Could film critics do more to spoil less?
Oh how I love being a film critic. The sheer thrill of screening invites arriving daily into my inbox. Then the anticipation of said films; sitting alongside similarly respectful folk (no beeping mobile phones or casual mid film chat - bliss!) in cosy Soho screening rooms. Sometimes even with a drink and a nibble thrown in. Though sadly the days of platters of yummy sandwiches seem to be long gone. The main perk of seeing these films ahead of release, is not even the privilege of consequently enjoying them devoid of the hype, rapturous praise, or crushing critiques contained in the subsequent reviews by people like me that fuels audience expectations. It is, specifically, viewing future classics (and other lesser oeuvres) for the first time, and seeing the story unfold - without the experience having been undermined by any plot spoilers.
For me, this privilege is so important, that for the 23 years I have been critiquing films for broadcast media, I have gone out of my way to protect it for others. To be honest, I consider it my basic responsibility. My job is to give my verdict on a film, give you reasons why it is good bad or otherwise, make reference to what the film addresses, the performances etc. And yes, I need to do that in context. But I can do that without blurting out a large chunk of the plot. For me it's a no brainer that the joy of a story is watching it unfold. Sure, how it unfolds is important - but as a critic, so long as you keep industry rumour and early bird reviews from America or elsewhere at arm's length, then you get to enjoy both. As a fan I want both - and so, is my understanding, do other film goers.
But perhaps I'm wrong - after all, most reviews do present a large chunk of exposition to set up the author's verdict, or plot details are peppered throughout. To be fair, some reviewers will flag up spoilers - but chances are you'll accidentally catch sight of the offending words before you can stop reading. Or, as is more likely, you'll read on regardless as you're already invested in the article. And the writer probably knows that.... I personally continue to be perplexed by what constitutes a spoiler and what doesn't - because for me: any plot detail spoils. "Oh don't be ridiculous Wendy", you might be thinking right now: "you've already admitted that some info is required to give context to any review!?" True. But I reckon there's a big difference between providing story context, and detailed plot. For most films, you need only give a general overview about the story theme before you can move on to your actual review. There Will Be Blood? "The life and times of a crazy mean oil baron in turn of the century California". Surely that's plenty - before you can then spout off on the performances of Day Lewis, Dano et al, and the way PT Anderson brought it all to life etc etc? I'm not going to walk you through specific epic scenes, or regurgitate lines verbatim - I'd like you to be surprised/shocked/moved by them yourself. My job is to give my interpretation of the film: how it made me feel; what it made me consider and reference, and why I feel and think the way I do about it, etc. With that information, you, it's potential viewer, can hopefully a) decide whether you want to see the film or not and b) still have the story thrillingly unfold if you do.
It has consequently become a game I play automatically when reading a review - of a film that I have already seen I hasten to add. I identify the chunks of plot they choose to reveal, then decide whether it was really necessary to do so, in order that their consequent points/verdict could be made. Nine times out of ten I don't believe it is.
But maybe it's just my thing - film critics provide an important service for all film goers, and I myself am always keen to glean insight from my more cinematically learned fellow critics. It's not my place to say they are wrong. That being said, I regularly straw poll my position on omitting plot from reviews: I can honestly say I not only receive unanimous support, but people usually take the opportunity to then bang on to me about their resentment of 'too much plot' spoiling their viewing pleasure. Oh the irony.
One thing's for sure: the studios themselves have no qualms about giving away plot - just sit through any movie trailer for confirmation. There's no doubt movie trailers have got longer, and more detailed - and more revealing of the entirety of the film's story. You used to get act one, maybe a bit of act two, and then: COMING SOON. Ooh! - you're tantalized! You can't wait! These days I am the mad woman who sits staring at her lap and maniacally wiggles her fingers in her ears in an effort to stop the ruination of a forthcoming film - all because a wall-to-wall spoiler of a trailer is onscreen. Trailers I have seen of late happily include scenes right up to practically the final shot!? It's arguably comedies that come out worst in this: in a bid to get bums on seats studios cut a trailer with, naturally, all the best jokes in it. Well you would wouldn't you? Except those jokes don't work nearly so well the second time around. Funny that. Comedy requires a large chunk of - surprise! But hey - who cares? - you've bought your ticket, your bum's on that seat: studio wins. Long term though, isn't there a chance that people who end up thinking they didn't find a film funny actually had the film spoiled for them by the trailer they saw the week before? Isn't there a chance they now won't go see the next Adam Sandler film? Sorry. Couldn't resist.
It's a debate I'm keen to open up to critics and regular film goers alike. It's possible I'm not meeting and consequently discussing my position with film goers who love to get a heads up on the minutiae of the plot. I can't work out why you'd want that - but I'd love to understand it if that's the case! As a broadcast film critic, perhaps reviewers for publications might argue that a written analysis requires more plot detail for some particular reason I am missing....? I'm keen to know. Perhaps many people do also have their own limit on plot revelation, but it differs from mine. I'm keen to hear. For the moment though, I don't see me changing my very hard and fast rule anytime soon. The plot's safe with me.