In 1991, back when I was co-hosting a radio show of movie news, interviews and reviews, Columbia pictures had a Christmastime release with My Girl, a charming coming-of-age dramedy that was the follow-up for Macauley Culkin's 1990 box office blow-out, Home Alone. During the course of the movie, there is a surprising development - not a "twist," mind you, but a dramatic turn of events that had the studio pleading with critics to please be respectful of audiences and not reveal too much about the storyline. We complied, religiously so; in the months and years that followed, when the topic of the movie came up, we steered well clear of the surprise, as we did with other films that relied upon keeping a crucial plot turn secret (like one year later, when the world was playing hush-hush with The Crying Game). But here it is, almost two decades after the fact, and surely the statute of limitations has run out on keeping a cinematic secret, right?
I don't think so. Someone, somewhere is encountering My Girl for the first time, and my opinion on the worth of it notwithstanding, that viewer is entitled to as virginal an experience as our "No More Secrets" Interweb culture can possibly grant - or at least my little corner of it. We have become guilty of using plot secrets as shorthand ("My Girl? Oh yeah, that's the one where ________"), and as the last ten years have seen an explosion of "twist" endings in the theaters, we have developed that horrible phrase "Spoiler Alert!" (really, do you know anyone who is able to truly look away, or skip to a later paragraph as directed, without absorbing some of the offending material?) as a way of absolving ourselves from the difficulty of talking about film, while still maintaining the potential for enjoyment for those who have not yet experienced what we have experienced.
Alerts are no longer reserving themselves for post-release commentary. Last summer, in the weeks leading up to the unveiling of The Orphan, there was a minor kerfluffle about the movie's potential for scaring off future parents from adopting the unwanted. On a major general interest website, a writer taking issue with The Orphan's subject matter casually spilled the goods. Oh, yes, they posted Spoiler Alert in big, bold type - and when you clicked on the second page of the article, there it was at the top, immediately followed by the disclosure, impossible to avoid. The writer was dismissive of the film, fearful of its effects - and the choreography of her revelation was designed to accomplish maximum destruction. (The ability to change public perception is a wonderful metric in gauging a Horror film's impact - remember the initial drop-off in infidelity and one-night stands after Fatal Attraction? If The Orphan had found its audience, you bet we'd be dubious of raising kids that didn't spring forth from our loins.) I had been soooo good in being able to keep the surprise away from my eyes, but then was blindsided. As it turned out, The Orphan was no less a guilty pleasure - how can you not love a movie in which a 12 year old kills a nun with a hammer? - as knowing the secret afforded me a unique insight into the title character's motivations and tactics, but I ain't talking about the secret here. Not even among us Horror fans.
I must also call out my fellow Horror bloggers, not by name or website - there is enough acrimony on the Interweb as it is, thank you - but by protocols. Last Fall, Paranormal Activity saw a graduated roll-out across the country. Small pockets of the US were exposed to the film first, and it became a badge of honor to say that you saw it and give your reaction. Before that first weekend was over, one respected blogger had posted a virtual beat-by-beat reiteration of the movie's plot, under the mitigating category of "analysis." Analysis? Of a film that had only unspooled to a few thousand patrons in select markets? Shameful. It came as little surprise that, no, they didn't care for the film much at all, but by trumpeting their ability to claim ownership of a ticket stub, they exhibited one of the primary reasons that great swaths of moviegoers have no use for critics. Viewing equals power; I've seen this film, and you haven't. Indeed, I've seen many more movies that you probably have, and I have a forum, and you don't. And to prove my power and my utter wonderfulness...
And let me remind my fellow bloggers of one of the greatest sins ever perpetrated against Horror fandom. In 1980, to voice his displeasure with Friday the 13th and star Betsy Palmer's participation, critic Gene Siskel revealed the identity of the killer for the purpose of dissuading people from seeing the film. He admitted at the time that this was a genuine weapon that he had in his critical arsenal, and he assured audiences that it was one he did not employ cavalierly, but it was a potent reminder that all critics, no matter the size of the audience, carry a WMD - a Weapon of Movie Destruction.
Now I hear you saying, "Well, that's all fine and good, Senski, but if people don't want secrets spoiled, what are they doing poking around on a Horror website?" A few thought:
- I do not presume that all of my readers are Horror fans. In fact, I know that many friends check in on this site merely because they know me and gain what small level of enjoyment there is to be found in my blatherings. They may not all be conversant in the films of M. Night Shyamalan (I have friends who read this blog who have yet to see Psycho, but are too scared to watch it, and know next to nothing about its storyline. We should all be jealous of them and the surprises that lie in store), and I feel a responsibility to them that eclipses any need for me to display whatever level of Horror erudition I may possess.
- If we are the fans of Horror that we claim to be, then it is incumbent upon us to be not only the Keepers of the Flame, but the Fanners as well. We want to bring people to the genre, not drive them away, and few other genres rely as heavily on the element of surprise. Blithely dropping important elements of storylines into reviews without first considering if there's a more artful, indirect way of writing about them has become Standard Operating Procedure. I was dismayed to see how many reviews of The Wolfman casually mentioned important details about Anthony Hopkins' character, details that the filmmakers clearly wanted to keep from the viewer for at least the first hour of the movie. And I admire anyone who still avers from mentioning the surprise cameo in Zombieland. I'll repeat this - No, not everyone knows, folks. Not everyone has figured it out in advance. And they haven't all seen the trailer, either.
- I am very aware of how preachy this next point is going to sound, but here goes - Keeping secrets is hard, very hard. It requires a certain skill with words that I grapple with every time I have to turn in a review, but I feel it is owed to the filmmakers, many of whom spent years in development and production to create that which I dissect after one viewing and a few strokes of the keyboard. (If you think writing is tough, try ad-libbing criticism in a dialogue over the airwaves, constantly mentally censoring yourself while still trying to think and speak coherently. One of the things I most enjoyed about Siskel and Ebert's exchanges was the way they spoke up to the line of revelation, knowing how not to cross it, no matter how much they liked or disliked the film - and let me be clear again: Gene's treatment of Friday the 13th was an aberration, albeit an unfortunate one.) I would respectfully ask my fellow bloggers to read critics like Ebert, Kael, Denby, Schickel, Corliss - not for their content, but for their technique and ability to structure a compelling review that tells just enough, and no more. If print criticism is disappearing, then we have to step into the breach, and be willing to embrace those ethics that made legitimate film criticism respected as reportage and a valued artform in its own right. Here's a simple rule - disclose anything that happens after the first two reels (40 minutes) with the greatest of care.
Can this toothpaste get back into the tube? I doubt it. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to shake my fist at the heavens and declare The Jar a Spoiler-Free Zone (and I shall do my damnedest to keep it so). Seeing and being wowed by Shutter Island this weekend has inspired me to screw my courage to the sticking post, and encourage others to do the same. Hence the creation of The Rosebud League, dedicated to eradicating spoilers and removing the need for alerts, and named after the greatest of all cinematic secrets - one that was spoiled for me at a tender age when Charles Schulz referenced it in a Peanuts strip that I read (and remembered) decades before I ever saw Citizen Kane. The writers I've read who dismiss Shutter Island while patting themselves on the back for "figuring it out" utterly miss Scorsese's point - whatever ruse is there is not the construct of Scorsese, but of the film's characters. (If you went to the movie intent on proving you know more about film than Marty, you were on a fool's errand, and you missed so very, very much.) Today I deleted two blogs from my "follow" list that not only gave away Shutter's surprises, but in one case, did so just to demonstrate callow snarkiness in pursuit of a not-very-funny punchline. This world is filled with people who do not yet realize what Rosebud meant to Charles Foster Kane. If we love cinema as much as we say we do, let's leave that trick for the great prestidigitator Orson Welles to demonstrate, and be ready to stand and applaud when he pulls it off for future generations.