In Defense of the Spoiler Police

By  · Published on October 4th, 2010

The protection of a pure movie experience does not have to come at the cost of genuinely engaging film discussion. In fact, since a great conversation about a movie usually demands that all parties involved have seen it, the idea of spoilers doesn’t even enter into it.

Unless you’re Armond White.

The critic most recently took the release of The Social Network as a catalyst to talk about the internet culture of criticism, but instead of calling him insane, pointing out that for all his bold claims he’s completely unburdened by facts, or skewering his main points (which was already done fairly capably by Alison Willmore at IFC), I’d like to tackle a tangential question and a tangential claim that he so eloquently raises.

The first part of that we can square away quickly. White writes in his attack on the new:

“When was the last time you had a good conversation about a movie? Not watercooler chat about box-office scores, but a discussion dissecting what a movie says, means or how it relates to your life?”

My personal answer is “yesterday.” That answer is preceded by more than a week of nothing but good conversations about movies at Fantastic Fest and an almost-daily dose of those conversations from the writers and fans of this site, as well as colleagues at other sites. The conversations are out there. That White doesn’t know about them means he doesn’t spend the time to find them or is not welcomed warmly to them.

However, the real purpose of this editorial is spelled out by White’s attack on spoilers:

“Consider the illiterate belief in “spoilers” that now restricts critical discussion: Fear of “spoilers” nullifies any attempt at detailed interpretation or explanation of a film. It forestalls the tendency to analyze meaning and content that used to be a tenet of liberalarts [sic] education. Somehow the critical practice of analysis, reflection and comparison has not dawned on today’s consumers or taught them the merits of a reasoned response. In the blockbuster era, criticism has wound up in a disrespected place where it no longer addresses audience’s needs for enlightenment and excellence. Criticism has lost its educative function and the culture loses its moral foundation.”

Bold claims that aren’t bolstered by facts of figures aside, White seems to have a myopic view of the world of spoilers, leading me to believe that he doesn’t actually read the critics or the internet that he’s so angry with.

For one, spoilers have done little to change the conversation. Most writers tend to steer clear of them when writing a capable review because, most of the time, reviewing a film with any skill means not revealing major moments that could take away the impact the film has for the reader/watcher. I know. I’ve written my fair share of reviews where I couldn’t help but spoil things.

Which brings us to the second fact ‐ whenever spoilers are written about, they normally come with a warning so that 1) anyone who wishes to avoid them can and 2) anyone who’s seen the film can feel free to join in on the discussion.

If I can offer an argument with as much factual back up as White, it doesn’t seem like criticism or the way fans relate to it have changed all that much. When was this Golden Era where fans listened with chins buried in their mitts around the camp fire while old Uncle Armond told them about the underlying themes of death and betrayal in The Land Before Time? Was it back during the same age when people ducked into theaters to have a place to sit that was air conditioned? The internet has changed the amount of critics out there, the access fans have, and a freedom to ignore those critical voices (which always existed), but it’s clear in reading the critics that I read, the educative function is still alive and well. So is the open door to discussion.

On the other hand, I have no idea what all of this has to do with a “moral foundation” for the culture, but if it has anything to do with the sheer volume of baby eating that took place in the films at Fantastic Fest, I have to concede to White on that point.

Ultimately, spoilers are a bad thing because they allow the critic to shock the audience by stealing the movie’s thunder. It’s like being the one to blurt out that your sister and her husband are pregnant so that you can get the applause at the dinner table instead of the happy couple. Since he doesn’t spell it out, it’s unclear exactly why White fears the careful avoidance of spoilers (or the accurate label of when spoilers are afoot), but wouldn’t you rather see a film as purely as possible instead of roaming an internet wasteland where a movie could be ruined for you with any random click of the mouse?

The truth is, avoiding spoilers or clearly labeling them does nothing to detract from a meaningful discussion about a movie.

What do you think?

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.