Thursday, April 2, 2009

Living in Spoilage

There once was a time, back in the dark old days before the internet, when I didn't have a fucking clue what was going to happen in a comic book until I actually read the bloody thing.

With no comic shops around for hundreds of kilometers, (and when you're a kid with no income and no access to decent own transport, they might as well be on the far side of the moon), just about the only form of information came in advertisements in other comics, Marvel's Bullpen Bulletins and the very, very occasional comic-related publication that I stumbled across.

The lack of knowledge wasn't confined to comics, of course, and it was always a vague mystery as to what was going to come up in movies and television shows. The mass appeal of these mediums meant there was a little more information than in comic's ghetto of popular culture, but there was still a lot of ignorance. For a long, long time, all I knew about ET was that it was something so popular they made shoelaces with pictures of the main character on them.

This level of blissful ignorance lasted right up to the mid-90s. I can still remember reading the Death of Superman and the only clue I had that it wasn't permanent, (outside the obvious knowledge that super-heroes never really die), was in the next issue box at the end of each super-issue.

I almost shat myself when those boxes started saying there was no information about upcoming issues towards the end of Funeral For A Friend. This probably says more about my naivety than my pooping habits.

Things have changed, as they do. The internet has been the prime mover behind this, but access to other parts of information, from the explosion in different television options to an increased access to magazines have all helped. Now it actually takes a conscious effort to avoid details that can be a vital part of a movie experience.

Fortunately, people have, by and large, adjusted and the idea of spoiling details is seen as a major social faux pas. This doesn't prevent some from delighting in the misery of others, but, by and large, folk are pretty good about this sort of thing. (Although sometimes the desire to avoid revelations can be bad enough, with any review that bangs on about a magnificent plot twist almost as bad as something that spells it out, with anticipation leading to an assumption of the revelation before it is due.)

But still, the level of those who shriek of spoilers when the slightest hint of data is revealed sometimes baffles me. Even if I know how a movie is going to end, it doesn't make it any less worthwhile. Those who say there is no need to see something because they know the final outcome seem to be missing the entire point of a story. That it is not just a series of vague events leading up to an eventual conclusion, but an actual tale with something to say beyond the plot mechanics.

For example, after watching the first two seasons of The Wire on DVD, I couldn't help myself and looked up details on the internet. Thanks to the genius of local programmers and DVD importers, the later seasons played at the most ungodly hour possible, with no sign of any release of any box sets of the last three seasons at all. Outside of illegal downloads and the necessity of personal importation, there was little chance of seeing how things turned out, so resorting to Wikipedia to find out the fates of essential characters felt like a viable option.

(It didn't really work like that, and I ended up seeing all five seasons in less than a year...)

And yet, even though I knew who died a few episodes from the end, and who is forced into retirement, it didn't make me any less eager to see those episodes. The big plot manoeuvres may have been revealed, but that's not what the programme was about. The cyclical nature of things, with a new generation coming in and making the same old mistakes as the last, is a fine wall to hang a plot on, but personally, I watched the programme for the details.

It's the little things, the bits that tie together and bind and create the overall themes that hit the mark. It's the characters who live their lives, one piece at a time. It's not to see if McNulty is going to keep his badge, the character is so much more than that.

There are, of course, still programmes where the big plot twists are a significant part of the reader's enjoyment, and avoiding any spoilers is only possible if the viewer is only able to see the latest episode as soon as possible. I might feel a little guilty torrenting American television shows, but as episodes of Battlestar Galactica which screened recently in the States are still months away from appearing on local screens, avoiding the answers that lie behind the series will be impossible without completely cutting off from the wider pop culture web, or by downloading episodes hours after they screen on the Sci-Fi channel. Not a hard choice.

(Although it could be argued that spoilage could have helped the viewing experience, even with something as shock-heavy as Galactica. Watching the final episodes and spending so much effort waiting for the final shocking twist, the magnitude of the achievement was only noticed on a second viewing. The big questions aren't always the most important ones.)

With comics, it's a little bit easier, with issues coming out days after their US release. It's easy enough to avoid details, there is little media coverage to avoid, and comic book readers are, by and large, surprisingly good about spoilers. With many mainstream comics relying pretty on shock deaths and last page guest appearances to keep the ongoing plot machine working, a lot of comic people are very good at keeping quiet on the big events, for a few days at least.

Sometimes they can go a bit far in the other direction, and leap down the throats of anybody who lets slip with the most minor of details, adamant that knowing what happens on page three has destroyed their entire enjoyment of the comic.

This is something that has always confused me. A good plot is a vital part of any tale, but it's not the whole thing. In his Writing For Comics essay, published a couple of years back in a nifty new form by Avatar, Alan Moore vaguely defines plot as what happens in a story, but not the story itself.

Living in the spoileriffic age, details and bit and pieces of a tale are always going to leak through, and rather than stress about what is lost, we should all enjoy the things around the plot. Because all that mood, characterisation and style is so much more important than the latest guest star.


Patrick said...

I agree with the general point, certainly most movies or TV shows you watch, you've got a decent idea of where it's all going to end up, and something like 24 that's all about shocking the audience reaches the point where you're expecting the shock so it ceases to be shocking.

But, I do still think it's not a good idea to go into stuff spoiled. To consider The Wire example, it still may be great watching it even if you know what's going to happen, but you can watch it with that knowledge many times after the first viewing, but you can only have the experience of watching it and not knowing what's going to happen once, and surely it's worth holding out on spoilers to have that one fresh watch.

Unknown said...

I'm definitely with you, Bob. At one point, it seemed like spoilers were a big deal, but I eventually realized that it's about the journey, not the destination. In fact, that applies to the stories themselves too; I know people who have felt that a movie was good, but just couldn't get past the last scene (Fight Club would be one example). But yeah, that's something that I feel; if a work can be "ruined" by the revelation of a few plot details, it probably wasn't worth too much in the first place. Of course, there are exceptions, in that a story might be built in such a way that it's all predicated on a certain revelation, and revealing that plot point prematurely would "ruin" the experience, but even something like that can feel like a shallow experience when a climactic revelation is all there is to it. So, um, yeah, journey > destination, for the most part. I'll shut up now.

Zom said...

This hoary old one, eh?

A few years ago Bobsy, another friend , and I were arguing about this very thing down the pub. Bobsy’s argument ran like a more extreme version of the one you’ve put forward here – that moaning about spoiled plot details neglects the fact that stories are so much more than a bunch of beats, and that consequently we shouldn’t get too hung up about spoilers (his point was that we shouldn’t get hung up about spoilers *ever*). I maintained then, and I still maintain now, that while I agree entirely that stories are a lot more than their constituent plot elements, surprise, suspense, anticipation, and speculation are a big part of what many of us want when we *first* come to a text, and these these things, while not (always) entirely predicated on remaining unspoiled, are nevertheless deeply entangled with plot. I argued that Bobsy’s arguments, while containing real nuggets of wisdom, served the psychological purpose of legitimising and rationalising the fact that he habitually took certain ways of enjoying the text off the table or lessened their force. I wasn’t attempting amateur psychology, simply engaging with the fact that when we first learn to enjoy stories surprise is a big part of the package. It’s intimately bound up with our earliest experiences of storytelling.

I’m not trying to suggest that we must never spoil ourselves, just trying to point out that spoiling isn’t a trivial thing.

As for the revelation of relatively trivial plot details, judging whether it’s problematic or not depends on what kind of story you’re talking about, where you’re doing the revealing, and who your audience is. With Lost I don’t want to know anything at all as surprise is an incredibly important part of the show’s appeal – it’s what it’s about, in many ways, so I think people should think twice before they casually spoil it in conversation, but it seems to me that a proper review of any given episode is totally entitled to contain spoilers. Consequently, if people wish to remain unspoiled it is incumbent on them to think about the kinds of things they should probably shy away from, as much as it’s incumbent on others to be thoughtful about when and how they reveal spoilery details.

Bob Temuka said...

I should probably point out that I will be doing my very best to avoid spoiling anything without warning on this blog, unless it's more than a decade old. Then I figure it's fair game. (Plus, if I title a post something like "End of the Week", spoilers are implicit.)

Good points, all. I'm able to avoid spoilers on Lost because we're only a month or so behind America, (it was "The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham" this week) and that is just long enough to avoid spoilers. I totally agree with Zom that surprise is an intrinsic part of Lost's appeal and I manage to avoid 90% of all spoilers in that month. But if it was any longer, I would know a lot more and would probably resort to downloading it. But I'm not too broken up over that 10% I do know, that's not a bad ratio in the bigger picture.

And Patrick is also right about The Wire. The thrill of watching that first season and not knowing anything at all, even about who the main characters actually were, still sticks with me. That glorious confusion was lost the secind time I watched it, but I was able to get more from the story by knowing what was actually ahappening, instead of worrying about who was who.

(It's kinda like the cheap thrill you can get from watching something like the Battlestar Galactica mini-series and noting all the crazy shit that is going to happen to those characters over the next five years.)

And Matthew sounds just as confused about the balance as I feel, so it's lovely to know I'm not alone.

I guess my ultimate (and slightly lame) point is that it's good to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but it's not the end of the world if it happens.