Spoiler Alert: You should not read this column if you have never seen The Crying Game, The Sixth Sense, The Village or The Game. Now that that’s out of the way, maybe we can talk about something.
It’s a minefield into which the contemporary critic treads, this matter of “spoilers.” At the root of the issue is a question of what contemporary film writing has become, compared to what it perhaps should be. Average readers have come to view critics en masse as an arm of the Hollywood publicity apparatus, the serious writers indistinguishable from the junket-hopping quote whores who drop breathless exclamation points as though they got a bonus every time their names appeared in advertising.
But part of the problem is the way publications'including this one'feed the perception that the only real purpose of a movie review is as a consumer tool. We don’t run feature reviews of movies that opened last month; we run feature reviews of movies that are opening a couple of days after this paper hits the streets. Being behind the curve is death because the useful life of the average movie is over after opening weekend. The public is much more likely to be on to salivating over The Next Big Thing than they are to have interest in analyzing The Last Medium-Sized Thing.
As is the case with every ill of the modern world, I blame the Internet and the inability of people to wait longer than a second and a half for information. In particular I blame Harry Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News Website (www.aintitcool.com), which popularized through its “reviews” of shooting scripts and pre-production scuttlebutt the idea that a movie is only really news until anyone has actually had the chance to see it. And naturally Hollywood itself has contributed to the narrow window of interest, front-loading ad campaigns and theater bookings on the way to a DVD release within the lifespan of the average housefly.
But we critics have played along, writing about movies in a way that is as ephemeral and instantly disposable as the movies themselves. Film reviewers become part of the problem by writing reviews that are careful only to discuss details of the first hour or so, protecting “twists” and “secretsâ€'like those in The Crying Game (she’s a dude!) or The Sixth Sense (he’s dead!)'while somehow still making sure that everyone knows there is a “twist” or “secret” to be protected. We’re content to spend hundreds of words on plot summaries and slight variations on “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” rather than dare to talk about who died or whodunnit. You know, those parts on which the ultimate success or failure of a story might ultimately depend.
It’s idiocy, and in our heart of hearts we all know it. The problem is that many film critics and their editors are torn over the notion that film is pop art, and that writing about it seriously makes you look too snooty for the room. No one would throw a fit over a piece of literary criticism that dives into the details of a story’s resolution, because the presumption is that the reader is interested in better understanding a text with which he or she is already familiar. Film critics can’t make that presumption because we’re obliged to write about movies that haven’t been seen yet by the general public. No wonder film criticism gets no respect'we can only write about half a movie.
But that, apparently, is what readers want from us. So we’re stuck having to indulge inveterate twist-monger M. Night Shyamalan, even though the argument for The Village’s artistic failure gains more power from a dissection of its ridiculous third-act revelation. We’re stuck having to tie ourselves into semantic knots about why the conclusion of David Fincher’s 1997 thriller The Game provides such a powerful punch despite its apparent absurdity.
Of course, readers shouldn’t be blindsided by information best kept under wraps'and perhaps I’ve committed that sin myself. But if it is a sin, it’s a venial one, far less loathsome than simply allowing serious film writing to die. There should be a place besides hoity-toity journals for writers to talk to readers who actually know the movies they’re talking about.