Feb 15 2010

The Spoiler Dilemma

At least everyone already knows this one.

I realize discussing the topic of spoilers is not a new one. On some podcasts and websites it may even qualify as “over-discussed.”  But as someone who writes a review every week, waxes poetic on films in a recorded fashion every other week, and talks movies with my friends every day, I constantly find myself having to balance revealing too much about plot whilst still explaining what to expect from a movie to those who inquire.  This article isn’t going to be about the big marquee spoiler type situations.  We all know that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, and we all agree that knowing the end of The Usual Suspects before viewing it does harm your initial viewing, or at least deprives you of a pleasant surprise.  Instead I’ll be talking about the other stuff; how does being aware of the basics of the plot affect the way you watch a movie the first time around?  How does being aware of the existence of a specific great scene change the way you watch a movie?  Can having seen something like a specific shot or still from a film have a noticeable effect?  These are the types of questions I’d like to explore.

Part of my frustration over this subject derives from the simple fact that everyone has a different view on this subject.  My basic opinion is that once I’ve been convinced to see a film, I want to know and see as little of it as possible until actually viewing the film.  Yes, that means I choose to avoid trailers when possible, and I think many of the statements I’ll make later on will help to explain why.  This is not an opinion most people share, or at least, few people are convinced by so little that something is worth watching or not.  I actually love the art form of the trailer, particularly its great editing and the magic of being able to tell a complete story in 2-3 minutes.  But trailers can be deceiving and reveal way too much, way too often, so it is rarely trailers that convince me whether or not to see a film.  Instead I rely mostly on two things: pedigree and buzz.  The director of a film and the cast he utilizes are generally the strongest motivators for me to see a film.  When I look at Inception knowing that it was written and directed by Christopher Nolan and I see that incredibly deep cast, I know that it is a film I want to see.  You don’t have to show me anything else, or even tell me what the plot is.  Now not every great film has a great pedigree to begin with. Unknown directors using unknown actors have produced excellent films before.  For this I rely on a lot of internet buzz on reputable blogs and intelligent critics.  No, the critics aren’t always right, but for me personally, I find that my taste lines up with them more often than not.  I also find that I like most good films, regardless of genre, which is something that a lot of people not studying film as an art form don’t necessarily share.

Badass, or badassest?

Going back to plot knowledge, I’m often frustrated as I sit down to watch a movie when someone asks me what it’s actually about.  Knowing that they’re going to watch the movie regardless of what I say, I really don’t want to deprive them of an opportunity to be completely surprised by the plot.  And, of course, I’ve usually done my best to avoid as many plot details myself as I can, so I often have no choice but to shrug and hope they’re not offended that I have nothing to tell them.  Some of my best movie experiences were derived from the fact that I truly wasn’t expecting what was coming.  I remember being truly shocked and impressed by The Matrix the first time I saw it, and part of that was due to the brilliant marketing campaign that showed you enough to intrigue you but really didn’t explain at all what the film was really about.  This is how we should go into all movies.  It works for comedies too.  I’d never seen a single frame of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery before I first saw the film, and I was rolling on the floor with laughter because none of the jokes had been ruined for me.

Film reviews are part of the problem, unfortunately. For some reason the trend of late is that reviews seem to require some sort of summary of what the movie is about.  I disagree with this position, obviously.  Yes, some sort of log line to at least indicate what the hell the reviewer is talking about is a good idea, but beyond that, speaking to the quality rather than the content is much more preferable.  But as a reviewer you do feel hindered by not being able to bring up specifics.  It’s like writing an essay and using no concrete evidence to prove your points.  Some sort of delineation between a simple review, which is designed to convince readers to either see or avoid a film, and a critical essay, which has the intent of discussing a film, series of films, or topic in a thorough analytic sense would help to avoid problems with spoilers in this type of writing.  One is obviously meant for those who haven’t seen a film, the others for those who have.

Please excuse the questionable content on this boy's computer screen.

Being aware of the basic plot, even if it’s not anything specific, does have an effect on the way you see a film.  Because you know what the film is about, usually the first act of the film becomes like going through the motions.  You know essentially where the film is going to go, and there’s no doubt, for example, that a character in a Hero’s journey-like situation is in fact going to accept his “mission” and continue the path we’ve unfortunately been told beforehand.  At the very minimum, the back of a DVD case or a review or other synopsis will almost certainly reveal the inciting incident.  Pre-viewing awareness of the inciting incident severely hinders films such as World’s Greatest Dad, which I recently attempted to review.  No matter where the shocking moment is placed, I’ve found that even being aware that there is a twist or anything else spoilable can really change your viewing.  This was my experience with World’s Greatest Dad. Every review said that it would be best to go in knowing as little as possible, and they were right.  Unfortunately, they indicated that there was something that happened around thirty minutes in that they couldn’t reveal.  Knowing this, I was expecting something, and I was able to correctly guess the turn that the film would take because of this.  On top of that, the minutes that lead up to this moment felt like sort of a waiting game, knowing that the film hadn’t really gotten going yet.  But even knowing about scenes that aren’t key to the development of the plot can affect you.  Being told about a specific scene, even in vague terms, you tend to wait, knowing that everything else might be inferior to that one scene.  Every scene becomes a disappointment as soon as you realize that it’s not going to be that scene.  This is not that dissimilar to my viewing of On the Waterfront, getting a bit too excited to see the “I could have been a contender” moment.

There's no spoiler in this, or is there?

Going back to trailers and marketing for a moment, even the least spoilery of trailers can actually have quite an effect.  When I was hesitant to watch trailers for Lord of the Rings films, people were baffled.  Having read the books, how could they spoil anything for me?  The truth is, I wanted to be surprised by the selections the director, art director, and cinematographer had made for depicting the world of Middle Earth.  I wanted to be surprised by the way the film looked.  When you watch trailers for particularly visual films, they will often show many of the money shots, even for brief moments.  Seeing these shots in a film for the first time, as opposed to the second, can be absolutely breathtaking for me.  I don’t want to be robbed of that experience, and I’d prefer not to rob others of that experience, even if they think that they don’t care.

I’m certainly not saying that films won’t be enjoyed with even complete knowledge of facts, plots, or images beforehand.  I’ve certainly gotten great thrills out of seeing movies a second, third, or even ninth time.  But it’s a different kind of enjoyment.  You can only have a first viewing once.  While there’s other ways to ruin that first viewing, such as noise and other theater hazards, I’ll leave those to another article.  I’ve talked to many people who don’t hold this belief at all, claiming a story is a story and it can be enjoyed with any level of previous knowledge.  And they’re right, it can be enjoyed.  But I do believe that you lose a sense of freshness that is only available to you in a certain few situations.  You remember when you were in high school and there was that band that no one else knew about, and they weren’t as cool once they became super popular.  This isn’t exactly like that, but part of what made that band seem so cool at the time was that it was fresh and different than what you’d heard previously. It was unexpected, and it felt like a discovery.  When you go into a movie blind, you’re able to discover it.  That, to me, is a valuable experience.

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