People have opinions man, and they sure are shitty.
Well, that’s what you can take away from the raging roar from the angry internet who is eagerly grabbing their pitchforks to burn down the steeple of a certain news organisation to correct the world.
The Guardian have been doing a run of articles titled ‘I’ve never seen’, where writers dive into a classic film that they’ve never seen. These run the gamut from thoughtful pieces on Solaris and space, to explorations of Tom Cruise’s emptiness in Top Gun. It’s a smart series that has given a wealth of writers the breadth to explore some highly regarded films for the first time.
These articles cover a broad scope of different writers points of view. They often cover the reason why they’ve avoided it – the fear that horror films bring, not being sciency enough, Freddie Mercury – and then a cursory discussion about what their view on it is. These are interesting tchotchke’s of film discussion – barely criticism – that encourage a reminder that not everyone in the world has seen The Shawshank Redemption, and that’s ok.
But, you probably didn’t read those ones.
You probably read the one about the woman who avoided There Will Be Blood because the men in her life raged madly for it, fervently frothing at the mouth over how bloody good it is and how she just had to watch it.
Or maybe you caught the one about the Terminator fan who had never seen The Terminator and when they finally caught up with it they said, boy, Arnie has no eyebrows.
You may even have just seen those two pieces and disregarded the others because you thought that they were all flaming trashpiles of tedium. And, look, I’m not going to deny you that right. The internet is a wide, deep, unceasing void of opinions. It’s only fair that some of them will irritate and frustrate.
Before I suggest you reach out for the Savlon and soothe that irritated opinion you have about someone else’s irritated opinion (because, y’know, everyone has one), I want to let you know that I’ve never seen Predator. I’ve got a lot of opinions on Predator, and I could gladly spew a thousand words or more on why it’s a film and what it means and how it has a fairly solid handshake in it. Also, it’s about men. Manly men. Men who cover themselves in mud to conquer a walking muscle that hunts and obliterates everything, all the while setting off a bomb that’ll destroy everything around it when the going gets tough. It’s sweat, blood, tears, and bros.
And sure, I’ve titled this piece to point to that exact kind of thing.
But, I’m not going to watch Predator, nor am I going to write about it. And while I could write about how I’ve seen Alien VS Predator (both of them!), and extrapolate more about the OG film without ever having seen it, instead, I’m going to get on a small high horse (every horse is high when you look at it from a low enough angle) and rant about something: the traction of clickbait headlines and the impact it’s having on criticism as a whole.
Now, I can understand why some of the anger directed at The Guardian exists when freelance writers are doing it tough and being pushed back for certain pieces, especially when some of the writing includes people who deliberately avoid films just to piss off their mates. And then, when they do watch it, they gleefully deride the era the film was made.
There’s an argument to be made that people are up in arms over the pieces that slam a film as definitive and iconic as The Terminator – all the while kicking basic praise on Terminator Genisys – and are rushing to defend the film, as if Arnie’s sci-fi masterwork needs defending. And sure, I can see that, but there’s an active derision of the intelligence or wilful ignorance of the writers.
When that There Will Be Blood piece went up, folks were up in arms that someone would dare dismiss such an iconic, celebrated film like this. They appear to have willingly ignored the dialogue that Elle Hunt was engaging with there – that her romantic life has often been peppered with men she simply didn’t gel with pushing this purely masculine film onto her with a ‘you simply must see this’ –, one which is a salient discussion point that desperately needs to be had.
The rage and fury that comes with someone announcing that they didn’t love a widely beloved film is noxious and quite positively infuriating. With all the fervour of a rampant bushfire, people smash the share button, tagging the author, declaring how blatantly wrong and incorrect they are. How dare they not fall in line and love this cinematic classic. How dare their life choices influence and sway their film viewing experience. How dare they have an opinion man. And given most of the films being covered in the bunch of articles are classic films, there’s a lot of defenders of them.
And, while it’s not likely The Guardian’s main intention to drive clicks through hate-clicking, given the fact that they’re not the kind of website that derives their audience reach from such action, it’s an inevitability that when presenting a catalogue of opinions that they’re going to get some kind of backlash.
Now, hate-clicks, or hot take articles intended to cause ire, are the bread and butter for many sites, with the irritation they cause being enough to get readers hackles up. They need to then vocalise about how wrong they think the writer is.
The problem with hate-click articles is that too many of them will start to degrade the perception of a site. Readers will start to associate it with trash, and as such, they’ll start to move away in search of something else that either affirms their core beliefs, or gets their goat going again. The internet is a vicious ground of seething fingers waiting for the right glove to stick their mucky existence into.
Whether this is how we’ve devolved as a society, driven by banal curiosity and anger, clicking on titles that you know will irritate you or get a rise out of you, or even worse, will deliver you nothing of value – ‘you won’t believe what happens next…’ – and it’ll disappear into the ether of your mind in minutes.
But, this is how websites have to operate now. They have to gain that kind of traction to be sustainable and financially viable. Ranked lists, controversial opinions, cute animals; it’s the currency that keeps many sites alive.
Now, I don’t write this from a point of privilege. The Curb doesn’t make enough money to turn a profit and become a bigger entity, at least at this point in time it doesn’t. Yet, I have advertising here, with Google ads operating to try and cover the hosting costs at least. It’s easy to write an article or five that’ll get a bunch of traction and get people hot under the collar, but why do that when you can easily just deliver the kind of writing that you want to see on the internet? Lead by some kind of example I guess.
Again; people shared the bad takes on those I’ve never seen… articles. They shared and raged about the ones that bothered them the most, and ignored the ones that reaffirmed their opinions. I’m not saying we have ourselves to blame, but why is it we return to the same well, time and time again, to get the same water, over and over, when there’s a field of variety to select from. Why are the same conversations about the Star Wars prequels being discussed over, and over, and over, ad nauseum?
Film critic William Bibbiani touched on this on an episode of Critically Acclaimed where a listener asked the question, why aren’t people talking about Ernst Lubitsch movies more?
Bibbiani’s response is apt, digesting everything I’m trying to say here into a small bite of applicability:
Why aren’t people talking about Ernst Lubitsch more? Because people aren’t talking about Ernst Lubitsch more. I don’t mean everyone, like just random people on the internet. I mean people who actually write about film for a living. There is an enormous and frustrating and I think an irresponsible tendency to just not… I understand that articles about Ernst Lubitsch movies might not be seen as a huge draw for a lot of publications but what I think is even worse than not writing about ‘here’s why Trouble in Paradise is one of the best comedies ever’ [he then corrects himself and reaffirms his statement] ‘why is Design for Living even better than Trouble in Paradise’. Try pitching that article.
There’s not a lot of publications that’ll give it to you, and the ones that will, probably don’t have money. It’s not something that gets picked up in the way that ‘I saw Terminator for the first time and it’s really eighties’. That’s an article I read today. That was a terrible article. […] It was ridiculous. There was no commentary on it that was meaningful, it wasn’t even like ‘I’m from a new generation and these parts of it no longer speak to me’. That’s a valid conversation that we can have. This was just, ‘I never saw Terminator before. I’m going to spend five paragraphs talking about the other Terminator movies I have seen, and three paragraphs talking about why this one was from the eighties.’ No.
He goes on, talking about how the eighties has readjusted our perspective on discussing film, with co-host Witney Seibold mentioning that ‘everything before Star Wars has been essentially wiped out’ of discussion, while also touching on the advent of VHS, DVD’s, and streaming culture, overtaking the cable subscriptions or free to air TV many of us grew up with:
The recency bias, which is sort of natural in people, and I don’t think it’s inherently evil, but it is something we do need to overcome when we have conversations about art. Recency bias became something that people could indulge in without thinking about it, as opposed to ‘we have to watch whatever movie happens to be on one of the four channels we have, and if it’s old, we will watch old movies and we will get used to them’.
A lot of people didn’t grow up watching those older movies because they weren’t what was readily available in the way they were in previous generations, and as a result, a lot of movies that had kept pretty consistently alive, started falling by the wayside, to the point that most people can’t name more than a handful of movies from the 1930s nowadays. So, I think it is a responsibility for every film pundit, every film critic, every person who writes about the industry, to – at the very least – reference, remember, bring up when it is relevant in context, older movies, so that they remember that Ernst Lubitsch was important. Ernst Lubitsch was not an obscure filmmaker.
The two further go on to discuss how the obliteration of Lubitsch from modern conversation is akin to a future where Judd Apatow is no longer discussed, essentially forgotten to time.
Which leads me to the barnstorming point of frustration that I have with some of the most vocal naysayers of these Guardian pieces. I’ve seen a fair few voices rant and rave about the duty that The Guardian has at this time when… well… let me just quote on persons tweet:
The Guardian’s ‘I’ve Never Seen’ column is such an embarrassment. The arts industry is decimated, arts critics are struggling more to find work than ever, so why would any publication waste valuable resources on articles about how beloved cultural properties are actually shit?
World’s full of struggling art critics looking for work, so publishing trite bullshit like “’Terminator’ is bad because Arnie has no eyebrows” feels more insulting than ever
This writer is one who puts out words regularly for one of the major pop culture websites in Australia, creating articles that are merely lists of tweets that people have over Tom Cruise in space, or about Australian ‘national treasure’ Chris Hemsworth. I should add that they do engage in occasional criticism, and do create some worthwhile pieces about politics in Australia, but the wealth of their output is generally about creating clickable and shareable content. Not of the hate-click variety, but merely listicles and social media observations that help people keep up with the discussion of the day.
It’s part of what made a website like Buzzfeed the figurehead it was. Cute cats alongside a listen of twenty-seven references you missed in The Avengers. Disposable content that is as nutritional as a bag of fairy floss. In and out and gone in your mind before you know it.***
Now, I’m not naming this writer because they are paid to write, something I’m eternally envious of. And, the core context of their tweets are in support of writers like me, who are merely hoping to make a dollar to help push the things we love and broaden readers film diet. But, the site they write for do create a huge amount of paid content gussied up as articles.
These paid posts have in turn paid for the billboards that litter the streets of Australia with the website logo on them. I have no issues with paid advertising, it helps keep websites alive and is a necessary weight at times, but it’s worthwhile highlighting that for many websites out there, they have two options for helping create revenue: paid posts, or high traction articles.
And, of those high traction articles, they’re often either empty noise, or a wildly differing opinion. It’s easy to write a piece that aggravates, that irritates, that gets the clicks, but it doesn’t retain readers. You see it time and time again on social media, with people screenshotting or sharing posts or pieces that are awful, full of noxious rhetoric that does little to further a positive or useful discussion.
Oddly, positive and constructive discussions are the ones that are rarely shared. It’s usually an eager ‘stacks on’ approach with everyone needing to come out and say their piece about the beaten pinata of the day. Heck, this piece is a response to those reactions.
The whole system is broken.
It’s built to support clicks and shares and reactions. To prop up that bottom line and show that a website is financially viable because, well, enough people clicked on links?
Who cares what the content says if the advertising dollars are rolling in!*
Which is why, as readers, we need to start working the system to push the pieces that engage, inform, educate, and add to the conversation. We need to share those pieces, encourage a greater look into film history, to encourage a more inclusive discussion about films in general.
Any other site than The Guardian looking at the traction that the Terminator piece had will say, more please, from that writer. They’ve done their job: increased traffic, increased revenue, and increased exposure.
And right here is what is missing from those The Guardian articles, and arguably, a lot of hate-click/hot take film discussion: a desperate lack of relevance, and for many, lacking an appreciation of film history. Talk about The Terminator, discuss it at length, but understand its place in history, understand its relevance in society, and refer to the paths that were taken to allow such a film to exist. It needs to be more than ‘kinda funny lookin’.
Sure, not every sub-thousand-word piece can cover such breadth and depth that needs that kind of discussion, but again, be the change you want to see. It’s easy to rally against these kinds of pieces because people are getting paid good money to churn out a piece that is quite literally just their opinion. And yet, they must have shown some creative excellence to be afforded the opportunity of writing for The Guardian, so surely they would know that the internet is full of an unceasing amount of articles on The Terminator. Yet, they don’t come at the film from a new viewpoint other than ‘I’ve never seen it before’**.
Look, we’re all smart enough to know when an article is clickbait or not. We know what’s a bad take and one that exists purely for attention. Why we still feed into the machine and add to the endless cycle of destructive film criticism is beyond me.
Additionally, recognise that it’s ok for people to dislike or have negative views on classic films. It’s ok to dislike Star Wars, or The Terminator, or There Will Be Blood. As long as the person articulates clearly why they dislike those films.
And finally, please, branch out beyond the classics that you know. Watch an Ernst Lubitsch film. Give Critically Acclaimed a listen, and pay attention to their Episode Zero series, which looks at the films that influenced Star Wars. Broaden your own film history and take a risk by watching something outside of your regular wheelhouse. You’ll survive. You might even find something new to fall in love with.
And, to crib a line from Nat’s What I Reckon… fuck hate-click articles.
*Plenty care about the content when it’s coming from harmful websites. The work of groups like Sleeping Giants and Mad Witches have helped push advertisers away from platforms like Breitbart and Alan Jones radio show, where toxic dialogues take place.
**A small word of advice to the writers out there, if you’re covering a popular film, book, show, song, album, etc., try bring a new perspective, bring something that we haven’t considered before. It’s hard, but it helps distinguish your writing apart from everything that’s come before. It helps you stand out.
***It’s worthwhile noting that for a period of time, Buzzfeed Australia hosted some fantastic political journalism, albeit articles that were overshadowed by said cute cats and Avengers Easter Eggs.
(Oh, and as for Predator, yeah, I’ll never watch that.)