Are Spoilers Spoiling Film Criticism?

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by Matt Singer
April 23, 2013 3:37 PM
13 Comments
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"Oblivion."
Slant Magazine and Film.com's Calum Marsh received an email last week from the publicity department of Universal Studios asking him (and the rest of the critical community) to "not reveal plot points toward the film's climax and conclusion so that those surprises are retained for the audience." Marsh complied, but then went on to write a sort of defiant declaration of principles regarding spoilers and film criticism at Film.com

He begins by arguing -- correctly, in my mind -- that if a film can truly be spoiled by the revelation of plot details, then it's probably not a very good film to begin with. Then he moves on to what he sees as the real problem here, not so much spoilers as what the spoilers imply -- namely, that readers are looking at film criticism before they watch a movie, instead of after:

"Film criticism is intended to be read by people who have seen the film under discussion. That isn't a hard rule, mind you -- people are free to read whatever they'd like, and if someone finds reading about a film in advance of seeing it helpful or even just interesting, so be it --but it should at least be an assumed truth of the practice, which would allow critics to tailor their writing to a knowledgeable audience and allow readers to be aware of what they're getting into in advance. It would also almost single-handedly obliterate concerns about spoilers in criticism --concerns which, frankly, are altogether unfounded."

"Consider the real issue here: if you haven't seen a film and you are concerned about spoilers, the onus is on you to not read reviews before seeing the film. It's not only unfair to demand that critics pander to people who shouldn't be reading their work yet in the first place, it's absurd; it presumes that a critic should be talking around a film instead of talking about it, and it makes the practice of criticism useless except as a vehicle of undescriptive opinion."

Marsh and I agree on this much: if you're curious about a movie but wary of spoilers, maybe you should just avoid reading its reviews. If you don't, and you see something you didn't want to know; hey man, you should have caveated that emptor a little more carefully. In that sort of situation, a certain amount of responsibility belongs to the reader. It's not fair to scour the web for information on a movie, then get angry when you find it. If you know you're allergic to shellfish, you shouldn't eat at a seafood buffet.

On the other hand, if you're not sure you like shellfish but you're curious to try, you shouldn't be denied service just because you've never eaten crab legs before. Although I agree with a lot of Marsh's thoughts about spoilers, I don't agree with his solution, which is to ban any reader who doesn't see as many movies as we do. These people, he says "shouldn't be reading [criticism] in the first place" and he doesn't want to "pander" to them any longer. As a guy who loves to read film criticism, sometimes for movies I haven't seen, that makes me sad. It's like I'm unwelcome in the world I love so much.

There can be great pleasure, and even insight, in a review or critique written for an audience that hasn't seen a movie. I don't read Roger Ebert, or Manohla Dargis, or J. Hoberman to find out whether Movie X or Y is worth seeing -- I'm reading them for Ebert, Dargis, and Hoberman, for their ideas and their brilliant prose. In many cases, I don't have any intention of seeing their subjects; I simply enjoy their writing and engaging with film culture. I'd be pretty disappointed to hear that they wanted me to stop reading their articles until I put in all the necessary prerequisites. In a world as endangered as film criticism already is, shouldn't critics be grateful for their readership? If they don't want anyone to read their work, why are they writing it in the first place?

Film criticism does need to get past its spoilerphobia. The reason television criticism has taken such huge leaps in recent years, beyond the fact that television itself has taken such huge leaps as well, is because TV criticism is written after the show airs, with the assumption that its readers will be looking at it as a means of enhancing and elucidating the viewing experience. Criticism of this kind is perceptive and participatory -- and, as Marsh says, a little more of that in the world of film criticism would be a very good thing. 

I believe critics should be able to discuss movies in depth without worrying about spoilers. But I also believe there's no harm in critics being a little considerate of their readers -- giving them a warning at the very beginning of a detailed post, or trying to keep big twists out of reviews intended for audiences before a movie has opened. I guess I don't really see why there can't be two different modes of film criticism: the articles written before a movie's release that start the conversation, and the ones written afterwards that finish it. We really can't have both? I want to have both. 

"Film criticism," Marsh writes, "is supposed to help illuminate a film, not simply offer a yay/nay declaration of its quality." That is one important value of criticism. Another, I think, is to encourage people to seek out new movies and new directors and to foster a community of film lovers. If we never invite new members in, that community will get very small very quickly.

Read more "Spoiler Alert: Critics Shouldn't Care About 'Ruining' a Movie" and Calum Marsh's "Oblivion" review. It does not contain spoilers.

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13 Comments

  • Alan B | April 28, 2013 10:18 AMReply

    In the comments section of the Marsh article, Peter Schorn wrote a brilliant response: "The whole premise of this article is one of utter selfishness: "Who cares if I spoil YOUR experience? Who reads a review to not have their experience spoiled?" I'll tell you who: People who have to pay to see the movie that the "critic" probably saw in advance for free. To believe that, "film criticism is intended to be read by people who have seen the film under discussion," is to have no effing idea of the purpose of movie reviews to the general public. This is chin-stroking (and other parts) of the worse sort. You know why so many people say, "I don't listen to film reviews"? It's because smug twits like the author are useless ponces.

    It's bad enough that most trailers, particularly for rom-coms as if there's any doubt the couple will get together by the end - spell out the entire plot, but when someone is trying to determine whether a movie is worth dropping over $20 in tickets alone not to mention gas, parking, snacks, babysitter, what purpose is served by some self-righteous juvenile movie "critic" who can't capable discuss whether a movie is worth the time and money without bragging like a brat about what he knows that the reader doesn't. A review is not the place for a deep spoilerific analysis. Sorry, it's not. If you can't deal with that, then get out of the reviewing business and stick to analysis.

    A question for those who think spoiling the surprise for others is your right: Who anointed you the Keeper of Secrets? Are you such a-holes that if a friend spent weeks planning a surprise party for someone, you'd tip them off that it was going to happen? If yes, you're a jerk; if no, then why do you get to ruin others' movie fun?

    2nd Question: Did someone spoil it for you before you experienced the movie or did you see it as the filmmakers intended? If you went in cold and were surprised, why are you so hellbent on denying others the same experience you had other than a childish need to ruin others fun?

    In the commentary for The Usual Suspects, someone remarks about how the scene where Verbal is sitting in Kujan's office before his questioning reads totally differently the 2nd time you view it. The first time, you think Verbal is bored and just looking around the room; the second time you realize he's piecing together the elements of his story. For self-anointed spoiler spreaders like the author, it's more important to say, "While Verbal tells his story, the revelation that he is himself Keyser Soze may surprise some, but viewers should pay attention to the early scene where he gathers the pieces of his puzzle." WHAT?

    Even the knowledge that there's a twist is a spoiler. I hate ads which quote spoiler reviews like, "...and So-And-So of the Irrelevant Media Outlet says, 'You won't see the twist coming at all!'" Um, no. Thanks to the review and ad, I'm going to spend the entire movie looking for hints of the twist instead of simply watching the movie. I had to run away from discussions of the outrage over the ending of Mass Effect 3 for three weeks while I played the game because I wanted to see for myself how I felt. The moment I was done, I went looking for those discussions, but it was MY CHOICE to find them. (I'm currently dodging Bioshock Infinite spoilers. Not everyone can rush out and play games the moment they come out.)

    As a reviewer, I've had to dance around spoilers even for older movies like Audition because there are plenty of people who haven't seen it, but are aware of it though not the specifics. Somehow I was able to not discuss the specifics, but then again I'm not a hack with a need to spoil others fun to make myself feel important and in the know.

    Have I ever spoiled something? Yes, in reviews on my personal blog (not major media outlets) for movies that are so bad that they need to be spoiled in order to properly explain what's so awful, usually in regards to how the trailer promises one thing and the movie is something else entirely. Country Strong was a particularly egregious case in when I posted the trailer and then asked if the end of the movie is even alluded to and how it was a nasty bait-and-switch on audiences paying for one thing and getting something totally different. But note that I didn't post the spoiler here because it's not my job to wreck things outside of my house and I'm not a spoiler jerk like the author. Occasionally I'll put a spoiler discussion section at the very bottom of my blog's reviews, but it's flagged and isolated from the main review text, marked as for those who have either seen the movie or don't care about spoilers.

    There is a place of candid and in-depth discussion of a movie's plot and twist, but it is NOT IN THE FRIDAY MORNING REVIEW OF A NEW RELEASE! Sorry, but that's the case, Spoiler Mongers. Write a secondary analysis chin/wang-stroking on Monday for those who've seen it to join in with and those who haven't yet to avoid. But no not ruin the experience for those who don't want it ruined just because you're such a child that you can't restrain your urges to run by the bookstores at midnight to scream, "DUMBLEDORE DIES!" at the kids awaiting their new Harry Potter novel. Jerk."

  • Tomris Laffly | April 24, 2013 3:43 PMReply

    I would argue that there is no such thing as a "spoiler free review". As soon as you know how one person perceived the sum or parts of a film, that film is spoiled. That said going into a review, you read at your own risk.

  • CinemaPsycho | April 24, 2013 1:01 AMReply

    If the audience hasn't had a chance to see the film, then it is simply unfair to post spoilers without warnings. It's fine to discuss a film in-depth, but let the reader know ahead of time that you intend to do so. Just because critics are "special people" who get to see films before audiences doesn't give them the right to ruin the plot twists and surprises for EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD.

    Most people read reviews before a film is released to get opinions on the film's quality, not to read about spoilers. Consumer advocacy IS the basic point of criticism. Any critic who believes otherwise is delusional and self-involved.

  • Jason Bellamy | April 23, 2013 8:34 PMReply

    I think anyone who reads a review needs to be prepared for a spoiler. (Of course, I'd say the same of anyone who watches a trailer, which are often more revealing than any reviews.) But if film criticism is for readers who have seen the movie, then it's absurd to post reviews on the day the movie is released (or earlier, which happens quite often). Here's the thing with spoilers though: Critics can just write "spoiler warning" when it applies. Then critics have no restraints, the reader can read as far as he/she wants, and everyone is happy.

  • Scott Beggs | April 23, 2013 6:55 PMReply

    If someone can't write a pre-release review of a film without spoiling it (for the audience and for a director whose presentational vision they're ruining), then they need to practice writing a bit more.

    It's also weird to me that writers want to create a conversation with an audience that hasn't even had a chance to see the film. Write your review first, then if it warrants deeper thought, write your criticism the week after when it can actually be received by a knowledgable readership. Why is any of this that difficult?

  • Sid | April 23, 2013 6:48 PMReply

    You write for the reader. The reader has no obigation or responsbility to be cautious of reviews. You have a job because of the reader so respect their views. You spoiling a movie does not mean its bad.

    Flm criticism is a discussion but only after the movie is released. Reviews should highlight the technical and emotional aspect of the movie without giving away any kind of plot. And you never give your opinion of the movie in a review which a lot of critics seemed to do. The readers dont need to know what the film needs to be improved.

  • Sid | April 23, 2013 6:48 PMReply

    You write for the reader. The reader has no obigation or responsbility to be cautious of reviews. You have a job because of the reader so respect their views. You spoiling a movie does not mean its bad.

    Flm criticism is a discussion but only after the movie is released. Reviews should highlight the technical and emotional aspect of the movie without giving away any kind of plot. And you never give your opinion of the movie in a review which a lot of critics seemed to do. The readers dont need to know what the film needs to be improved.

  • Sid | April 23, 2013 6:47 PMReply

    You write for the reader. The reader has no obigation or responsbility to be cautious of reviews. You have a job because of the reader so respect their views. You spoiling a movie does not mean its bad.

    Flm criticism is a discussion but only after the movie is released. Reviews should highlight the technical and emotional aspect of the movie without giving away any kind of plot. And you never give your opinion in a review which a lot of critics seemed to do.

  • Bryan Kritz | April 23, 2013 6:44 PMReply

    It would seem there is a divide here between film reviews and film criticism.

    "Film criticism is intended to be read by people who have seen the film under discussion." I can get behind that but if you are posting a REVIEW before or on the first day a movie is in release then you have to expect that your audience has not likely seen the movie. So then why spoil it? In this fast moving day of the internets, an article is not as actively sought out after even a couple of days. A huge reason people seek reviews is to see if they want to spend their money and time on a film and in what form (3D, IMAX, Matinee, wait for DVD, etc...). I have a few critics whose writing typically pares up with my preferences to help guide my decision making process.

    Why not write a review on the merits of the film? Then, if you want to actually go into full criticism with all story points, character arcs, theories, etc. discussed then do so after the movie has been out for the weekend? Those that want to digest that will actively seek it out.

    Why spoil a movie that the general audience hasn't seen?

  • John Wheaties | April 23, 2013 5:24 PMReply

    "if a film can truly be spoiled by the revelation of plot details, then it's probably not a very good film to begin with."

    Horseshit.

  • John Wheaties | April 23, 2013 5:23 PMReply

    "if a film can truly be spoiled by the revelation of plot details, then it's probably not a very good film to begin with."

    Horseshit.

  • Katy Kern | April 23, 2013 4:39 PMReply

    I understand the want to dissect and analyse a film from a critic's POV; however, so many people read reviews because they are looking to see if said film is something they would enjoy watching. If the surprise or spoilers are in the reviews, they should be mentioned.

    I like to approach my reviews with the thought in mind that people are reading them haven't seen the films. I hope to encourage someone to see it or have enough information in the review to let them know they might avoid it, depending on their tastes. Perhaps, I am wrong in thinking that way, but I have heard from many readers letting me know they appreciate my style. Should all critics take this approach? No.

    There should be room for both - a full analysis of films for those who want to know more about the films they viewed and informing the average movie-goer about what's out there, since there are so many films at the fingertips of the consumer today.

  • Christopher Campbell | April 23, 2013 3:49 PMReply

    Considering I was once fired from a site for not treating reviews as consumer advocacy, I have say there are obviously people who think that's a film critic's purpose. It's also why so much of this field employs rating scales and such and why Rotten Tomatoes exists.

    There's definitely room for both. I prefer the latter (criticism and analysis for post-viewing), but I recognize that most is the former (advocacy). And I think most readers expect the former, too. So that's why spoilers matter. It doesn't matter if they shouldn't matter.

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