Saturday, November 14, 2009

Critical Cretinisms: Spoilers

In a conversation with my brother in 2000, he mentioned that he had just seen the Wolfgang Petersen film The Perfect Storm, adding that "it was pretty good. Too bad everybody dies." Realizing his mistake in disclosing the film's ending to me, which was no secret to anyone familiar with the actual incident that the film dramatizes, he quickly apologized for his "spoiler." I told him not to worry and that I was not planning to go see the film anyway. When I did manage to see it months later on DVD, my brother's divulging the ending had not "spoiled" it for me at all.

Though unhappy, the ending of The Perfect Storm was not particularly surprising. Films that utilize "twist" or surprise endings depend for their full impact on that ending not being leaked to the audience. Two fairly recent examples spring to mind: The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Game (1998). Both of those films would have been far less effective and, I will admit, enjoyable, if their endings were known to me before I watched them. The popular prohibition of the leaking of surprise endings is comparable to the suppression of so-called "exit polls" during national elections until the last polling stations are closed. The rationale behind this is that no one wants to bet on a losing horse, and that some people will not bother to cast their votes if the outcome of the election has already been determined.

Aside from the films for which a surprise ending is everything, many classic films make use of them, and they contribute to their overall effect. One of the most luminous examples is Renoir's The Rules of the Game, which ends with the shooting death of André Jurieux, who was mistaken for Octave as he was running into the arms of Christine, who was mistaken for Lisette. Though surprising, the ending is perfectly congruous with everything that had come before it. Another great use of a surprise ending is in Truffaut's Jules and Jim, in which Catherine and Jim plunge to their deaths from a disused bridge. This ending, too, is initially shocking, but it feels utterly right in the film's continuity because Truffaut's artistry made it so.

Some surprise endings actually backfire, and Truffaut's very next film, The Soft Skin illustrates this disturbingly. His tale of the marital infidelity of a scholarly writer with an air hostess ends with his wife's discovering his affair and then methodically murdering him in a crowded restaurant. This ending cast a melodramatic pall over the entire film, almost ruining it. I noted before that the ending is an excellent illustration of the meaning of "melodrama." In the course of our lives, most of us have had to deal with infidelity, but few of us, thankfully, choose to deal with it as violently as the wife in Truffaut's film.

Citizen Kane ends with the revelation of the meaning of "Rosebud," the word uttered by Kane with his dying breath. But if it explains the mystery of Charles Foster Kane's last word, it does not in any way explain the mystery of Kane himself, which is the film's point. The RKO publicists for Citizen Kane sought to maintain the secrecy of Rosebud's identity, and contemporary film critics were instructed to do the same in their reviews. But such instructions, whether or not they are obeyed, run counter to the efforts of art and of criticism, which are to inform and illuminate.

Often, the efforts of publicists to suppress information from the public distorts the filmmaker's message. For instance, when Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thieves was released in the U.S., a subtle alteration of the title to The Bicycle Thief not only misrepresented the original Italian, Ladri di Biciclette, it misrepresented De Sica's whole point. In the film, the hero has his bicycle stolen on his first day on the job. By the end of the film, with no hope of retrieving his bicycle and keeping his job, he resorts to stealing someone else's bicycle. De Sica was simply trying to tell us that, under the horrific conditions of postwar Italy, even an honest man can become a thief. But the idea, and the original title, was considered a "spoiler" by American distributors who feared that De Sica's title would give away the ending.

By now, when most filmgoers depend on films to provide them with the vicarious thrills of an amusement park ride or the mental challenge of a crossword puzzle, spoilers have become anathema. Whenever a critic makes the mistake of providing his readers with information that producers would rather they did not have, he is liable to come under fire. But requiring him to deliberately keep his readers in the dark and to stop short of a full evaluation is quite unacceptable editorializing, not to mention an infringement of free speech. It is also founded on the assumption that films are not to be taken seriously or handled at the same level of respect as any other creative media.

What if you were a critic discussing Moby Dick with strict instructions to avoid mentioning that, by the end of the book, the Pequod is sunk by the whale with the loss of all hands but one? Or even that you might be prohibited from recommending King Lear to a prospective reader or theatergoer by telling him "it's a great play. Too bad everybody dies"?

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