Monday, November 07, 2005


I'm disturbed. A couple of days ago, I had one of those conversations from which you emerge feeling as if the ground has shifted under your feet. Whereas you were formerly standing in an Indiana of simplicity, you're now standing in a Kentucky of complexity. How did you get there?

The conversation took place online (a message board) and the topic was "spoilers." For those of you who are lucky enough to have a Real Life (as opposed to just an Internet Life), I should define "spoilers". "Spoiler" is the Internet term for an utterance that spoils the plot of a movie. Example: in the end, the hero dies. Unless you want to rob first-time viewers of surprise, you should avoid spoilers. On the other hand, it's fun to discuss stories, and you can't discuss them in depth without giving away key details. The solution: warn the readers that you're about to discuss key plot points. Example:

SPOILER: at the end of "Alien and Predator Go to Washington," Predator becomes the ambassador to India.

On the particular message board I visited, someone posted a spoiler -- without warning -- to "The Crying Game." I suspect he did this by accident (one might forget to write "SPOILER" while in the middle of a discussion). Someone pointed out the gaff, and various people started joking about spoilers. The joke climaxed when one guy posted an orgy of spoilers. This wasn't an accident -- he decided it would be fun to spoil several movies at once.

Which was when I jumped in. I begged people to try to remember to use "SPOILER" before divulging plot information. I also expressed my astonishment that anyone would purposefully spoil a story. Why do that? Naively, I expected most people -- other than the multi-spoiler guy -- would agree with me. They didn't. Here's what I was told:

1. Movies are just as good -- if not better -- if you know what's going to happen.

2. Once a movie has been out for a long time, it's fair to openly discuss the plot without warning. People have had plenty of time to see it.

3. At some point after a movie has been released, there are more people who have seen it than people who have not. Why should the majority inconvenience itself for the minority?

4. What's the big deal? They're just movies!

I will discuss each of these points, below:

1. Movies are just as good -- if not better -- if you know what's going to happen.
I once had a friend who begged me to tell him endings of movies I had seen but he hadn't. Suspense hurt his stomach, so he would only watch movies if he was sure they'd never surprise him. He's the only person I've ever met like that, but there are plenty of people who don't care one way or another about being surprised. Then there are others (like me) who love surprises. In other words, there's a spectrum. Different people enjoy movies for different reasons.

As I said, I enjoy being surprised. I also enjoy seeing movies a second (third, fourth...) time when I already know what's going to happen. The two experiences are very different and both are worthwhile. It would sadden me to lose either. Some movies are better that first time, when you're surprised; Some are better when you already know the story; but most are equally good both ways -- just different.

But you can only be surprised once. If someone spoils the plot, you can never have the experience of not-knowing-what's-going-to-happen-next. To some people, this isn't a worthwhile experience. To me, it is.

Being a movie buff, I have a shelf full of DVDs -- great movies that I love watching again and again. But often, I don't want to watch any of my old favorites. I want to watch something new. And this isn't just to broaden my horizons. It's to experience the thrill of surprise. My collection, as great as it is, can't give me this thrill.

There are all kinds of surprises, but there's one I'll always remember. I won't mention the movie, because I don't want to spoil it for anyone else. It was a comedy. One of the jokes in it caught me completely off guard. I laughed harder than I have ever laughed in my life. I laughed so hard, I had to stop watching to movie. I rolled around on the floor and hugged my sides for ten minutes. Since this joke was based on surprise, I was only able to have this experience once. Since then, I have watched and enjoyed the movie many times, but I have never laughed like that again. I had one shot at that. I feel so blessed to have had that experience. I never would have had it if someone had spoiled the joke for me.

One thing that really upset me during the message board conversation was though I kept saying, over and over, I like seeing movies both ways, nobody seemed to hear me. People kept explaining to me that movies were just as good (or better) when you knew the plot. Surely anyone can see -- whether they value this or not -- that the two experiences are different. And to those who admit this but don't value the surprise experience, all I can say is that your value needn't be my value.

2. Once a movie has been out for a long time, it's fair to openly discuss the plot without warning. People have had plenty of time to see it.

Except new people are being born all the time. "Citizen Kane" was released in 1941. I was born in 1965, so I didn't have a chance to see the movie until decades after it was released. When I saw it, it was new to me.

As for contemporary movies, hundreds of them are released each year. I can't see them all. I can't even see the all the ones I want to see when they come out. There's not enough time in my day. Thankfully, services like Netflix exist, allowing me to catch up in my own time. Often, I'm busy enough that I miss the hype surrounding a movie. I don't even know the movie exists until a year or two after it is released, when someone recommends it to me. What is so special about the release date, anyway? Movies continue to exist in the same form forever. Why must I hurry to see them?

Many people pointed out that, at a certain point, famous movies become part of the cultural landscape. Their stories have outgrown their sources and it's okay talk about them, because (I guess) refusing to do so means opting out of everyday conversation. Well, I choose to opt out of SOME everyday conversations -- if they are conversations that are going to spoil movies for me. But I don't expect other people to opt out. I DO expect people to respect my feelings and give me fair warning. If I knew you were scared of monsters, I wouldn't call Hollywood and ask them to cancel the production of "Nightmare on Elm Street XVIII." But I WOULD warn you not to see it.

I would certainly agree that if I had some aversion to the word "the", it wouldn't be fair for me to expect people to avoid saying it. "The" is a common word. It's would really inconvenience people to stop using it. But saying "SPOILER" once is not a major inconvenience. It takes two seconds. You say it, and anyone who wants to opt out can run for cover, then you can say what you wanted to say. Everybody wins.

(A bizarre number of people told me that "The Simpons" regularly spoils iconic movies. So? Does "The Simpsons" dictate the way one should act? Where they claiming that if spoilers are not allowed, then "The Simpsons" would have to be cancelled? Hogwash. If "The Simpsons" spoils movies, people who don't like spoilers shouldn't watch it. That's all. Which is one of the reasons I don't watch "The Simpsons.")

3. At some point after a movie has been released, there are more people who have seen it than people who have not. Why should the majority inconvenience itself for the minority?

Majorities should never inconvenience themselves for minorities? Scary!

Again, I would never expect people to seriously inconvenience themselves. "Spoiler" takes almost no time.

What's the problem?

4. What's the big deal? They're just movies!

Or we could say they are artifacts about which some people feel passionate.

I hate sports. Yet many people revolve their lives around football games. Who am I to judge them? Most of us feel passionately about something which is objectively trivial -- football, gourmet food, beer, chocolate, music, art ... movies.

Movies are stories. Stories touch something deep inside me. I make no apology for my love of stories. Stories are my life.


circumferenstance said...

I'm of the sort that doesn't mind spoilers. I will enjoy a movie/story, if it's good, even knowing the plot. There are some exceptions where the story is relying on a "gimmick" of surprise. Those cases should really be obvious to people, and should be treated differently than the average movie or story. The other cases deserve not to be spoiled for those who like to see something fresh without much information, but with me, 9/10 times I'll gladly be spoiled.

I'd also like to bring to light the opposite scenario. I had a friend tell me about a book I hadn't read. He gave me some background on it, but did not spoil it. He did the opposite. He built it up, saying there was a big shift in the plot that blows the reader's mind. When I read it, I kept thinking I'd missed the turn, but I didn't. What happened was he made the turn out to be a much bigger change than what actually happens. As a result, I was a little let down by the seemingly mediocre shift the story took. If he hadn't built up this big surprise, it probably would have had a much bigger impact.

Lady Strathconn said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Marcus said...

[Lady, Strathconn. I have edited your comment (which I liked) to remove some spoilers from it. You didn't write the spoilers yourself, but the critic you quoted spoiled about six movies in one go.

To me, the whole thing is really simple: some people (not everyone) love to be surprised. Surprise is a deeply beautiful and exciting feeling for them. So, as someone who is in favor of beauty and excitement, why would I want to prevent this? I can allow them to have this experience -- and still discuss movies I've already seen -- by simply warning the listener.

I don't see how it matters whether or not the movie has been out for a day or 10 years. By divulging a plot detail (without warning), I'm decreasing the amount of beauty in the world (for some people). It takes so little effort to give a warning and the benefit of doing so is so great -- why WOULDN'T I give the warning?


PS. The reviewer's rule about giving away the first half of the plot seems odd and arbitary. And it would put a significant dent in the first-time experience of seeing, say, Hitchcock's "Psycho."]

I am totally baffled by the reviewer (and people like her). WHY do they feel the need to, as a joke, spoil tons of movies? Is this the same sort of person who smiles as she pulls legs off a spider?]

[LS's profile:]

Lady Strathconn said...

I don't care for spoilers, although they are useful if you don't want to sit through a bed movie, but are interested to find out how it ended ("The Others", "The Village", and "Open Water" come to mind).

I watch a lot of TV. I particularly enjoy shows like LOST and ALIAS. I don't like to know what is going to happen before it happens, but I like to read TVGuide. Sometimes, I don't get to see the episode on the night it airs. The next morning, the plot is ruined by TVGuide, but it is my own fault for being there.

That said, I agree with argument number 2. I am not very good at putting it into words, so I will let the FlickChick from explain it.... (FlickChick:

Question: What's your opinion on spoilers? How old does a movie have to be before you can discuss it without being accused of being a "spoiler"? In my opinion, once a movie is released on DVD, all bets are off; if a person is a true movie lover, by the time a movie is on DVD they've seen it already. And if they haven't, too bad. — Jaynie

FlickChick: What do I think of spoilers? [HERE, THE REVIEW SPOILS ABOUT SIX MOVIES.] Boy, did that feel good! Oh, and [HERE, THE REVIEW SPOILS ANOTHER ONE -- ONE BASED ON A HISTORICAL EVENT WHICH SHE FEELS IS COMMON KNOWLEDGE]; it never even occurred to me that this constituted a spoiler, but I found out otherwise. I have mixed feelings about spoilers. Or rather, I have my feelings about spoilers but am aware that not everyone feels the same way. I don't care about knowing the outcome of book or movie in advance; it doesn't spoil anything for me. As a movie reviewer, my rule of thumb with new movies is that any development up to the halfway point in the story is fair game, and whatever happens subsequently should be left for people to discover on their own. As to when the statute of limitation on revealing plot twists expires, I think it's case-by-case and that the safest approach is always to start by asking, "How much do you want to know about the story?" and proceed accordingly. Buffs not only see movies quickly, but also read about them long before they open; you can talk freely to most of them pretty early in the theatrical run. Ordinary people aren't so immersed in the whole business and may not know anything about the big twist when the movie arrives on DVD."

Lush said...


Oh dear. I was worried that you weren't updating your blog anymore, but it turns out your Blogspot rss/atom feed just wasn't working. Weird!

Anyway, would you mind if I added a (feedburner?) syndication of your blog on LiveJournal? (I best follow stuff on my Friends Page, which displays updates all in one go.)

Marcus said...

Hmm. I wonder why the atom feed isn't working. Thanks for letting me know.

Please feel free to add the syndication.

-- Marcus

cribcage said...

This comic reminded me of your post... ;-)