Wednesday, July 28, 2010

An aside on reviewing movies - Spoilers

I'm starting to see how reviewing movies is a complex business. They are easy to do and I'd argue not all that hard to do well (not that I'm doing them all that well, but relative to other forms of writing, they are on the easy side, I would say). But when you start doing a lot of them, you do begin to come up against some slippery, tricky issues that take real intelligence and experience to figure out, I suspect.

The first one that I keep bumping into is spoilers. For my own experience, I am super uptight about spoilers. If I know that I want to see a movie, then I try my best to limit my knowledge as much as possible. Even for movies that are straightforward, the less I know the better. Some of my best movie-going experiences have been when I had no idea what I was getting into and got totally blindsided. The more you know about a movie, the more you start to set expectations and the experience becomes more and more one of comparing your expectations against what is actually happening on the screen as opposed to a pure viewing experience where your brain has to deal with what it is getting without having any handholds or guidelines.

I don't think I need to go into Hollywood's terrible practice of telling the entire story in the trailer (though sometimes it is a good thing as often you don't even have to bother seeing the movie, as in Brothers, which you would never actually want to see but if they had kept some of it hidden, you might have been at least tempted to find out what happens). At Fantasia, this concern seems paramount, as most of the movies are being shown for the first time. Furthermore, many of them have plot twists and surprises, these elements being staples of the genres Fantasia celebrates. If it's good, I want you to see it. But I don't want to ruin anything for you.

On the other hand, many of these movies are really interesting and like most good movies, demand discussion afterward among those who have seen it. I can do that with my friends and the other Fantasia geeks one gets to know over time in the line-up. The internet has added a new wrinkle. Now I can share my thoughts and read the thoughts of other people who have seen the movies and in a lot of cases I really want to respond. There were many cases of the reviews that I wrote where I had a lot more to say, but cut it out because I would have had to expose a chunk of the story to explain my position. I was thinking it would be cool to have two datastreams: the current one for people who haven't seen the movies and another one for those who have (you have to type in a serial number on your ticket stub to get access).

I think there is a real skill in reviewing a movie without revealing too much. For popular consumption, such as newspaper reviews that come out on the day of the release, you have to give away a bit of the movie, or you just won't have enough to write about, I suspect. But for the internet, where you can write as little or as much as you feel is appropriate, you can be fairly discrete. It is a real writing challenge to sell a movie without giving any of the good stuff away. In some movies, even knowing there is a twist can alter your perception of your viewing of the film. If you think about it, though, isn't writing a review using all the good stuff from the movie actually cheating? You are using the material created by the artist to entertain to fuel your own entertainment. But then what's wrong with borrowing art? A tricky business, as I say.

I've obviously erred on not giving away any spoilers and sometimes I find my writing to be embarrassingly vague. There are several adjectives—interestingly often in the present participle form as opposed to a true adjective—that have gotten badly overworked here in the last few weeks (poor "entertaining" and aching "engaging"). It's been good training, though and I hope that if you do see any of the films I've lauded this year that you'll appreciate my discipline on this matter (or more likely you'll be thinking why did that over-enthusiastic geek make me watch this piece of crap again?)

(this comic from Saint Gasoline; click on the link to find more nerdy comics.)

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