Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Spoiled Rotten

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to finagle a free ticket to an advance screening of the hot new documentary film Catfish.  I thought the movie was terrific and unsettling, but this post isn't primarily about that.  This post is about the marketing strategy for that film, especially the tagline on its posters ("Don't Let Anyone Tell You What It Is"), and about the concept of spoilers in general.

As you may have noticed in my reviews of books and movies on here, I don't tend to shy away from talking about the twists or surprises of a story's plot (although I do give last-minute SPOILER ALERTs as a courtesy).  To me, it seems impossible to discuss the work as a whole without making reference to the way it concludes, even/especially if that conclusion demands a reconsideration of the entire story that preceded it.  Yet, as a viewer or reader myself, I do like to approach a narrative with as few preconceptions as possible -- not just about the ending, but in general.  My own tendency to inflate my expectations for works made by my favorite writers or directors often amps up what would be moderate dissatisfaction to all-consuming anguish (Tim Burton, for the love of God, why?), and sometimes the early reviews or buzz surrounding a project will harden my heart against it, either out of writerly jealousy, that bitter green-eyed editorial assistant of the soul, or out of resentment toward what the author/director/story "represents" -- ignoring, of course, what the piece actually is.  To me, the purest experience of new work would probably involve a blindfold, a mallet to the back of the head, and a rude awakening in a world where civilization creeps along atop the smoking ruins of mass media and the blogosphere.  Until the Great Server Apocalypse claims us all, however, I tend to regard book and movie reviews as something best consumed after experiencing the work, when I'm desperate to join some sort of conversation with others who are wrestling with the same questions I am.

Back to Catfish, though.  I don't think it's weird or bad that the filmmakers want to keep the story's conclusion veiled in secrecy: they're trying to draw in viewers through the sheer force of curiosity, one of the oldest tricks in showbiz (PT Barnum would surely approve).  But there is something a little odd about the fact that commentators, whether or not they enjoyed the film, have adhered so closely to the creators' wishes -- especially considering that the meatiest and most reaction-provoking parts are in the last third or so, when the mystery rapidly unravels. 

I'm not going to buck the trend and give away anything about the picture here, but I think it's fair to say that the movie is more of a character study than a horror story, and like any good character study, it thrives on detail and psychology, not on the lynchpin of any single incident or "reveal."  And moreover, I think the makers of Catfish made it that way on purpose.  Their footage (and the way they edited it) shows they weren't just after the one-two punch of their dramatic revelation.  In fact, it's in those later parts that the film becomes the most impressionistic: I'm thinking in particular of a scene at the beach, and of the movie's title, which, far from being a coy hint, actually comes from a weird and poetic anecdote that relates to the story's action only metaphorically.  All of this demands discussion, dissection, argument, yet none of that is happening in the public sphere.  The filmmakers want to "get people talking" -- just not the people who have already seen the film. 

The concept of spoilers comes, I think, from the idea that criticism is like a product review: that the reviewer's role is to tell potential readers or viewers what to buy.  In this model, criticism is not so much a response as it is a preview: an advertisement or a warning label, depending.  It's not a perspective that intrinsically values criticism as an art, one that should be whole and complete in itself.  Instead it says that criticism must be good for something, for someone.  It also puts an expiration date on reviews' cultural import, at least for films and books that become well-known enough to enter the popular consciousness.  Imagine reading an essay about The Crying Game or The Sixth Sense that played coy with those films' third-act disclosures.  Such an essay would seem almost aggressively irrelevant, not only revealing little about the films' own internal structures but also next to nothing about how or why their endings spoke to the public's obsessions -- like an article on the 2008 election that didn't mention who won.

Yet, when filmmakers or reviewers do divulge a story's secrets -- even if they're not so secret -- the public tends to rebel.  I've been fascinated by this second phenomenon occurring with another film that just came out: the movie Never Let Me Go, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.  I haven't seen the picture yet (I'm planning to go tonight), but I'm puzzled by the fact that so many folks, both online and in print, have flipped out about the alleged spoilers in the film's preview and pre-release coverage.  Metro, the free NYC daily that my dog uses for toilet paper, even titled their review, "Never Watch the Trailer First."  OK, I guess I should throw down a SPOILER ALERT of my own, but: really, guys?  I haven't seen the movie yet, but in the book the supposed "shocker" is strongly implied even on the very first page.  That "shocker" is in fact not a twist, but the premise: that the characters are clones who are going to be used for organ donations.  Their understanding of this fact is riddled with denial and contradiction -- they wish it could be avoided, they sometimes picture other futures -- just as our own understanding that we will all die someday comes accompanied with many hopeful caveats.  But they know, and the story that transpires in the book is in many ways concerned with that knowledge: with what it suggests about timidity, passivity, the desire to please authority, to conform at any cost, versus the forces of self-expression and love.  The fact that people are responding so strongly to perceived spoilers where there are in fact none suggests to me something larger is at work here.

We live in a culture saturated with entertainment options.  It isn't possible to read or watch everything, and it's completely understandable that people (including myself) want guidance on what to consume that does not completely forecast the work in advance.  But I also think that informed, thoughtful, and comprehensive  responses to narrative shouldn't dumb down or silence themselves.  I'm not sure what the answer is.  All I know is that Bruce Willis is a ghost.

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