Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France


Since this is about spoilers, I guess I better start out with a spoiler warning. Do not read this if you have not seen Alfred Hitchcock’s (or for that matter, Gus Van Sant’s) Psycho and do not want to have the ending spoiled. I mean it. End of warning

Among the many entertaining aspects of listening to Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode’s weekly discussions on movies on BBC Radio Five Live (available on a very popular podcast) is the ongoing discussion on film spoilers and when it is (or not) okay for reviewers to divulge specific plot points in a movie, particularly major reveals toward the end of a film.

It is amusing to hear the frequently apoplectic Kermode sputter when an email is read chastising him for giving away some plot development from movies that are decades old and familiar to most people. The question always arises: can we not point out, after 70 years, that the mysterious name “Rosebud” invoked at the beginning of Citizen Kane refers to… well, maybe it is still too soon.

My own policy on this web site has generally been to not become so paranoid about spoiling movies for readers that they have no idea what a movie is about plot-wise. I frequently try to give readers an idea of what movies are like by comparing them to other movies. Suggesting such comparisons can sometimes be considered a type of spoiler because, for example, if I were to say that a particular movie has an ending reminiscent of The Crying Game, that could give the reader perhaps too much of an idea of what to expect. Usually, I try to be more ambiguous or circumspect than that. In reviews of films, it hardly seems fair to give out information that could detract from people’s enjoyment of those films. In my weekly commentaries, I am more likely to discuss specific plot details, but if I feel that it’s going to be a problem for readers who haven’t seen the film(s) under discussion then I try to remember to give a spoiler warning up front.

For some reason, it seems that the public has become more sensitive to the idea of movie spoilers in recent times. This applies, perhaps more so, to television shows since, in the age of TiVo, not everybody watches the same TV shows on the same evenings anymore. But in the case of a big reveal on a major TV show, it really is incumbent on viewers themselves to actively avoid spoilers they don’t want to hear if they have chosen to time-shift a TV show and watch it later than most other people. Movies are more problematic since nobody can reasonably expect the whole country (or, for that matter, the whole world) to watch a new movie on the same night.

Personally, I have never had a particular problem with spoilers. As I have recounted before, I had my first major encounter with a spoiler when I went to see Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho with my best friend Eric at our local small town cinema (while there still was one). I went into the movie under the best possible conditions. I had absolutely no idea what it was about, aside from the vague knowledge that it was meant to be scary. (The title kind of gave that away.) But, as we waited for the film to begin, I made the mistake of asking Eric if he knew what it was about. He answered matter-of-factly that our friend Chris had seen it and reported that it was about a man who dresses up as a woman and goes around killing people. I immediately intuited that knowing that could well detract from our enjoyment of the movie and said so. Eric just shrugged, as if it was no big deal. When the movie eventually kicked into high gear, we were getting beside ourselves with fear and dread. Eric started speculating about whether the old woman going around killing people was a ghost or zombie. Hey, I chided him, we know that it’s her son, remember? Refusing to moderate his unease at the proceedings on screen, Eric shot back, Chris could have gotten it wrong.

The fact is, despite having heard the spoiler, I myself didn’t quite believe that it was really Tony Perkins doing the killing. And that’s what made Psycho such a good movie. It’s still scary and suspenseful, even if you know the ending or even if you have seen it before. It was much better than the legions of films I have seen since which no one spoiled for me but no one needed to because I could see the reveals coming a mile away.

In a way, every movie review is a spoiler. Even when the writer says little or nothing about the plot. Because every movie review sets up expectations. My best experiences at the cinema are often those when I have heard or read precious little about the film I am seeing. Because in that case the film itself is a surprise—not just certain plot developments.

A couple of weeks ago, I got some validation for my lack of preoccupation with spoilers. The NPR show On the Media reported on a study from the University of California at San Diego about spoilers. The study was specifically about spoilers in books, but I think that the results could be extended to films as well. In a nutshell, the researchers found that if they gave subjects a version of a novel to read that gave away the ending in the first chapter, the readers generally enjoyed the book more than those who didn’t get the spoiler. That doesn’t entirely surprise me. Who among us has not slogged through a book wondering if all our effort would pay off in the end? Knowing something about the ending gives us more confidence that it will. In fact, it is not unheard of for books or films to begin with the ending and then jump back in time and show the reader how things came to such a pass. A recent example is Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which begins with the destruction of the earth.

In the On the Media interview, host Brooke Gladstone helpfully pointed out that legendary filmmaker Hitchcock was a proponent of suspense over surprise. As an example, you could film a group of people sitting at a table for several minutes, but it wouldn’t be very interesting. Then you could have a bomb go off under the table. That would be interesting for a few seconds, but then it would be over. But if you let the audience know up front that there is a bomb under the table, watching the people sitting around the table then becomes involving, even unbearable, i.e. much more interesting. Don’t we all read books or watch movies in which we are pretty sure what is going to happen? But, if the story is well told, it doesn’t matter.

Sometimes history books spoil a movie. One of the most suspenseful movies I remember seeing in the 1970s was Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal (definitely not to be confused with Michael Caton-Jones’s 1997 remake starring Bruce Willis). Since the whole plot hung on whether Edward Fox’s assassin would manage to kill Charles de Gaulle, there wasn’t much doubt about the outcome. After all, de Gaulle had died of natural causes only three years before the movie came out. (Back then we weren’t accustomed to filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, who have no problem deviating wildly from known history.)

Even though I knew that the Jackal could not possibly succeed in his evil mission, I and my friends were on the edges of our seats right up to the end—just like I was when Eric and I watched Psycho. Now that’s effective filmmaking. When it comes down to it, the only real film spoilers are mediocre writing and mediocre direction.

-S.L., 20 October 2011

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