Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: two Star Wars fans walk into a bar and argue about plot holes. Not funny? Well, maybe you had to be there.
Yesterday, a few writers of note tweeted out a link to Matty Granger’s Facebook post on Star Wars and the rise of idiot journalism. In the piece, Granger takes to task a December Huffington Post article by Seth Abramson where the latter identified no less than sixty so-called plot holes in The Force Awakens. Going line-by-line through Abramson’s review, Granger wrote in an increasingly aggressive tone about the misplaced (and poorly thought out) approach by Abramson in his article. The piece ends with Granger lamenting the “end of social media’s usefulness,” as well as the trend in journalism away from news and towards empty disinformation.
Not long afterwards, people began to dig into the career of Abramson and discovered a few interesting tidbits. One member of Film Twitter – the ever-industrious Larry Wright, who you should really follow if you’re into this sort of thing – even made the link between Abramson’s piece and a follow-up Huffington Post article that he wrote ten days later, refuting his earlier points and making the counter-argument that The Force Awakens did not, in fact, have any plot holes whatsoever. And then, just as the internet began to wrap its head around this apparent contradiction – having gone from assuming that Abramson was just a hack writer to now suspecting something more nefarious – Abramson himself popped up in a Facebook post and suggested that maybe the entire thing was actually something of a social experiment in digital experimental writing. And since Abramson is an academic in the realm of social media and ‘clickbait’ research, there are more than a few embers to go along with this smoke.
Are the articles subversive or just subpar? Is Abramson an experimental thinker or a hack looking for easy traffic? Would I even care this much about someone’s status as being ‘innocent’ or ‘guilty’ of click-bait if I hadn’t just marathoned every episode of Making a Murderer? All valid questions and ones worth addressing from here on out.
The way I see it, we have two basic options, neither of which are particularly encouraging. The first is that Abramson is a fraud, someone who published a poorly written piece of fluff and tried to obscure that fact with a smokescreen of academic concepts. No amount of acronyms attached to your name is proof that you are an irrefutable talent as a writer, and Abramson’s later behavior – such as engaging with people on Twitter and then deleting his comments – do not provide him with the benefit of the doubt. The second option is to take Abramson at his word and treat this all as a kind of social exercise. As he argues in his Facebook follow-up, there is certainly some truth to the idea that we imbue these publications with a voice of authority and are unreasonably upset when we feel they argue both sides of a case; if nothing else, Abramson seems to have exploited a type of website that would rather cater to controversy than worry about a coherent internal logic.
But whether or not Abramson intended for this to be a grand social experiment or not, the controversy surrounding his Star Wars articles has created an interesting litmus test of how we categorize and respond to various types of film criticism. Even if we treat the author himself as inviting conflict above all else, there are still some things to take away from yesterday’s deluge of negativity that will help inform the way we talk about movies.
Let’s start with the outlet. The Huffington Post, quite famously, does not pay its freelancers; if we are to believe Abramson’s Facebook post, they do not even spend a great deal of time editing content that appears on The Blog. They certainly don’t develop the type of steady relationship that would cause an editor to pause a troublesome pitch in its tracks. If I submitted a piece tomorrow suggesting that Bone Tomahawk was one of the more flawed movies of 2015, our editor-in-chief might agree with me, but he would also (rightly) point to the few times I had mentioned the movie positively and ask for an explanation. He knows my opinions on specific movies because he’s actually read the articles that I wrote about them. Fancy that.
And yet, if yesterday is any indication, we treat an article in The Huffington Post as if it were beholden to the same level of quality as a mainstream movie site. Look at the very language that Matty Granger uses in his Facebook post. In his introductory paragraphs, he never refers to the author by name, only to the article as belonging to the institution. This creates a strange dichotomy in the way we look at the two pieces. We can claim it is all about the quality of the writing, but it isn’t really, or Abramson’s original piece would never have seen the light of day. There are countless small websites on the internet – websites that do not pay or offer real editorial insight – and had Abramson published this piece at any number of them, it would have been buried. This piece became popular because it was the property of The Huffington Post, which means that the outlet, not the author, is what we take exception to.
In fact, I would argue that we’re so willing to side ourselves against a website like HuffPo that we’d even elevate an essay-length Facebook post by an admitted non-journalist. Just the other day, I was speaking with another critic about why film criticism never developed its equivalent of Fire Joe Morgan, a website that used to go through uninformed baseball articles line-by-line and rip apart their bad logic. One of the major reasons is that Fire Joe Morgan could only work as an outsider perspective, the comedic rantings of writers who had no responsibility to the objective truth in their readers’ minds. What Granger has created is, essentially, a piece of writing worthy of Fire Joe Morgan, an opinion piece that is both entertaining and clever but one that is the antithesis of what professional film critics should aspire to. Granger’s piece would certainly not have caught on in the same way if it were a response to an anonymous website. We started knowing that we hated Abramson’s piece and elevated whatever piece of writing pitted itself most directly against it. As always on the internet, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
This speaks to the underlying current of negativity that pervades every aspect of this discussion. By dividing his thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens into two distinct pieces – authentic or not – Abramson has helpfully demonstrated that negativity will always be the better method to attract an audience. It doesn’t matter which metric you choose, the follow-up positive piece discussing the franchise loses in a landslide to the original pieces pointing out the plot holes. People who shared the Facebook rebuttal traffic in this negativity; both the Facebook piece and the original piece by Abramson are interesting only inasmuch as they attack, not defend, the other side of the argument. Pieces like these serve only to provide an outlet for the anger or frustration we may feel, and while everyone may claim to have only film criticism’s best interests at heart, each of these attacks are structured in such a way to cater to their core. You knew without reading the article whether you would like the piece. Does that sound like a fair way to structure a writing industry?
So yeah, yesterday was a weird day for film criticism, but if you think it is only Abramson who comes out looking half-baked, I would encourage you to go back and take a long look at the way the conversation played out. Two writers – neither a professional in the type of writing they were engaged in – butted heads over Star Wars plot twists, but it was the tone provided by a few key influencers that helped shape the debate. Many people chose a side without reading every piece through to its conclusion. Judgments were made based on both the form of the article and the outlet that distributed it without encouraging people to engage with the source material. And as a result, we championed a piece of iffy film criticism because we both hated the same thing. Fans of film criticism will recognize this pattern from every other day of writing, but by at least giving lip service to the idea that this is a social experiment, Abramson has given us the opportunity to stop and look at where we still struggle.
Related Topics: Star Wars