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Runtime: The Movies' Secret Spoiler

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by Matt Singer
May 29, 2012 11:38 AM
6 Comments
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"Mulholland Drive."

Though he's softened on the subject in recent years, David Lynch holds at least one intense and intensely unpopular opinion as a filmmaker: he believes DVDs should not come with chapter breaks. Speaking with The New York Times in 2003, Lynch explained the reason he initially refused to allow "Mulholland Drive" to be broken up into numbered scenes for DVD release. "The world you go into in a film is so delicate," he said. "It can be broken so easily. It's so tender. And it's essential to hold that world together, to keep it safe."

Then and now, Lynch's attitude was viewed by many as short-sighted and old-fashioned. The ability to skip directly to a particular scene is one of the biggest advantages DVD has over VHS. Want to go through each scene in reverse order? Want to bypass every appearance by Jar-Jar Binks?  Want to watch just the scenes with full frontal nudity? DVD makes it easy. Why not embrace the wonder of technology?

I love special features and I'll often put in a DVD just to revisit one specific moment, something that's a whole lot harder to do when you have to zoom through the movie on fast-forward. But I also understand where Lynch is coming from. DVD, Blu-ray, online streaming: they all take control out of the hands of the director and put it in the hands of the viewer, allowing them to do and see and re-see things the author never intended. Now the viewer has the power to break the world of the film, both literally and metaphorically. And they have the opportunity to do something especially easy, seemingly benign, but deeply problematic: to find their relative position in the film's runtime. With a single push of a button or a casual swipe of the finger, we can now spoil a movie whenever we want.

Let's use a real-world example. Say you're watching "Back to the Future" for the very first time, on the recent (and wonderful) Blu-ray. Say you're dazzled by the film and you enjoy every minute of Marty McFly's adventures in 1955 (say I'm also about to SPOIL the end of "Back to the Future" if you care about such things). Marty makes it back to 1985 in the DeLorean and returns home to find his world vastly improved: his dad is more assertive, his mom is happier, and Biff is a mewling quim. Just as he's about to take his girlfriend Jennifer out for a ride, Doc Brown shows up with a request: Marty and Jennifer need to go back (to the future!!) with him to save their kids.

Freeze on that moment. For a second there, you thought the movie was just about over. It seemed like everything was winding down. Now suddenly here's Doc with more instructions for Marty. Are we ramping up for one more adventure? You pause the film. You look at the runtime and see there's only 2 minutes left to go. Ending spoiled.  

Granted, this was almost the end of the movie anyway (and granted most people have seen "Back to the Future" as kids before they have the opportunity to spoil its ending this way) but the possibilities for runtime spoilers are nearly as infinite as the ways Marty and Doc could alter the time stream in their DeLorean. The knowledge of where you are in a movie's runtime tells you not just how much of a movie is left, but how far it has to go -- and since most Hollywood films adhere to the same three act structure, knowing where you are within that structure helps you guess where you're going next. When you don't know a movie's remaining runtime, anything seems possible: it could end in one minute or a hundred, visit one location or a hundred.  When you do, the only possibility is the one that lasts exactly as long as the film does.

In the case of Lynch, the end of "Mulholland Drive" is a swirl of surprises (again, here come the SPOILERS). You're in one reality, and then suddenly you're in another. Looking at the runtime clues you in to the fact that when Laura Elena Harring opens that box, we've gone somewhere else -- and that we're going to be in that somewhere else for a prolonged period of time. A lot of people -- and I include myself in this group -- feel an urge for clarity when a movie deliberately disorients them. Sometimes it's hard to be patient for answers when you're so wrapped up in a film. That little DVD runtime display can be a temptation that's too hard to resist. No wonder Lynch hates it so much.

Obviously nothing will ever be done about this. But it would be fantastic if we could invent a technological solution for the runtime spoiler. How about a DVD player that won't tell you where you are in the film or let you bounce around from scene to scene until you watch it once all the way through? After that, you unlock the special features, the timecode, and everything else. One time the way the director wanted, then after that you can do whatever you want. 

I'd buy a DVD player like that. And I bet David Lynch would, too.

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6 Comments

  • Tom Andrews | May 29, 2012 2:28 PMReply

    Its a great observation, but one that easily boils down to controlling oneself. It's not like there is an active running counter on the screen. Perhaps tape a thumbtack to your pause button. Or maybe some kind of "I spoiled myself jar" where you have to put a dollar in the jar every time you peek.

  • Mike McGranaghan | May 29, 2012 2:22 PMReply

    Great piece! I've had this happen on multiple occasions, most notably "No Country for Old Men." I looked at my watch just as Tommy Lee Jones was recounting the dream to his wife in their kitchen. It was a two-hour movie that had been running for about an hour and 55 minutes. Subtracting a few minutes for end credits, I realized that it was going to *have* to have an ambiguous ending. There just wasn't enough time left for him to go catch that pesky Anton Chigurh.

  • Scott Mendelson | May 29, 2012 12:45 PMReply

    I'm a bit OCD in regards to time and actually all-but demand to know the running time of any movie I watch if only so I can mentally judge the pacing and the flow of the narrative. But yes, there are certainly some movies that can be spoiled purely by knowing when the end is or is not coming. Random example - I was shocked/startled by the finale to the first Paranormal Activity because pre-release news had listed the film has being 100 minutes long and not the theatrical cut running time of 86 minutes. Point being, when the 'end' came, I didn't expect it in the least because I figured the film still had fifteen minutes left to go.

  • Devin | May 29, 2012 12:12 PMReply

    Is this something that bothers a lot of people? I think our spoiler culture has become a little ridiculous if something like a DVD player runtime can effectively ruin the enjoyment of a film.

  • Phil | May 29, 2012 3:16 PM

    Should we remove all clocks too? Generally I know how long a film is and I don't need to look at the DVD counter to figure out when it will end. Math isn't that hard.

  • Matt Singer | May 29, 2012 12:14 PM

    It's something that was bothering me. Or maybe felt guilty about is a better word because I caught myself doing it.

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