Interventions like Quentin Tarantino's may sound well-intentioned. But demanding critics leave plot details out of their reviews doesn't only do them a disservice—it reduces the complexity of film as an art form to a series of mere narrative twistsby Caspar Salmon / May 22, 2019 / Leave a comment
Earlier this week, ahead of the premiere in Cannes of his latest film, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino issued an open letter to critics asking them not to spoil the film for future audiences.
The director wrote: “I love cinema. You love cinema. It’s the journey of discovering a story for the first time …. The cast and crew have worked so hard to create something original, and I only ask that everyone avoids revealing anything that would prevent later audiences from experiencing the film in the same way.”
For some this was a standard request, politely expressed, that the press not ruin the experience of watching a film that, clearly, has some sort of trick up its sleeve. For others—including this increasingly impatient critic—the letter is part of a sustained attack on critics in recent times, one which belittles reviewers and demeans cinema as an art form by reducing it purely to a question of narrative twists.
Look at the phrasing again: “I only ask that everyone avoids revealing anything that would prevent audiences from experiencing the film in the same way” (exasperated italics mine). Under the auspices of making a perfectly reasonable demand—“I only ask”—Tarantino is asking reviewers not to mention anything, anything at all, that might prejudice viewers’ experience, allowing them to watch his film without any prior information.
This is patently folly, and it’s a wonder to me that anybody accepts this high-handed pass-agg interference. The truth of the matter is that it is simply not possible for a reviewer to replicate for a reader the experience of going into a film completely free of information.
A reviewer has to discuss plot elements, in order to tackle the ways in which these are presented: criticism is the practice or art of describing the ‘how’, as much as the ‘what’. In other words, critics simply cannot perform their job of addressing how a film does things if they can’t talk about the things themselves.
To take a recent example: before Endgame came out, the film’s directors, the Russo brothers, released a letter asking ‘fans’ not to spoil it for others. Critics were also asked not to give anything away, with the hilarious result that review after review appeared that spoke in the vaguest way possible of the story and could not engage with the film’s methods properly.
To an outsider—but of course, the Marvel universe is not interested in outsiders—it was literally impossible to work out what the film was about. This represents nothing less than the silencing of criticism, and it’s a shame that critics are forced to go along with it.
It should be shouted from the rooftops, in a time when viewers are becoming increasingly ouchy about plot, that an experience based on surprise twists is merely one of many ways of enjoying art, and that plot is not the be-all and end-all of films. To pretend otherwise does creators a disservice and degrades the art form we’re talking about. It’s important to recognise that spoiler culture is a recent phenomenon—plot warnings and the like are historically contingent, and for centuries all sorts of cultures have enjoyed narratives with endings known to all, repeated by storytellers with tiny variants, whose pleasures lay in the telling.
Spoiler-averse thinking also sells criticism short by seeing it merely as a shopping guide—a rotten or a fresh tomato, a star rating out of five. Tarantino’s letter is all the more disappointing for appearing, as he well knows, at a time when the job is suffering. Anybody who thinks that his request is sensible should take a little trip into reviewers’ replies on Twitter to find people decrying any minor revelation, any discussion of character development over time, as a “spoiler.”
People often use The Sixth Sense as an example of a film whose final twist should not be spoilt—this is fair, but if the film were released in today’s climate reviewers would be vilified for even mentioning that Haley Joel Osment sees dead people. I wrote a review of Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse two days ago that has now been retweeted several times with the caption “Spoilers!”—when all I mentioned is that the film sees its characters descend into madness and its ending finds them both bereft. This is the most basic, year-9-book-review stuff.
Where has this mania for avoiding spoilers come from, and why has it become legion? Once again: it is not possible for reviewers to give readers the virgin experience of watching a film. A review of Stranger By The Lake has to mention that brutal violence erupts into the film’s peaceful setting in order to adequately review the film’s artistic achievements. This takes that element of surprise away. A review of Moonlight must necessarily mention that the film deals with homosexuality and meets Chiron at three stages of his life—and so on, and so forth. If you don’t want to know these things, don’t read reviews, or don’t read them until after.
Good criticism can open up a film, or book, or play, by discussing the story. For instance, the reader’s first encounter with Julien Sorel in Le rouge et le noir sees the protagonist, a working-class boy, startled from his reading into falling from a high beam. The critic’s job, in discussing this passage, might be to illuminate the ways in which Stendhal foreshadows Julien’s eventual—spoiler alert!—fall from grace, and death.
Criticism is an endangered form: artists hitting out at critics is now a frequent occurrence, with Brian May endorsing a thinkpiece by Toby Young titled “Bohemian Rhapsody’s Oscars win is a triumph over snobby film critics.” There is an accusation easily made, now, that reviewers are an embittered elite, or are themselves disappointed filmmakers who never made it—and the rise of blogging and Twitter, enabling anybody to publish an opinion, have contributed to the sense of professional film writers as, somehow, uppity. Only last week, in a tremendous article for Vox, Constance Grady analysed the rise of the “let people enjoy things” meme, and the way it has been used to fight against criticism. We live in an era where, seemingly, stating a preference is perceived by people as an attack on their personal enjoyment. This is plainly unhealthy.
Tarantino’s letter consciously lands into this hotly disputed territory, of flared tempers and hostility towards criticism, and of reviewers being laid off by publications every month, while megaliths of entertainment, such as Disney and Netflix, advance their stranglehold over cinema, leading to a depletion in mid-budget films. It’s only fair and right for reviewers to fight back.