THIS IS A SPOILER ALERT, BE WARNED : If you are afraid that words might steal your virginity, close your eyes and stick your head in the sand before reading any further. Don't watch trailers, don't listen to P.R. talking points, don't watch actors' TV promotional tour, don't read newspapers and reviews, don't read synopsis and ratings, don't read film criticism or film studies, don't go to film school. And if you like biopics, documentaries and movies based on a true story : do not watch the news, ever.Rosenbaum demonstrates an incredible patience and politeness facing the deplorable questions of this affected radio host!
Host: "My own opinion about spoilers has long been that if a film is actually spoiled by revealing plot details what you have is a bad film. Can I take you to agree with that? [..] What do you think about the notion that the second time you watch a movie is actually the first time because you're not preoccupied by following the story?"
The anti-spoiler has nothing to do with the intrinsic quality of films themselves (any Hitchcock; Citizen Kane; M; 2001: A Space Odyssey; Stalker; The Exterminating Angel; La Jetée; Blow-up; The Taste of Cherry... are not "bad films"), but with the restrictions imposed on film writing liberty. And film criticism is not exclusive to pre-screening reviewing (where we kinda expect the plot synopsis to respect the surprise for the virgin spectators). Like Rosenbaum says, if we can re-watch a film over and over, knowing the plot by heart, without feeling cheated, we can also read another kind of film writing that doesn't focus on superficial pre-screening recommendations : serious filmic criticism (wherein some spoilers are inevitable).
Spoiler (see: Wikipedia) : Any element of any summary or description of any piece of fiction that reveals any plot element which will give away the outcome of a dramatic episode within the work of fiction, or the conclusion of the entire work.
A spoiler reveals the story, but doesn't ruin a film for ever! It is possible to rewatch a film and enjoy it, even knowing what happens. Knowing classic stories, their main arcs, their premise and conclusions, and being able to talk about them, to make references, to produce parody or homages... is what constitutes general culture generations after generations. It's not the mysteries of top-secret plots that consolidate society around a common culture.
"Some people’s obsessive preoccupation with spoilers has been driving me batty lately. It isn’t only among moviegoers; many fiction readers are equally afflicted. [..] Give me a break. Is this form of worry a fit activity for grown-ups? [..] The weird metaphysical implication of spoilers is that moviegoers and readers who fret about them want to regain their innocence, perhaps maybe even their infancy, and experience everything as if it were absolutely fresh. From this standpoint, we shouldn’t even know what films we’re going to see in advance, or who stars in them, or who directed them, or what they’re about, or perhaps even where they’re playing. Just so we can experience the bliss of being taken there by benevolent parents."
In defense of spoilers, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader, 2006
Movie spoilers and Spoiler movies
It is obviously the movie industry that has implanted this irrational fear of spoilers in the mind of the mass audience... because it helps to boost their sales. Indeed, curiosity killed the cat. Or more trivially, if you warn the mouse about the violent slap after that delicious bite into the piece of cheese, you'll never catch a mouse. In other words, a spectator who has minimal information about a film, might be tempted to buy a ticket anyway, out of curiosity : inflating box office numbers with an audience that would not have watched it if they knew it didn't correspond to their taste.
If the film is bad, it's better to shut up the reviewers as much as possible, so that readers won't believe mere opinions, legally deprived of backed up evidences. More consumers paying before being disappointed! The take-the-money-and-run type of first weekend marketing strategy.
If the film is good, the whole mystery sustained by actors, marketing campaign, reviewers and the spectators who have already seen it, who only spread the buzz with subtle spoiler-free ellipses and circumnavigations, will inevitably push more curious spectators to buy a ticket, to know what it's all about, to be part in turn of this secret community of "people who can speak freely about spoilers amongst themselves". Even if in the end, the film wasn't worth all the extrapolated fantasy that mystery alone generates because the imagination runs wild (most often favourably) when we can't put definitive words on actual things. Again, more consumers than what the film would attract by itself (without the mystery marketing tactic).
Ironically, the movie industry doesn't see any problems with selling a movie on DVD that everyone has already seen in theatres... Not only the plot and ending is spoiled for this potential consumer demographic, but the ENTIRE film too, yet they sell us completely spoiled meat, without any precautions or remorse. Double standards! Same with re-runs on TV, it is not perceived as a waste of air time and money even if "spoiled movies" allegedly do not attract audience.
This is bullshit. Responsible spectators are able to figure out whether a 5 lines synopsis, or a 5 pages analysis may or may not spoil an entire film. The film pages of a newspaper or a blog are probably the easiest things to avoid if you worry about being spoiled. Water-cooler conversations, eavesdropping, TV shows... might catch you off guard, and you only figure out that you didn't want to hear that when it's too late.
Now about the legitimacy of spoiler-prohibition, in particular cases.
Reviewers ought to be responsible too. Obviously, if you're only writing a capsule review, it is not worth spoiling anything in the film, just stick to generalities and elements that won't put the potential spectator ahead of the film, instead of being dragged along by the suspension of disbelief. First, because this kind of pithy comments are designed solely for readers who haven't seen the film yet. Secondly because readers who will not go watch that film, will find even less interest in the revelation of these spoilers. Thirdly because you have to deserve the privilege to cite a sensitive plot element, by dedicating time and words to the utilization of these unfortunate spoilers.
A writer must not spoil gratuitously, out of pure perversion : I know something you don't know, and I will rub it in your face to make myself look good. (see: 100 Movie Spoilers in 5 minutes) That is pointless and stupid. Yet we see that going on with a lot of reviews. Writers who reject the anti-spoiler policy, and just list spoiler after spoiler to show off, without making any productive use out of it. This is irresponsible. If you do not need a certain spoiler to make any worthwhile point at all, just stay away from spoilers.
Also, before resorting to spoilers, you should always make sure it is otherwise impossible to use cunning phrasing that will spare the virgin readers, while hinting at a very precise detail that only someone who has seen the film would understand. This is part of the literary skills required to be a good reviewer! And it is not that hard to use ambiguous words, or only implicit half-truths that do not reveal anything specific explicitly, thus saving the mystery for the future audience.
If you must reveal something that might pre-condition the reader into expecting something along the plot, or put them in an anxious wait for a detailed scene (which trailers do all the time), then it is really going to alter the spontaneous responsiveness of these readers during the film. The wording of your article, or even it's paragraph structure should unmistakably announce the cursory analysis incoming. You don't have to spell out "spoiler alert" either, this is very infantilizing (like Rosenbaum says). Just show a little bit of curtsy and do not start a sentence with a spoiler coming out of nowhere, without the reader being able to realize it is going to happen.
- Spoiler alert: it hits an iceberg (John Anderson, NYT, 8 April 2011)