Monday, September 2, 2013

"Confessions" and Khan Jobs: Questioning the Spoiler Orthodoxy

I am a devoted fan of The /Filmcast and I deeply appreciate the way that David Chen, Devindra Hardawar and the rest leave any discussion of "spoilers" till the end of their reviews.  I've frequently listened to the first half of reviews for movies I hadn't yet seen, and held off on listening to the "spoiler" portion until after I'd seen the movie in question.  Now, I generally agree with their approach to "spoilers", that is, treating any plot detail as a spoiler unless it had already been revealed in a trailer or commercial.  However, in a recent podcast of  The Ones Who Knock ("TOWK"), David's spin-off podcast with Joanna Robinson, they took things a step further by treating the title of an episode airing the following week as a spoiler.  At the time, I took the "spoiler warning" to heart and did all I could to avoid learning the title until after I saw the episode.  In retrospect, however, I think that was a mistake.

That experience left me thinking about "Spoiler Orthodoxy", which is what I'm calling the perspective that any piece of information that reveals plot details of any sort is a "spoiler."  I think it's time we reconsider what constitutes a "spoiler", and maybe push back against the Spoiler Orthodoxy when it takes control out of the storyteller's hands and treats all plot details as "spoilers" without differentiation.  In fact, I'll go a step further and say that "spoiler warnings" can create false expectations that may even harm the viewing experience (particularly when the system is abused for the sake of marketing alone).

More below the fold, and (yes) "spoiler warning" for the latest season of Breaking Bad, the fourth season of Venture Bros. and Star Trek Into Darkness.

Let me start by saying that I'm not proposing, as others arguably have, a "spoiler free-for all" (even though, as A.V. Club pointed out a couple of years ago, studies suggest that "being spoiled" generally does not negatively impact the typical viewing experience for most people).  Rather, I believe that avoiding "spoilers" fulfills a social pact between the storyteller and the audience.  That is, a good storyteller will decide carefully which plot details should be revealed at what point in time, and we the audience shouldn't second guess the storyteller by deciding on our own who should know what when in advance of seeing the finished product.  This system depends on trust, and there are dividends to be paid when that trust is honored and bad outcomes when that trust is betrayed.

You've Seen It, You Can't Un-See It

As others have pointed out, this Spoiler Orthodoxy has really only taken hold recently due to the combination of "on demand" technology that allows us to consume media on our own schedule while constant, real-time discussion is occurring online without any filter.  In the pre-internet/pre-"on demands" era, everyone learned who shot J.R. or the twist at the end of that week's Twilight Zone episode simultaneously (or else not at all).  When Alfred Hitchcock wanted to keep the ending to Psycho a secret, he could simply go out and buy every copy of the book upon which it was based off the shelves (which he famously did).  Today, the only way you could have gone into Pyscho without knowing Norman Bates was a little too close to his mother would have been to throw your iPhone into the ocean and induce a coma until you were revived by paramedics inside the theater.  Living in a world of perpetual fear that any tweet or Facebook status could reveal a killer twist has basically turned all of us who are "spoiler averse" into Frank Castanza, insisting that we have to go in fresh lest an inadvertent "spoiler" slip through.

The flip-side to this extreme spoiler aversion, however, is that it can have the effect of taking control out of the storyteller's hands to the detriment of the viewer.  It's one thing if, in the case of The Crying Game, the studio specifically asks the audience not to give away the twist ending.  It's another thing entirely when the audience takes it upon themselves to conceal information that is clearly meant to be know in advance.  I've heard people say that they refuse to watch a single trailer for a movie they're interested in seeing.  (They're going in fresh!)  There's a virtue in that when you consider the bone-headed move to give away the money shot in a trailer (Avengers, I'm looking in your direction).  Yet, it also denies you the experience of seeing the trailer unspoiled by the movie.  

Trailers can function as short films onto themselves and inspire the imagination with snippets that force the audience to fill in the blanks (often to greater effect than the finished product at the end of the day).  Take, for example, the trailer for Season Four of Venture Bros., which creates an effect on first viewing that is practically ruined once you've seen the season in full:  

Now, "ruined" is a strong word, but when I saw that trailer for the first time ... damn it, I wanted to see how Dean ended up on a flying T-Rex and whether Dr. Venture would team up with his future self to build that time portal.  When it turned out the former was a prog-rock induced hallucination and the latter was a prank pulled by a shape-shifting David Bowie, well, as admittedly awesome as the truth turned out to be, it still wasn't as amazing as the Season Four of my imagination.  

Consider also the trailer for The Fountain.  This forty-second teaser was absolutely mind-blowing when I saw it in theaters for the first time, in a manner that simply cannot be replicated after you've seen the movie in full (notwithstanding the fact that I enjoyed the film for what it was):

The last example I'll give you is the following trailer for Southland Tales, Richard Kelly's woe-begotten follow up to Donnie Darko.  Here again, this trailer was probably one of the greatest things I saw on the big screen that year, and - while I still love the trailer for what it is - it can't top the exhilaration I felt at the (unfulfilled) prospect of the complete film actually delivering on the wit, satire and bombastic cathartics promised by the trailer.

Flash forward (if you will) to the previous week, when TOWK issued a "spoiler warning" for an episode title.  By treating the episode title (i.e. "Confessions") as a spoiler, I denied myself a week of feverish anticipation as to what those "confessions" might be.  Who was going to be confessing what???  Bear in mind that the title was not some closely guarded secret -- AMC has posted a list online of all the episode titles through the end of series -- so you can't say that treating the title as a spoiler somehow fulfilled Vince Gilligan's wishes.  To the contrary, it took that decision out of Gilligan's hands, which is particularly unfortunate given his unparalleled skill at subverting audience expectations.  The actual "confession" featured in this episode is a major head fake, masterfully revealed by Gilligan, and the effect would have only been enhanced if you had spent the previous week on the edge of your seat waiting to hear it.

So I ask you, where does Spoiler Orthodoxy end?  If we've set ourselves down the road of affirmatively avoiding not just plot details but also information that the storyteller clearly wants us to know in advance, what stops us from simply rewriting the story itself to postpone plot reveals until we the audience want to hear them?  David Chen has made the point repeatedly on TOWK that the "flash forward" sequences in this back-half of Season 5 undermine the potential tension that would otherwise be there.  That is, if we know from the "flash forwards" that Walt is still alive on his 52nd birthday and his house is still standing (though abandoned and torn to pieces), then there's no chance at the end of "Confessions" that Jesse will succeed in either burning down the house or putting a bullet between Walt's eyes in the next episode.  I don't disagree, but why not just fan-edit those scenes out to avoid the "spoilers" then?  Where does it end?

The Needs Of The Many ...

I want to leave off with a counter-point to my own argument about honoring the storyteller's wishes regarding what is and isn't a "spoiler", and I say this to underscore the importance of "spoilers" in general when handled correctly.  I mentioned above that the Avengers trailer gives away far too much, in my opinion, and I would've been well advised by someone who'd seen the finished product to avoid the trailer in this instance.  On the flip-side, there is another good reason why we ought to ignore the storyteller's wishes when it comes to "spoilers", and it can be summed up in one word:
As I said above, "spoilers" are based on a pact between the storyteller and the audience, and to honor the pact, we ought to call out the storytellers that abuse the system simply as a marketing ploy.  Case in point, during the production of Star Trek Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams explicitly denied rumors that he would be casting someone to play the iconic villain Khan (thus paralleling the second entry in the original Star Trek movie franchise).  Of course, many took J.J.s denial with a grain of salt because, come on, of course it was going to be Khan.  Yet, /Filmcast, A.V. Club and others dutifully obeyed J.J.'s wishes and treated the "big reveal" as a "spoiler" not to be revealed in advance.  As acknowledged by /Filmcast, "the secrecy around the precise nature of the character played by Benedict Cumberbatch has been a big part of the marketing allure."  Another way to say that is that the audience was sold a bill of goods.

The problem here is that the "spoiler" in question actually has no direct bearing on the movie itself.  Khan's identity was as much a "spoiler" as whether the product placement of choice will be Coke or Pepsi.  I know there those who got a kick out of the big reveal regardless of the weakness in the plot, but I agree with Badass Digest on this one:
Because Khan’s identity means nothing to anyone in the movie and because the fact that who he is impacts the plot in almost no perceptible way, his reveal is by definition not a spoiler. The only way that Khan could reasonably be considered a spoiler is if you consider any easter egg, cameo or in-joke a spoiler, because within the context of the movie Khan is only an in-joke. His reveal has meaning only to the audience, and even then only to the specific subset of the audience who knows Khan’s importance in the canon.
I'm going to go one further, in fact, and say that there was a betrayal between the storyteller and the audience this time around.  Playing up Cumberbatch's identity as a "spoiler" served principally to gin up interest and only tangentially as a plot point.  It was first and foremost a gimmick based on taking advantage of Star Trek nostalgia without earning the big emotional pay-offs, as exposed in typically brilliant fashion by the folks at Honest Trailers:

I believe that this is distinguishable from the promotional campaigns I cited above, in which the snippets revealed by the trailer created space for your imagination to take hold (for better or for worse when compared against the film itself).  Here, by contrast, the storyteller lied to the audience and took advantage of the Spoiler Orthodoxy to create an air of mystery for its own sake, rather than in service of the story.  

Needless to say, this is a subjective assessment, and I can't say with 100% certainty that I wish I'd known definitively that Cumberbatch was playing Khan before I saw the movie.  However, it ought to give us pause when "spoilers" become mere marketing ploys rather than genuine storytelling tactics.  When the Spoiler Orthodoxy is in full effect, however, and "spoilers" are declared indiscriminately without consideration of the storyteller's intent or its effect (positive or negative) on the viewing experience, it invites exactly this kind of abuse.

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