October 21st, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Regarding Spoilers: "Nothing in Excess"

Okay, despite the fact that anybody who hadn't seen Serenity in theaters yet obviously wasn't going to when I wrote about it, I took crap from two different people about "spoilers." So I'm going to talk a little bit about what is and isn't a spoiler. Now, I admit something right up front: none of these ideas are original to me. I think I'm putting my own spin on them, phrasing them in my own distinctive and colorful way. But the real reason I'm saying this is so that y'all know where I stand ... and, I admit, because I'm hoping to persuade some of you to back off to a slightly more reasonable stance.

Spoiler-Phobes Are Being Damned Selfish. Do you even understand what the point of a cultural event is? The point of knowing that a movie is an "event" movie or a blockbuster movie is the same point as knowing that an album is on the Billboard charts, which is the same point as knowing that a book is on the New York Times list of current best sellers, which is the same point as being taught that a piece of classic literature is part of the canon. Half of the joy of seeing a blockbuster movie, of buying a gold record, of reading a classic or a best-seller, is that you have a better than average chance of finding something good. But that's only half of it. The other half, perhaps more than half, certainly the most important half, is that it gives you an emotional experience, and a set of ideas, that you share with other people, that you have in common with other people, to bring you closer together with them.

By insisting that those of us who read the best seller first, who saw the blockbuster movie on opening weekend, who heard the Billboard album before it made it big, who read the classic in school that you haven't gotten around to you, may not discuss it in public without first making sure that everybody present has already finished with it, what the hard-core spoiler-phobics are doing is making it much harder for the rest of us to experience the pleasure of finding other people who shared that experience and sharing our joy over it. And what's more, they're doing so for only the shallowest of reasons, because ...

If It's Any Good, It Can't Be Spoiled. When (as Kipling put it) 'Omer smote 'is bloomin' lyre, he was singing to audiences who knew how the story was going to turn out. The Trojan War was the defining event in ancient Greek civilization, the birth of their common culture. Everybody in his audience had ancestors who fought in that war, and everybody in that audience had been hearing the events of the Trojan War since before they were old enough to talk. And on the off chance that anybody didn't know how the Illiad was going to turn out, Homer himself "spoils" it in the first verse, where he says that he's singing the story of the wrath of Achilles and how that wrath brought many great heroes prematurely to the grave. Going into it, they all knew that Achilles, and Patroclus, and Hector, and all the rest were going to die. Going into it, they knew that Menelaus, Helen, and Odysseus were going to live. And yet, somehow, they listened anyway. Enough of them listened that we're still listening today, almost 3000 years later. Why? Because a great story has more going for it than finding out what's going to happen. If it wouldn't be any good the second time through, it probably wasn't really any good the first time through and you just didn't notice.

If the only reason to finish a book, or to sit through a movie, is "to find out what happens," then what you've told me is that it's a terrible stinking book or movie. This is half the reason why I can't be bothered to plough through the thousands of pages of Harry Potter: that all of you who are hard-core Harry Potter fans act like it would be the end of the freaking world if someone told you, before you found out for yourself, what the plot of each book was. Friends, if knowing the plot is all it takes to "completely ruin" the book for you, there isn't enough book there to hold my attention. And it's for just this reason that I now actively seak out spoilers. Knowing what's in a story is the most reliable way I know to find out, in advance, if the storyteller has anything interesting to say about his story. Heck, I wish somebody had "spoiled" The Sixth Sense for me. From the trailers, and the publicity for it, I thought it was going to be just another generic ghost movie. If you had told me in advance that the twist that sets this apart from a billion other generic Hollywood ghost movies is that the lead character doesn't know that he's dead himself, I would have found out in time that the director was telling an interesting story.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy story has now been told four different times, just that I know of: the original radio plays, the book adapted from the radio plays, the TV series adapted from the book, and the most recent movie adapted from all of the above. Are you going to tell me, any of you, that you skipped seeing the recent movie only because you already knew how the story was going to turn out, so what was the point? No, you went or didn't go purely based on whether or not you thought that this movie would do a good job of telling a story that you already knew. If you go to see Good Night, and Good Luck this week (which I hope to do), you're going to go into there knowing that Edward R. Murrow becomes an even more respected public figure and Joseph McCarthy becomes a national disgrace, because that's history that almost all of us know ... but that won't make it a pointless, joyless, unentertaining movie; to find out what happens to the crew at CBS News and what happens to Senator McCarthy is not why anybody would go see that movie. By the time Erin Brockovitz came out, everybody knew that the real Erin Brockovitz and her law firm had won the PG&E hexavalent chlorine lawsuit. By the time Silkwood came out, everybody knew that Karen Silkwood managed to make an important national news story out of Kerr McGee's negligently exposing workers to plutonium before she was assassinated. That didn't stop both of those from being darned good, and economically successful, movies.

There Is a Reasonable Middle Ground. Casablanca is still one of the greatest movies of all time, even if you know who Ilsa is going to stay with at the end and whether or not Victor Lazlo is going to escape from the Nazis. However, I will admit that you get even more out of it if you don't know. There's a plot twist about 1/3 of the way into MirrorMask that really kicked the movie into high gear, and you'll notice that when I reviewed it during the first (and only) week it was in theaters, all I told you was that there was an interesting plot twist. Once you get to that plot twist, any reasonably bright person can predict how every scene in the movie, from there on, is going to turn out. If all you want to know is how MirrorMask is going to end, if you're a reasonably bright person you can walk out of the movie at the 30 minute mark and be confident that you're not missing anything. Except, well, that you are: you're missing some amazingly beautiful art, and some excellent dialog, and some really good acting.

So I stake out what I consider to be a reasonable middle ground. During the first roughly two weeks after a major cultural event book or movie comes out, if there's a plot twist that can't be seen from a kajillion miles off by any halfway bright observer, that really improves the story if you don't see it coming, I'll keep my mouth shut about it. But when there's been plenty of time for the people who absolutely have to see a movie or read a book "cold" to have done so if they really care, I refuse to let myself be cheated out of the joy of discussing it in public.