The following rant contains spoilers from Memento, The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, The Wizard of Oz, The Fugitive, Star Wars
, and some films from the 1990s that you might want to (finally) check out before reading. - The Author
In the film Memento, a weary Leonard Shelby (Guy Pierce) remembers coming home to his wife (Jorja Fox), as she laid in bed and read her favorite book....again. When he pressed her about her re-visitation, she insisted that she loved the book. “I thought the point of a reading a book was to find out what comes next,” he moans. “Don't be a prick,” she retorts. “Just let me read. Please.”
This minor exchange provides a few elements to explore -- first off, it's one of the purest moments of marital exchange in recent movie history. These characters must love one another to be able to snark about her favorite book -- and he recognizes that's what it is -- her favorite book. Second, we can almost imagine what book it may be (it has no cover), and how she has come to appreciate the book so much. For her, this book is something that soothes her -- perhaps it took her by surprise the first time she read it, and now it has become a staple -- something to revisit again and again to the point of wearing out the cover, the binding, and nearly every dog eared page. What was her first experience reading it? Was she taken by surprise? Did the story twist in a particular direction in such a fascinating manner that she is compelled to return to it again and again? She more than likely was not spoiled.
THE PLOT POINTS
I use this moment to illustrate how one bonds with a story, bonds with a text. Moving this scene into other storytelling mediums, one can imagine seeing a film for the first time that may turn out to be a favorite.
In traditional narrative Hollywood cinema there are six plot points (according to some writing gurus) and 70 action beats per 100 page script. These beats move us from moment-to-moment, while the large plot points are the big surprises. According to writer and teacher Laurence Carr, the plot points occur as follows…
1) Inciting Indecent - This is where the film truly begins. We may have a few minutes of character background before the first event occurs that propels us into a movie. Dorothy may be singing somewhere over the rainbow, but her journey truly does not begin until the tornado hits.
2) End of Act I Plot Point - It is called several things, depending upon the screenwriting textbook author, but the idea is there is a moment at the end of the first act that propels us into the meat of the story. For Dorothy, it is putting her feet on the Yellow Brick Road.
3) The mid-point of the screenplay - This may be either a reveal or reversal. In thinking about Andrew Davis' film version of The Fugitive, the reveal occurs when Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) discovers the one-armed man's prosthetic in the thug's apartment. He even calls US Marshall Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) to inform him of his find. He practically telegraphs the significance of the plot point with his line, “I am trying to solve a puzzle. And I just found a big piece.” The reversal on the other hand, moving back to The Wizard of Oz, is a shift in value. For Dorothy, the first half of Act II is wrapped in positive values -- she meets three characters (Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion), procures some apples from a few angry trees, and gets to exist in Technicolor. Her first real danger occurs with the flying monkeys (or perhaps in the poppy fields). This is a negative value. A reversal of fortune.
4) The Point of No Return - The rising action. At this point in the screenplay, a character must commit to the quest—commit to the third act. Luke Skywalker, soaring in his X-Wing toward the Death Star can not suddenly blurt 'screw this!' and fly away (to the disappointment of Wedge and Biggs). Dorothy can not deny the Wizard's request for the Witch's broom. There is a commitment to the final task –defeating the antagonist, and saving the day, and fulfilling the protagonists' dramatic need.
5) The Climax - This is the highest point of tension in the film. It's the Death Star's destruction. It's the discovery that he really was a ghost the whole time. It's the discovery of Kaiser Soze's true identity. It's what we paid our money to see. The big apocalyptic battle between good and evil, with perhaps the fate of the entire world hanging in the balance (as is often the case in Super-hero films).
6) The Denouement - This is the big exhale. The post-climax cigarette. Some films keep this moment short (think Reservoir Dogs or French Connection II), others explore it a bit. Perhaps it's the detective describing how he solved the crime (such as Sherlock Holmes), or a curtain call at the end of a sprawling epic (Lord of the Rings). Or a set-up to the next movie (“I'll look into it,” The Batman says as Gordon hands him a Joker card).
As mentioned earlier, these plot points are given different names, by different screenwriting scholars, but it ultimately amounts to this: exposition. Letting the audience know what it needs to know when it needs to know it. Giving the audience what they want, but not how they think they are going to get it.
Plot points, and some of the action beats, are surprises. Much like a Christmas, Chanukah, or birthday presents. First you are given the surprise -- here's a plot point! Then, the surprise is unwrapped. Is it going to be the thing you were hoping for? Is the filmmaker going to give you a beat that will excite you and engage you? Will the next moments be something you would like to see again and again, or will it fall flat -- like getting underwear as a holiday gift?
There is an anticipation of the next moment in storytelling, and for those who have already been spoiled -- for those who have already 'peaked' at their presents by seeking out plot details on the world wide web -- where is the surprise? Where is the excitement? In the film, Batman Beyond: Return of The Joker, The Joker finally unwraps Batman's identity -- Bruce Wayne. “And like a kid who peaks at his Christmas presents,” he quips, “I find this sadly anti-climactic.”
So what are "spoilers" and what is their role -- if there is one?
DIVULGING SPOILERS = "STREET CRED"
An audience wants to know how something will end -- this is a large part of why we go to films to begin with. Note, for instance, that we get all of the plot set up from trailers, with the exception of a few cleverly put together trailers -- as is the case with the upcoming Muppet film. We see the film, in part, for its ending. If it ends well (even if it begins poorly), we are satisfied. If it ends poorly (even if it begins spectacularly well), we are dissatisfied. Curiosity is natural, and curiosity about an anticipated film (especially one that has a strong marketing campaign behind it) is equally understandable.
Moving curiosity into the realm of spoilers is another business, though. In the late 1980s, very little information about Batman (1989) was available. This was pre-internet era. If someone picked up a magazine, or caught the Entertainment Tonight exclusive on television, that person suddenly had street cred among his or her peers. This person can tell you how Batman looked, what some lines of dialogue sounded like, what The Batmobile looked like, and so on. In other words, this person now had some kind of street-cred as a person with “inside information,” however little that actually was. Magazines, entertainment news programs, entertainment journalists all attempted to out scoop each other.
After all, the public wanted to see the film, and the tabloids wanted the public to buy their paper or watch their program -- more than likely for advertising revenue. As the years went on, magazines, tabloids, television programs, and then web sites began looking for “leaks.” It might be someone sneaking on a set with a camera, or someone obtaining a copy of the screenplay or treatment -- the “big inside scoop.” In 1997, George Clooney strongly objected to the paparazzi -- believing they had been turned into bounty hunters by entertainment news outlets seeking photos or anything else for top dollar -- just to be the one who had the scoop, and therefore the credibility of simply being in the know.
In the age of the world wide web, there are now web sites equally clamoring for this kind of credibility. Script leaks, photographs, screen-grabs, the inside scoop -- anything they can grab and put out there, they will, under the guise of “we are servicing our readers.” In actuality, they are doing nothing more than attempting to build spoiler street-cred for little more than self-fascination and advancement. It's not about keeping the public informed, it's about bringing the public back to their web site either for advertising revenue (tracking site hits, etc.,) or for ego. Nothing more.
How in the hell are you “serviced” by knowing the end of a film?
When I read stories to my children, they fall into a kind of chant as they rock back and forth on their beds. “Get to the ending! Get to the ending!” Good storytelling builds anticipation. We are still children, wanting to hear what happens next. What happens if we already know what happens next? If the surprise is an anti-climax?
Several web sites and forums engaged in spoiler-ridden dialogue when The Dark Knight was in production. Some of these same sites are now moving toward a spoiler-restricted model. One such forum (that I will not identify by name) was run by a man who, in his desire for spoiler-street credibility, posted images from The Dark Knight that had been obtained without the filmmakers' permission. When admonished for doing so, this forum-guru likened himself to Jesus Christ -- a martyr for his readers. He recently left his own forum, stating that he wanted to be surprised by The Dark Knight Rises -- that he felt let down by The Dark Knight, possibly due to knowing all of the plot points, all of the surprises, before seeing the film.
Say it with me...
In the television series Doctor Who, a character has been reappearing for the last few seasons. This character, River Song, seems to know a great deal about The Doctor, and the trials he will face in the future. She has kept a book of their encounters. Their time streams seem to move in opposite directions, his past is her future -- her future his past. At times she can only offer The Doctor limited assistance, insisting that it will affect the future too greatly if he knew what was coming. Or, as she says it, “spoilers, darling.”
Perhaps knowing all of the beats, or at least the major moments, in a film before seeing the film is not as catastrophic as destroying a future, or a past, that we do not know. Perhaps it is not the creation of a time paradox. What it is, though, is the negation of a possibility -- the possibility of surprise. The possibility of truly relishing the joy of cinematic exposition. It also spoils the possibility of revisiting the film with as much appreciation -- after all, when we look at films more than once, we tend to revisit the emotions we experienced when we first saw the film. The excitement, the joy, the empathy. Spoiling a movie means that it will more than likely not be something you will enjoy to the fullest extent possible.
Returning to Memento, the book has become a...well, memento of his wife's memory.
What is your book going to be? What is your movie going to be? What will be your memento? A story, whether in written text or in cinema has that kind of potential for an audience eagerly receiving surprise after surprise from the storyteller. It can not, however, when the reader is spoiled. The same goes for cinema. Spoilers negate any possibility for a film to become your memento.