Hot-take (or the Virtue of Ignorance)

SelmaLBJ

Social media has made it possible for millions of fans to connect on movies and television at any given time, but online discussion still falls short of living up to its potential. Binge watching has become so popular with shows like House of Cards, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and Scandal that all fans can chime in for recaps anytime and anywhere. The constant availability of thousands of films and television shows should, arguably, lead to a golden age of criticism and informed reader feedback.

That hasn’t been the case. Often the most popular articles that readers click are titled “10 Ways House of Cards Humiliates Women” and “Why Whiplash is Homophobic”. Outrage, you see, is what drives conversation.

While the gaining influence of Facebook and Twitter on film and TV writing can make any topic a worldwide trend for all to discuss, too often the conversation leads to a veritable avalanche of “Hot Takes”. Hot takes, think pieces, or whatever you want to call them, are dominating the film writing landscape, and they don’t appear to be going away any time soon. There’s no better way to keep a viewer’s attention than by pissing them off with a click-bait headline that is sure to incite comment. Online commenters may not have seen American Sniper, but they will want to interject on an author’s statement that the film manipulates the history of U.S. involvement in Iraq. Consequently, it’s not uncommon for people who haven’t seen a film to chime in anyway just to contribute to a charged atmosphere.

Readers who don’t even follow movies and television click on hot takes because these articles willfully misapprehend positions and feign outrage to appeal to our baser instincts. Whether it be about a story’s historical accuracy, or a narrative that’s perceived as skewed or offensive, controversy draws in the most reader comments routinely. After reading these controversial arguments on Twitter and Facebook, users offer up their own immediate comments, and discussion soon devolves into angry shouting. It always turns to shouting because hot-takes don’t foster debate; they provoke a binary response that won’t be backed down from by those making comments. Creator’s intent, subtlety and nuance are often thrown out the window for the sake of pageviews. A piece like “5 Things The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt gets wrong about Cults” completely ignores what artists are attempting to say when the creators take liberties with subject matter, instead creating straw men to take down. Yes, Kimmy’s case isn’t reflective of most survivors of cults, but that isn’t really the point, is it?

Take Selma‘s reception after initial reviews came in: critics praised the film for its coverage of King and the events of the Selma marches, but then Politico chimed in, ignoring the other merits of Selma to single out how LBJ was portrayed. Soon thereafter, all publicity surrounding Selma became about its depiction of Lyndon Baines Johnson and the part he played in the civil rights movement. Oddly enough, a lot of the vitriol came from those who hadn’t yet seen Ava DuVernay’s film. It’s an occurrence that comes along so often that noted critic Matt Zoller Seitz remarked on it himself. Immediately after, this response came in from one of Seitz’s readers arguing that it’s no longer necessary to see a film to side with it, or against it.

There’s nothing wrong with taking the opportunity to chat up a show or movie before it comes out, but forming concrete opinions on the word of others is not ample reason to shun a film. Readers scour over these hot-takes and the litany of heated comments that came after the post and, without even realizing it, they set themselves at odds with a product they never even watched. By declaring Selma revisionist history without seeing it, commenters take an ideological stand against the film, making it less likely that they will see Selma. Essentially, they cheat themselves out of a worthwhile viewing experience.

This dissonance between how readers deal with hot-takes on storytelling proves interesting. While some jump into arguments both feet in without knowing the particulars, others wait to see the source of debate first. Look at how continued debate has made American Sniper a box-office force. The chance to contribute to a conversation regarding the controversial nature of Chris Kyle’s life interested audiences, and American Sniper gave them the opportunity. To show their gratitude, audiences have rewarded the film to the tune of $344 million since December. American Sniper‘s success suggests that talking points are still important to continuing the communal aspect of filmgoing, yet it works best when those engaged in debate have seen the movie.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink how we use social media when it comes to talking about movies. The first impulse to tweet or post something on a timeline isn’t always the correct one. Headlines aimed at inciting arguments with little evidence or motive beyond only stirring the pot serve no purpose other than to draw in traffic. We all want meaningful discourse, but reflexively clutching an uninformed viewpoint is not the way there. Movies won’t spoil after weeks, months or even years on the shelf. Watch them. And the next time that a hot take finds its way across your timeline, skip the reply.

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