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Why spoiler warnings need to die

You probably know what spoilers are. Plots are advanced by the narrative use of plot points. Any virtual or in-person conversation that reveals a plot point too early is deemed a spoiler.

Spoilers can apply to movies, TV shows, books, video games -- pretty much any story-driven media. For simplicity's sake, I'll stick to discussing movies. Reviewers have learned to compensate for spoilers by treading very carefully around plot points. Too carefully. The care to avoid spoilers has reached levels such that it leads to overly careful wankery like this.  Or like this. Or this.  

It's all wrong. If you're still concerned about spoilers, you shouldn't be. They're bad for critics and bad for viewers, bad for analysis and bad for plot.

 

"Spoilers" almost never spoil anything

Most things labeled as spoilers don't qualify for the moniker.  Only plot points that radically change the viewer's conception of the story can be truly spoiled.  Knowing that Bruce Willis is a psychiatrist in The Sixth Sense isn't a spoiler.  Knowing that he talks to Haley Joe Osmont isn't a spoiler.  Knowing that he is actually is dead the whole movie is.

But it still doesn't matter, because...

 

People will forget spoilers by the time they encounter the original plot

Some of you are probably angry that I just ruined the ending to The Sixth Sense.  Look, it's time we had a heart to heart. If you haven't already seen that movie, you are never going to. "Planning to see it eventually" doesn't count. And if you ever do see it, even an insightful masterwork like this post will be unlikely to stick around in your memory long enough to interfere with your enjoyment.

Art that has been released recently is a bit more difficult. If you're the type of person who keeps up with TV shows, for instance, you are probably watching that show within a week of its release. Of course, then avoiding spoilers is easy -- just don't read any article that purports to be a summary within a week of its release. If you don't have the self-discipline for that, then what makes you think that a silly little spoiler warning is going to stop your craving for instant gratification?

 

There is no such thing as "unspoiled"

Unspoiled art is pure art, art untrammeled by expectations, and uninhibited by context. It's also impossible. The moment that you can conceptualize a piece of art enough that you know you want to experience it, you have already gained context, and thus lost the spoiler battle.

Art cannot be experienced without context. You put art in a white room with white walls with soft ambient lighting, or you can put it in a dark room projected on a screen from behind you, or you can listen to it using the most expensive headphones you can find, but even those approaches still don't eliminate context, they only minimize distractions. Aside from that, you as the viewer bring your own emotional baggage. Are you sleepy, content, nervous, or distracted? Are you overfull from a just-finished meal, or are you hungry? Did you have a long walk to get to the gallery, or did you saunter over to your couch and turn on the TV? These and innumerable other factors change your art experience.

A lot of smart people figured out that context matters in the 20th century, and it led to relativity in physics, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics, and contextualization in postmodern philosophy and art.  It's not a brand new concept, and we are doing ourselves a disservice to pretend that art is the one thing that can be experienced without context.

In fact, some of our most treasured media institutions are designed to bring context and spoilers.  Postcards, flyers, and advertisements are meant to get people to see art, but they also spoil the purity of experience.  The very purpose of movie previews is to be bombastic spoiler machines.  How are these spoilers so good if all the other spoilers are so bad?

 

Spoiler warnings are distracting and decrease signal-to-noise ratio

Up to this point, every point I've made has been about how spoiler warnings are irrelevent or ineffective. Time to shift gears and point out how they are actively bad.

Spoiler warnings are annoying, hamper usability, and generally make discussion a chore. When I see some variation on "Don't read further if you want to avoid spoilers," I am no longer thinking about the point of the piece I'm reading, but instead I'm thinking about my process of reading. This is like watching Life of Pi and having a sign flash on halfway through the first act that says "YOU ARE WATCHING A MOVIE WITH A CG TIGER." Thank you, fictional sign, but I already knew that.

 

Spoilers actually increase viewing enjoyment

It's true, you will actually like something better if you get exposed to spoilers beforehand.  Science says so.

 

Spoiler concern eliminates valid discussion

This is the Big Kahuna, the real reason I hate spoilers, and the whole reason I'm writing this blog post in the first place. Have something to say about a movie? You better make sure you get signed forms from all people in earshot waiving their rights, in perpetuity, for them to object to hearing what you want to say.

But, you know, just don't say it, right? Wrong. Completely wrong. That viewpoint is the information wants to be free argument turned on its head. Understanding is gained through analysis and discussion, and there's no surer way to quash discussion than by putting the onus on the speaker to make sure that his audience is ready to hear what she has to say.

Let's give everybody the benefit of the doubt, and say that nobody wants to be rude and ruin a plot for anybody. (For our example, it doesn't really matter, as rude people are unlikely to care about spoiler warnings anyway). For every person who has something to say on Twitter, Facebook, on a blog, or in person, if they have to check with their audience before revealing a possible spoiler, what are they likely to do? Are they likely to ask everybody if they can talk? More likely they don't say it.

But that's what the spoiler warning is for, right? It's there to give people the opportunity to share without injuring the poor precious virgin ears that are unready to hear it, right? Still wrong. Not only does it provide a frustrating hoop to jump through whenever you want to talk about art, it means that readers who would otherwise engage on a deeper level with the art instead choose not to read further, in the name of some fallacious "pure first experience" that is as impossible as Jesus riding up on a Unicorn with a briefcase full of war bonds.

 

It's time for our art discussion to give up our spoiler obsession.  Not only are they annoying non-content, they actively reduce the quality of our critique.  Join me in the rallying cry: Death to spoiler warnings and shame on those who use them!

Assassin's Creed III

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I don't play too many computer games, but I've been eager to try out Assassin's Creed III since I read about its rich grasp of history.  It's obviously not particularly high on my priorities list, as I received it for Christmas, and it took me about a month before I even began playing it.  I've since taken a three week hiatus from it to go to Puerto Rico, and while I anticipate picking it up again soon, it's still on the back burner for right now.

I'm not particularly far into the game, only about 20% according to the game's progress meter, but I have gotten to a bit more of the open-ended gameplay, with special quests and more people.  The basic gameplay doesn't do much for me, though I wasn't really expecting it to -- there's only so many ways you can do the "walk around and kill people" game, and I've seen them all before.  Stealth has yet to factor into any missions, though I have a feeling it will later.  Right now the game is still walking me through baby steps to get used to the mechanics.

The gameplay isn't why I bought it, though.  The history is why I bought it.  And on that front, it's pretty good.  A lot of effort went into making the game feel historical, even if it mixes fantasy with history pretty liberally, and it's often difficult to discern between the two.  I particularly like the text asides that are present for historical figures and sites of interest.  Video gamers aren't exactly renowned for their attention spans for dialogue and text, so it's nice to see that the developers are willing to throw a bone for those of us who aren't just playing the game to kill stuff.

The plot is probably my least favorite part.  I know that I'm a dinosaur, but I still mostly want my video games to provide a single-player narrative experience, and it leaves me cold when I feel that the plot is thin.  There's plenty of dialogue here, but little of it is of much use beyond establishing just how much of a badass the main character is.  Of course the main character is a badass, he's an assassin in a secret society guild and he can travel through this matrix-y world, and he can kill people mostly at will.  It's not really necessary for the game to keep reminding me that I'm hard-fucking-core.

Assuming that I get back to the game, I'll either update or publish a new review.  Until then, chalk this up as flawed, but worthwhile game.

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30 for 30: The Announcement

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The Announcement is slightly overblown, but educational.  It's easy to forget about Magic Johnson, as it's easy to forget about most retired atheletes, but Magic occupies a special place in our culture for being one of the first stars in our culture to come out publicly with HIV.

The documentary is okay.  This is well-trodden territory, and the meat of the story is one of inspiration, almost like a promotional video for Magic.  There's space for that, but mostly I feel like I get too much of the mainline story already in sports, and I craved the additional access, the minor stories, and the feeling of depth that I get out of the best of the 30 for 30 films

But it's hardly a complete waste.  I learned some things, and I internalized others in a new way.  Magic Johnson was a bigger deal than I realized.  I was too young and not into basketball to really remember much more about him besides the HIV saga depicted here, but the first part of the movie does a really good job of explaining why Magic vs. Bird was such a big deal, and what the Showtime Lakers meant to basketball, and hinting at the rivalry between Michael and Magic.  And, Magic has remarkable camera presence.  He's got a 1000 watt smile, and he's smart and funny.  That alone makes the movie entertaining. 

You can afford to give this one a miss.

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Forts of Old San Juan: San Juan National Historic Site, Puerto Rico

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I picked this up during my trip to El Morro, the largest fort in San Juan. Reviewing it is a bit silly at first glance, as it's just a souvenir book. In fact, I'm not sure if it gets distribution outside the park.

The book, however, goes well beyond what I expected of it. It's only about 80 pages, yet it does an excellent job of establishing the fortifications as historical landmark. This is no dry recounting of measurements and dates, but instead is a well-contextualized account of the struggles and culture that made San Juan a major focal point for centuries. There's figures, illustrations, and maps galore.

If you happen to be in San Juan, and are looking for an overview, you could do a lot worse than this.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/566742193

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Argo

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Argo is a well-executed thriller.  It's really as simple as that.  I was expecting to have a lot to say about the relations between Iran and the U.S. as portrayed in this movie, but I actually thought that the movie did a good job of accurately portraying the actual hostage taking and treatment, though Canada definitely gets less credit than it deserves.

The movie's strengths lie in its direction and costuming.  The tension feels manufactured much of the time, and it turns out that a lot of it is.  The most tense parts of the movie are wholecloth fabrications.  However, the movie gets the feel of the situation right, if not the details, and I'll forgive it some exaggerations as a result.

I saw this in theaters prior to its recent Oscar win, and I was surprised when I saw that it won best picture.  While it's good, it's just not a complete piece of moviemaking.  With the exception of the relatively small (and completely fictional) part played by Alan Arkin, the acting is unexceptional, and the script is merely adequate.  It was a snub that Ben Affleck wasn't nominated for Best Director, but the awards of Best Script and Best Picture must have been some sort of ridiculous compensation.

Speaking of Alan Arkin, "Argo fuck yourself" is the best line this year.

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The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard, #1)

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Judged as a riproaring page turner, I enjoyed this thoroughly. It did that thing that really good fantasy does, that stickiness that just won't let it leave your hands. It's fair to say that I lost some sleep for this one, and that I enjoyed it immensely.

However, it didn't challenge me particularly. As much as I ripped through it, it didn't really stick with me. The hero is a familiar urchin-turned-brilliant-thief trope, and his save-the-day plotline doesn't really shock too much. There are a few interesting characters, such as Father Chains, and even the marks for the thief. It's nice to have some fantasy end with the hero saving the day and NOT being rewarded with immense power, but mostly this is the same story I've read before.

But still, it's a story that works. This book may reinvent the wheel, but it's a really great wheel. Definitely worth a look for fantasy fans.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/566735225

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30 for 30: The Marinovich Project

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I've been getting back into the 30 for 30 series again.  This, along with Renee, has been my favorite of the series thusfar.  The story of Todd Marinovich in the public eye is pretty simple.  Kid quarterback has amazing talent but gets into trouble repeatedly, gets drafted by the Raiders anyway, doesn't focus on the game, and so is quickly out of football and is proclaimed as a giant draft bust.  Sounds like Jamarcus Russell, but 15 years earlier which says as much about the Raiders organization as it does about the players.

The film's emphasis is on Marinovich's upbringing.  This is a kid who had a father much like Earl Woods or Richard Williams, but he had the idea earlier.  His child was going to be a quarterback, and he was going to be raised to be one from a very early age.  Everything in Todd's childhood was geared toward becoming a quarterback.  He got professional position coaching, he practiced for hours every day, he minimized his other childhood activities.

As Marinovich grew older, he began to realize that being a quarterback was no longer his highest priority.  Now, suddenly, all these other things are as important, such as fitting in, getting to hang out with other kids, and having the typical high school and college experience.  However, he still feels compelled to be a quarterback, and the pressure starts getting to him.  He starts losing himself in drugs, and he flames out after a solid college career and a short NFL career.

His story is a fascinating one, because we spend so much time talking about Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters.  We wonder what kind of a toll it takes on a child, and Marinovich is a good example of what the other side can look like.  This is a compelling story about the intersection of sports and humanity, just what the 30 for 30 series is best at.

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Breaking Bad: Season 1

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I stayed away from Breaking Bad for a long time because it sounded really gimmicky.  I mean, a high school chemistry teacher decides to start making Meth?  It sounded like a stoner comedy, which is just great in small doses, but didn't sound like a good TV show.  How wrong I was...

The show is good.  Very good.  Incredibly, I had buy-in almost immediately.  For most shows, there's an introductory period where I revert to skeptical old farmer mode,  a la "What in th' name of Roy Rogers is this newfangled entratainment?  I reckon I'd rathur just stick to ma old radio tunes."  No, Breaking Bad had me from the first episode.  The characters feel real, if odd, and the problems are real.  It's juuuuust crazy enough to feel realistic, even if it isn't particularly logical that our main character could actually make the transition as it's presented to us.

The show feels like a movie.  The care taken to keep the shots interesting and the camera angles dynamic is truly exceptional in TV.  While I've definitely been on the record gushing about our current golden age of television, it's mostly been related to the significantly improved script writing, as well as the almost otherworldly attention paid to set design and costuming.  Deadwood, A Game of Thrones, and Battlestar Galactica all stand out from that perspective, but this show makes you pay attention to the camera just enough to be interesting, but not so much as to seem pretentious.

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Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 2

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Star Trek TNG begins to hit its stride.  Though this is still quite campy, we at least don't have to deal with the horrendous "let's just do the old Trek again" writing of some of the episodes of the first season.  Data and Picard are starting to really come into their own in this season.

This is the season where they throw Pulaski in.  I remember not liking her much, and I definitely didn't feel like the script writers gave her much leeway at the beginning of the season.  By the end, she was starting to loosen up, but they brought back Crusher.

I still find it kind of amazing how much I am enjoying these episodes despite the frequent eyerolling that I'm doing.

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Two Days in April

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The NFL draft is an orgiastic media frenzy.  We get Mel Kiper hyperanalyzing every selection, with day-by-day draft boards, and media making speculations based sometimes on nothing more concrete than other media speculations.  The NFL feeds into this by extending the draft out to two days.  Largely lost in this is the actual players.  This is a meat market, where players are measured, graded, and ranked.  It's the pinnacle of the NFL season's emphasis on quantification over humanity.

Two Days in April is not the first item of media to point this out, but it is one of the starkest, and most in-depth looks at it.  The idea behind the film is quite simple: Follow four draft prospects during their preparations and through draft day.  Think Hoop Dreams for the NFL draft and you'll have a pretty good idea.

The movie's most effective statement is one of basic humanity, where players are real people with real hopes.  The NFL draft is engineered to take these people, chew them up, and spit them out.  If you have a draft-following friend who is getting on your nerves with platitudes, this is a good wake-up call.

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