death of Tony Scott, which some people felt was inappropriate.

Over the course of six years, I came out with about three (3) decent turns of phrase, for instance when noting that my readership ‘couldn’t give half a pair of shorts‘ about the blog’s film festival coverage. Meanwhile, I made gifs like this one and built entire posts around them:

From the beginning, the blog railed against the laziness of film marketing: against the cynical exploitation of fandom, the tyranny of the ‘first official still’, the meaninglessness of 14-second-long teaser trailers, and the clichés of movie poster design. God, the list of movie posters I spent altogether too much time thinking about is as long as it is forgettable, from The Iron Lady to She’s Out of My League, and On the Road to Zookeeper. Perhaps my greatest marketing-related achievement was figuring out a vulnerability in the QR code on the poster for Martha Marcy May Marlene, which one of my readers was subsequently able to point towards the ‘human faeces’ Wikipedia entry.

As time went on, I became more and more concerned with putting out stuff that wouldn’t make sense in any other publication, for better or worse. There were posts that played with the scrolling format of the blog, posts that put my limited web design skills to the test, posts that existed solely to manipulate the Rotten Tomatoes algorithm, and posts I decorated with surprisingly artsy little illustrations like this one of Ridley Scott:

Looking back, I don’t seem to have spent much time covering the biggest movies of the era, or the best. Instead, I fully committed myself to the humdrum middle, spending god knows how long on a breakdown of the trailer for Joyful Noise, a supercut of the best moments from Derek Jacobi’s lacklustre Charles Dickens documentary, and Flight drinking game. Some of the movies covered have been so thoroughly lost to time that entire posts make little to no sense now. And I have no memory whatsoever of watching Letters to Juliet, J. Edgar, Playing for KeepsKeith Lemon: The Film or the Lincoln assassination movie The Conspirator, which for some reason I reviewed entirely in the form of sarcastic cartoons:

At times, Ultra Culture resembled a actual, factual movie blog. There were competitions — including one for Expendables premiere tickets that required readers find physical objects hidden around London, and another for five pairs of tickets to see the Nightmare on Elm Street remake which received just one (shit) entry — as well as charity eBay auctions and even a bloody Blue Peter make! I didn’t do many interviews, but when I did, they were with the robot mime from EuroTrip and Derek Jacobi’s tramp double.

Also out in the wider world, there were eleven editions of Ultra Culture Cinema, the blog’s not-so-regular screening series at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, as well as numerous zines and a one-off charity walking tour, which does seem like a slightly odd choice now that you ask.

Over the years, the blog established a small but robust following (robust enough that Studio Canal’s marketing department felt it was worth quoting from my post about Roman Polanski’s child rape conviction on the poster for his film Carnage). The loyalty of that readership allowed me to develop (or if you prefer, wallow in) such personal obsessions as the nuances of title treatment fonts, the activities of Britain’s archaic film censor board, and Xavier Dolan’s many, many screen credits.

On the flip side, the blog had its villains, from the Daily Mail’s former film critic Christopher Tookey — with whom I maintained a long-running but low-level feud — to Kevin Spacey, who I disliked the right amount but for the wrong reasons. I even ended one particularly restless BAFTA liveblog by burning a picture of Spacey on Vine (remember Vine?) which I recall getting a mixed reaction at the time:

Believe it or not, there was some small amount of money to be made from a blog like this in the early years of the new millennium (my records show that the blog’s highest grossing month was November 2011 when an extraordinary £983.82 in advertising revenue came in). Even more remarkably, this scrappy old thing helped shepherd me into the glorious world of film criticism, and later, filmmaking. To everyone who ever read Ultra Culture, through thick prose and thin arguments, I thank you.