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June 22, 2016

@vitogulla takes down the spoiler warning 




Back when people were still excited by the prospect of a new M. Night Shyamalan film, when we were still enthralled by The Sixth Sense and the ever diminishing returns of Unbreakable and Signs, I remember I couldn't wait to see The Village that summer. I hoped it would be a return to form for then seemingly potential-less director, based largely on the success of his debut feature. During the week of its release, my father ended up revealing the big twist—they were in modern times all along!—and I was so enraged I didn’t speak to him for the rest of the day. 

A year or two later, I had finally got around to seeing it, on HBO or Stars or something, with the big Shyamalan twist in mind, and I found that the question I kept asking was not “What is going to happen?” but the much more valuable “How is it going to happen?” As it turned out, the answer was “not very effectively.” And looking back, I wonder how I would have perceived its quality if I was wondering the former rather than the latter. Most likely, I would have been so caught up in the “mystery” of it, of wanting to know what happened next, that I would have overlooked the film’s myriad flaws until a second viewing and to do so would be a huge mistake.


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Many commentators have discussed the culture and history of spoilers, who is responsible for avoiding them, what kind of impact they have on our enjoyment. Daniel D’Addario recently discussed the phenomenon in an article in Time, saying that when artists impose a spoiler-free restriction on those of us who want to discuss a work that artists don’t “indicate what, exactly, is a ‘secret’ to be kept, so therefore everything could be one. There’s little left to talk about, with such stringent guidelines, other than how good Game of Thrones, Mad Men, or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is, which is exactly what the creator wants,” concluding, “…eschewing talking about it out of an abundance of caution actually spoils the tradition of taking art seriously enough to engage with it. If it’s well cast, an artist’s spell can withstand far worse than a little foreknowledge.” But no one, as far as I can tell, has been willing to ask why they should matter to us at all. Therefore, I find it necessary to investigate the assumptions behind the spoiler warning and whether they truly make a difference.

First and foremost, many argue that part of the fun of experiencing entertainment is the uncertainty, the surprise, the unknown, and on a purely emotional level, there is a benefit. At the end of a good O. Henry story or a movie like Memento, there comes a shock to the system, a registration of incredulity, and while I appreciate that desire, the implication which follows, I would argue, is much more harmful to the discourse as it hamstrings critical commentary and aesthetic evaluation in the interest of a fleeting emotion. 

We fetishize the memory, the initial surprise we register, recalling how our minds were blown, as if the memory had any value to another person: He or she will not, unfortunately, perceive it in exactly the same way that we did. Not to mention, we tend to forget the let downs, those absurd moments of unexpected insanity, like the terrible twist in an awful movie like A Perfect Stranger. Moreover, and much more distressing, the “what happens next” approach encourages disposal viewings, that we can only enjoy a film once, and when we watch it again, it serves solely to revisit those memories. Such a proposition invalidates the very act of criticism itself and makes an already subjective judgement even more subjective. There are no grounds for debate, no question of quality, no appreciation of craftsmanship: only aesthetic nihilism, a tossing of the hands in the air, a singular undemonstrative claim of “it works for me.” This, however, has, for a long while, poisoned the conversation. 
Just look at any film review out there—book reviews too for that matter. Rarely, do you find any evidence in support of the critic’s claims. The movie is “good” because the critic says it is. But on what criteria has the critic reached his or her conclusions—based on what evidence, what examples? It is a fear of spoilers which holds discussion back, keeps it at the surface-level, the vague and the uncritical, the pontificating and the blowing of hot air. Sure, we can learn whom to trust through trial and error, but this wastes precious time and relegates these conversations to the halls of academia, tucked away from the movie-watching public.      

Of course, it would behoove me to mention those among you who might be thinking, “Isn’t there a place for both of these things, for the review and the criticism?” I would be inclined to agree if it were not for the fact that we privilege the review. Many of us flock to Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic for the scores of the latest and greatest, and when we do bother to read the reviews in full, we often find sentences full of bombastic adjectives, claims without qualifiers, an utter lack of specifics—all to avoid “spoiling” the experience. Yet what do these reviews really tell us? Why should a critic invest time in the writing, and for that matter, why should the reader invest time in reading if the goal is to discover whether the critic gives it a yes or a no? (And certainly the overwhelming emphasis on scores has only worsened this problem.) It’s not an argument, but an opinion, and worse still, a number. Anyone can write up nondescript generalities, but a good critic, a talented one will explain what works or doesn’t and, most importantly, why.   

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So why should we “spoil” a movie?

The first of these is in the interest of the review reader. When the critic is specific, it allows the reader to see the review’s underlying assumptions. Everyone, I am sure, is for well-developed characters, great cinematography, a compelling plot, and everything else, but what do any of those things mean? What is a well-developed character? What distinguishes bad cinematography from the good? What makes for a compelling plot as opposed to a boring one? When a critic is specific, when he or she “spoils” the experience, we can see the reasoning behind the evaluation. In fact, here’s an example: When a critic claims a film is too violent, he or she reveals a part of their critical criteria. (However, we are still left to wonder what is to be considered “too violent.”) This is particularly helpful for a reader like myself as if allows me to dismiss, out of hand, the critic’s judgement and look elsewhere whether I should see a particular film or not—likewise for those Puritans who claim a film is “too sexual” or expresses a moral philosophy dissimilar to their own. Strangely, however, it is often those moral crusaders who display “the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass” that offer any whiff of support for their opinions. Yet those who regularly view art through an aesthetic lens keep their considerations shrouded in mystery. 

The second point I’d like to examine is that when we are aware of a story’s trajectory, understand where it will and will not go, we enjoy it more. And that’s no empty claim either. In 2011, Jonathan D. Leavitt and Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld published "Story Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories” in Psychological Science, and the authors were able to demonstrate that “[s]ubjects significantly preferred spoiled over unspoiled stories…. [and though w]riters use their artistry to make stories interesting, to engage readers, and to surprise them…[they] found that giving away these surprises makes readers like stories better.” 



How can this be if so many people claim that knowing what happens spoils the movie? Leavitt and Christenfeld postulate, “It is possible that spoilers enhance enjoyment by actually increasing tension” and then cite Noël Coward’s “The Paradox of Suspense” in Suspense: Conceptualization, Theoretical Analysis, and Empirical Explorations; unfortunately, I am rather skeptical of Coward’s claims therein, which asserts that suspense is “generated in the course of entertaining thoughts that are at variance with our beliefs,” extending Kendall Walton’s theory of the paradox of suspense (the question of how audiences feel suspense even when they know the outcome) from “make-believe” to “imagination.” I find Robert Yanal’s explanation, in Paradoxes of Emotion and Fiction, far more convincing, that a viewer misidentifies the emotion he or she feels: “[E]xperiencing fear is neither itself suspenseful nor is it contingent upon ignorance. (I may know with certainty that my friend will be executed tomorrow, and yet feel fear for him, anxiety over his welfare, etc.)” It is anxiety, not uncertainty, that ensures our enjoyment. And advance knowledge of events does not alleviate anxiety. So why protect an emotion we can feel but once—and only once? 

Lastly, and I have no science to back this up sadly, but I believe that when we watch a film and concern ourselves with “what happens next,” we miss many important details in order to keep track of the story. Too often have I engaged with others about a film which we have both just seen for the first time, and I am disappointed to find that my interlocutor has missed significant lines of dialogue, subtle juxtapositions through editing, or particularly poignant and thematically resonant compositions, because they were just trying to follow the sequences of events as they unfolded. Many times, before going to see a movie, I look up the synopsis on Wikipedia just so I can avoid such a distraction. This is not to say that plot is unimportant—it is—but to dwell on it exclusively, as we so frequently do, is to fail to recognize the other manifestations of a text’s philosophy. From the highest of the high to the lowest of the low, every film carries a message, an idea, a theme it wants to explore. You may think that The Dark Knight is just popcorn fun, or even a simple morality tale about good versus evil, but that’s because you’re only wondering how Batman can defeat the Joker. Upon closer inspection, you’ll find a complex network of questions, questions about anarchy and order, about fairness and justice, about how to live in our post-9/11 world. (Now that I think of it, the film probably requires a thorough investigation in a future article.) But as long as you’re wondering “what happens next,” you’re liable to miss those carefully crafted touches.

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At this point, I’m sure you’re nodding your head in agreement or smashing your phone in frustration, but if you really feel that a spoiler will “ruin” the experience, consider what is facing said ruination. It’s not your enjoyment that has been erased; in fact, you’re likely to enjoy it more. It is that one time feeling of surprise and suspense, the absolute unexpected and uncertain: That is what you are missing out on. But the question you have to ask yourself, the one that matters, is whether it’s worth it. Do you want to disconnect from social media momentarily because someone else might want to share an insight? Do you want to send a nasty email because a critic shared a little too much in their review? Do you really want wring your hands and gnash your teeth over something so trivial, so fleeting? I know I don’t.                     



Vito Gulla is a regular contributor to the Ugly Club Podcast. He holds an MFA from Wilkes University in creative writing and teaches English at Delaware County Community College and Lincoln University. You can find his fiction on the web in Pithead Chapel, Mulberry Fork Review, and The Big Click and follow him on Twitter @vitogulla

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