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Spoiler Alert!
Slarek speculates on how tricky it can sometimes be to avoid film spoilers, and whether a love of film can interfere with your, erm, love of film | 4 December 2013

There's an argument to suggest that the very best way to go into any film is completely cold and knowing absolutely nothing about it. That way you are not saddled with preconceptions about what you are about to see. But such an approach requires an open mind, a spectacularly wide tolerance for all manner of cinema and the sort of spare time that few of us today can afford to devote. On any given day there are now thousands of films at our immediate disposal and we tend to want to spend what free time we have watching something that won't piss us off. And if you've only got a couple of hours to spare, it's not a bad idea to be aware that Sátántangó runs for a full seven hours.

But there are some things that we go out of our way to avoid knowing about any narrative-driven film before seeing it for the first time. We know them as spoilers, a descriptive term for plot or character details that should not be revealed in advance of that first screening. Thus there's little worse that having some insensitive git reveal the ending of a film you've been looking forward to for ages but haven't yet got around to seeing. Believe it or not, this happened to me with Brian De Palma's 1976 breakthrough Stephen King adaptation Carrie, when a complete and utter berk who was doing some work at my mother's house started telling me about what happens at the end of this new film, then reacted to my protests about not having seen it yet by triumphantly concluding his insanely plot-spoiling tale. Had he not been considerably bigger than me I would have punched him in the goolies. Or at least made his ears bleed with the power of my mind.

Like all sensitive film devotees, we at Outsider do try to avoid peppering our reviews with spoilers if we can possibly help it, and do warn of their presence if we feel the need to include them. I'm particularly cautious on this front, adding a plot spoiler warning at the top of the review and again in the paragraph before the offending reveal, and I've even occasionally added links that you can click on to fly past the text in question and straight to the safety of the technical specs. And if you're covering a film in the sort of detail we tend to favour, you are occasionally going to want to discuss aspects that newcomers should not be exposed to before seeing the film for themselves. A good example from my own scurrilous back-catalogue is my review of the film adaptation of B.S. Johnson's Christie Malry's Own Double Entry. As a big fan of the book, I was rather impressed with how well much of it had translated to film, but believed that the changes made to the story's conclusion betrayed the book's (and until this point, the film's) potent sense of anarchic rebellion. I thus couldn't talk about what I didn't like about the film without revealing how it ended.

But at least I included a warning of what was to come and offered readers the chance to bypass the problematic paragraph. Yet I'm still surprised by how many reviews include un-signposted spoilers in their plot descriptions and analysis (Sight & Sound do at least warn you in advance in the review, but if you're looking to avoid serious spoilers then steer clear of their plot summaries – they tend to include everything). I've even seen major spoilers used by reviewers to piss on a film that they didn't like and ruin it for others – Leslie Halliwell's curt dismissal of Fritz Lang's 1956 Beyond a Reasonable Doubt went as far as revealing the film's twist ending, presumably in the hope of putting people off watching a film that he deemed unworthy. What an arse.

Probably the worst offenders on this score are not reviewers or mouthy patrons but the film's own promotional material, from posters to the pictures and summaries on DVD covers. Trailers are far and away the worst offenders here, with Hollywood movies in particular cherry-picking choice material from the film's second half and even the climax. And if the chosen material is memorable enough it will lodge in your brain and act as a reminder of events to come when you sit down in front of the film itself. Even choice indie films can fall foul of this. The original trailer for Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead climaxed with the film's glorious final demon-cam shot. A few days later got to see the film itself and was into the final act when it occured to me that this most memorable horror image had not yet appeared, and it occured to me – rightly as it turned out – that I had already seen how the story would conclude.

But for one particular reason I seem to get exposed to far more plot spoilers than all of my immediate friends. As long-term visitors to the site may well be aware, as well as editing this site I also co-run a cinema-based film society that once a week screens films that would not otherwise be shown locally, the very sort of films we like to feature on this site (that one thing led to the other is something I'll be elaborating on in a soon-to-be-posted article). One of my main jobs for the society is to prepare the printed programmes for each season of films and the programme notes that we hand out at the screenings. The programme itself takes longer than you might realise. Indeed, the preparation of the one for our Winter 2014 season has gobbled up so much of my free time of late that it's put me behind on all of my reviews.

Selecting the films for each season usually involves whittling a short-list of about fifty suggestions down to fill the twelve or thirteen slots that the cinema will grant us, and when I put the programme together I've rarely seen any of the titles we are planning to show. To do so I have to trawl through a large number of reviews for each film to become familiar enough with its storyline, which will enable me to write a concise two-line plot summary that is accurate and free of spoilers. And there are plenty of spoilers out there to be filtered out, and often you only realise that they are spoilers at all by comparing the review in which they appear to others for the same film. It is, after all, important to know whether that spectacular murder or that revelation that a character is not who they seem is a late film plot twist or the part of the initial set-up. Reviews differ widely on just how much of the plot they choose to reveal and sometimes cannot even agree on basic details. Just recently I was researching Blue is the Warmest Colour for a society screening, and in the space of a few minutes saw one of the two leads characters described as being aged 15 in one review and 17 in another. This may not seem like a big deal, but given the public twitchiness about the current age of consent and the film's explicit sexual content, if we get this detail wrong in our programme we could be looking at a few walk-outs at the screening itself.

It gets worse when it comes to the programme notes, which include credits for the film and a detailed review, usually sourced from Sight & Sound or another learned publication (the reviews on this site are usually too long, which should tell me something). Given that patrons like to read these notes while waiting for the film to begin, I also have to scour these reviews for even small spoilers and place a big bloody warning at the top if I find one. If the review talks about the ending in any detail then I also verbally advise each person I hand the notes to not to read them until after the film. Not everyone listens, as I discovered after our screening of Michael Haneke's Funny Games, when I was angrily accosted afterwards by an audience member complaining about a major spoiler in the review I had specifically advised him not to read until later.

It's thus rare that I see one of the films that we screen without knowing an unhealthy amount about it beforehand, including key plot twists and sometimes how it ends, which seems a little unfair given how much of my free time I devote to my love affair with cinema. And it occurred to me when preparing the latest film society programme that the more obssessive we are about film, the more we are likely to expose ourselves to material that risks screwing with our enjoyment and appreciation of...well...film.