Monday, 15 August 2011

Spoiler Alert: This Article Is Wrong

"No!  I am your father!  Or your brother!  Or your cousin! 
Or some, all or none of the above!"
Whilst eating lunch on main campus one of the monitors informed me of a new study suggesting spoilers might actually improve people's enjoyment of stories, rather than adversely affecting them.  A quick sniff around the Guardian's website confirmed the story, and offered a short article as well.

The phenomenon of spoilers, spoiling and spoilerphobes (and their rarer cousins, the spoilerphiles) is something that I find endlessly fascinating.  Everyone has their own definition of what constitutes a spoiler, and how spoilers should be ranked in terms of their severity.  That's already interesting enough, partially as a study in human nature, but also because of the element of deductive reasoning involved.  I've known more than one person to mention something they thought was completely innocuous only to enrage people with sufficient faculties of logic to discern what else the information implies.

On top of that, though, and in keeping with various other aspects of human interaction, there's a common tendency for people to draw their own subjective lines across the spoiler scale, representing their personal tolerance limit, and then to lash out at anyone who crosses that line with staggering vitriol, whilst concurrently arguing that anyone who objects to their own pronouncements are hyper-sensitive children who should never leave the house lest such delicate constitutions as theirs become bruised or strained.

The subject is probably worth a longer article (and is liable to get one, when I have the time), but I thought I'd make a few comments on the Guardian piece and the one it links to.

First of all, I think it's unwise to have a discussion about spoilers that goes on to encompass re-watches.  The fact that our favourite films clearly stand up to multiple viewings (note that that might not necessarily true of what we might consider the greatest films) is, I think, entirely irrelevant to the matter in hand, in the same way that a child still wants to play with their new toys come Boxing Day has nothing to do with a discussion as to whether wrapping paper is pointless.  Anticipation isn't worthless simply because it isn't sustainable.  Besides which, one can only watch a film unspoiled once.  I'd rather have that one experience and risk it being less satisfying than guarantee I can never have it at all.  I can always have the "spoiled" experience at a later date if I choose to. Or, as my Other Half said a little while ago, why assume people who rewatch films are happy to know everything that's going to happen, as oppose to simply trying to recapture what they experienced during that first unspoiled viewing.

Furthermore, it's interesting that the five writers mentioned - so far as I can tell - all had their most critically acclaimed period (whether or not that acclaim was contemporaneous) before the 1990s (or the 1890s, in the case of Chekhov).  That means that other prose works, along with films and TV shows, have had over twenty years to absorb those stories.  Whilst the people who participated in this study had never read the specific stories they scored [1], I don't feel it's assuming too much that they've probably read something with a similar form on previous occasions.  The article points out that people don't lose pleasure when they already know someone who "escaped" during a killing spree was the actual killer, or that the supposed upcoming death of a character will prove to be a dream, but what exactly does that prove?  Regarding the former, the lack of added value of the "twist" could quite easily come from the fact that decades of use has rendered it fairly unsurprising, or even cliche. 

The second ending is even more problematic - I have no doubt whatsoever that people who suddenly discover "But it was all a dream!" might enjoy a story more than the people who know its coming, but one should be careful indeed about arguing spoilers are helpful based on the fact they can in some sense innoculate us against the virus of bad writing.

Oh, and this line: "We intrinsically understand that by choosing to watch a film from a particular genre – say a romcom, western or sci-fi – we know where the film is going to take us," strikes me as pretty stupid.  We know where a sci-fi film will take us?  That's bollocks and chips, pure and simple.  Same with Westerns, I think.  The landscape might be a bit more limited, but anyone who thinks Rio Bravo will prepare them for The Unforgiven has been drinking more than their fair share of sippin' whiskey.

I can see the case for a romcom, maybe; you can pretty much bet the boy is going to get the girl.  But then in all my years, I don't think I've ever heard anyone complain about spoilers for a romcom.  The spoiler issue is only relevant in circumstances where you don't know what to expect, or at least you're not entirely sure.  I don't want to get too far into speculating how other people's minds work, but you could at least argue that romcom fans are attracted to the genre precisely because one knows what to expect from it (if there is way to spoil such films, it's digging out the one in a hundred where things don't actually work out - try letting people know about that ahead of time and see how much they enjoy the film).  There's nothing whatsoever wrong with that, of course.  But it makes it a bad case study during a conversation about avoiding ruining surprises.

Still, a lot of this might be biased by my personal preference. I've mentioned before that I take great pleasure in viewing stories as mysteries to be solved - that's a part of why I love horror so much as a genre, since so much of it boils down to mysteries that just involve different rules to the ones we're used to.  Maybe that's why I'm so unconvinced by this idea.  Anyway, it's food for thought.

[1] Actually, if I'm reading the link correctly, they just gave all the stories to a bunch of people and only let them score the ones they hadn't read, which strikes me as a fairly bad method, statistically speaking.


Gooder said...

I'd like to know about the experiment, sounds quite intriguing. If I find anything I'll post links.

As with spoilers in general I think it's all down to preference really (as you say). Some people like to know what's coming some don't.

I can kind of see what there saying with knowing where certain genres of film will take us. But do think it's more true of say romcoms than most other things.

I do know for example pretty much where a Star Trek film will take me but on the other hand not so with something like Primer.

Though I do think, for me anyway, most films you can roughly predict the end point fairly early on since most stories tend to conform to certain rules (or rather expectations I guess).

Honestly can't think of a film I've watched that ended up somewhere I totally didn't expect. But there are certainly things that throw curve balls out.

And I still find your approach to stories as mysterious an interesting approach ;-) Maybe there's an article in there somewhere too looking at how people approached things; like say my appreciation of the downer ending against your dislike of the failed heroic quest.

SpaceSquid said...

I'd certainly like to see more about this study, since at present it seems frighteningly badly run. If you give all the same stories to the same people, and total the results for each story only from those that hadn't read that story, you've immediately got a significant bias issue - the less interested someone is in a given genre, the more likely their score is to be included. That means, to take just one example, the study might actually only tell us how best to enjoy a Poirot story if you don't read Poirot stories.

I think you can expand romcoms into comedies more generally in terms of where they might go, but otherwise I remain intensely skeptical on the "genre prediction" front. Also, I don't think Star Trek is a good example, because that's a franchise, and therefore is bound to come with all sorts of expectations attached.

I think the closest you can get to an intersection between this argument and something I'd agree with is that there are certain genre conventions that people are generally going to be aware of. I think that's part of what you're getting at regarding the dificulty of being surprised these days. You know walking into an awful lot of sci-fi films that "It was all a VR simulation!" is a possible twist, or "She was a robot all along!", or "They went back in time to stop something they ended up causing!"

But trying to use that in a discussion about spoilers is to conflate experience with foreknowledge. Especially since your difficulty in being totally surprised (a problem I should note that I am not unfamiliar with myself) presumably stems at least in part from a familiarity with films themselves, rather than genres.

Indeed, you could colour an argument that says that familiarity with the medium makes being surprised so difficult that it's even more important to preserve the feeling where you can. I've actively started avoiding book blurbs and DVD covers recently, because it's the only way I can immerse myself in a story, rather than trying to block it out in my head ahead of time.

Maybe an article on approaching films is a good idea, actually. I shall have to sit and think.

Anonymous said...

Gooder - Sliding Doors? Adaptation? Vanilla Sky?

Actually I wish I'd been spoiled for Adaptation because it was tough following the shifts in genre and pace without a framework to help.

Not sure about Vanilla Sky. It was pretty stressful watching it not knowing, but pretty pointless watching it a second time.