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.