Losing the Why and How for the What: A Case for Spoilers

As someone who has never really cared about film or television spoilers, I surprised even myself recently when discussing the season finale of Brooklyn Nine Nine with a friend. At that time, she had yet to see the episode, which I was particularly excited about. However, when she asked me what happened in the episode (this friend recently described herself as “pro-spoiler,” so this was not an unusual request) I found myself hesitant to fill her in.

When we discussed the episode after she had the chance to see it, she confirmed my impulse to not reveal any details was appreciated. So, what about this episode cause such a divergence from our party line on spoilers? When we finally talked about the episode in person, I realised I was not hesitant to spoil the story. What I was really concerned about was ruining the how the story was told, and why it was revealed in that particular manner.

This really gets to the crux of my issues with many people’s attitudes towards spoilers. With many insisting on going into films and television shows completely free of any story knowledge, this overemphasis on story is leading us to lose focus on what I would argue is the more important aspect of a piece of narrative visual art: the how and the why.

The terminology itself is a problem. To say something is “ruined” or “spoiled” seems to imply nothing can be gained from experiencing it. While that may be true for some films and television shows, shows with better writing and plotting should be more than just a string of surprises. Good art (of all modes) should do more than just surprise us. It should make us reflect upon how we understand ourselves, how we understand our culture, and how we understand the medium we are consuming.

This is not to say that these two models are mutually exclusive. As someone who had The Sixth Sense “spoiled” for them, there can certainly be a diminished impact in seeing a twist coming. That being said, I would argue the best part about that film is not so much the reveal, but rather how the overall form of the film both hides (in plain sight) the secret throughout the entirety of the film. If the value of a work of art is entirely tied up in a surprise, without that sense of reflecting on how the televisual or filmic conventions were employed to allow that surprise to happen in the first place, then you might as well be watching a fireworks demonstration (see also the diminishing returns of M. Night Shyamalan’s subsequent films).

I enjoy approaching a film or television show fresh too, but there are few things that will completely squash my interest in something faster than someone completely unwilling to divulge any story information. If the only tool a television show or film has to capture my attention is withholding information, then it’s usually not worth watching in the first place. We should expect better. Take for example, the recent success of True Detective. When I hear fans discussing the show (which full disclosure I have not watched, but have spoiled for myself), little of the conversation was based on people eager to find out who the killer was. Instead, fans seemed to want to talk about the characters. How they interacted with each other, how they changed between the two time settings. Yes there was mystery, but the show was built on more than just a question mark.

To move to two much older examples, think of the “Who Shot JR?” and “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” stories from Dallas and The Simpsons respectively. While I can’t speak to the specifics of the original Dallas story line (as neither was I born, nor have I ever watched Dallas), I have a fair understanding of the story entirely based on my familiarity (some say overfamiliarity, I say go fuck yourself) with The Simpsons episode.

In the end, Maggie Simpson bares the responsibility for taking down the sun-blocking villain. Does it matter? No. Are there any significant reprecussions to this? No. Does it even make sense? Not really. Subsequent episodes of the show comment on the nonsensical nature of the crime, and making the culprit an infant means there is no need to make drastic canonical changes as no jury in the world would convict a baby…maybe Texas.

So what does it do? It provides an opportunity for The Simpsons to do what they once did best, execute top notch pop culture parody. This extended beyond the Springfieldian diegesis, and into the show’s marketing and publicity throughout the intervening summer. It allowed the writers to dream up a completely ludicrous fiendish plot for Mr. Burns, and gave the audience the cathartic experience of seeing some semblance of comeuppance for his cartoon villainy.

I’m not saying mysteries and twists don’t have a place in our culture. They do. And those that are done well last as examples of great storytelling that is based on more than just an unexpected story event, but on a well crafted narrative. So let’s ask for more than temporary scintillation, and change our priorities to hold the how and they why above the simplicity, and unrewarding nature of the what.

Besides, there are only seven stories anyway, and they’re all about sex and death.

 

P.S. Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. It’s been 15 years, there’s gotta be a statute of limitations on this thing.

“It’s more of a comment than a question”: How to Not be a Tool at a Film Q&A

Admittedly, I haven’t quite lived up to the name of this blog. Despite the “Cinema Rants” moniker, my previous posts could be more accurately characterised as measured discussions, or reflections on my industry news, film history, or my own personal viewing practises. Hopefully the clarity of those posts will run through today’s, but this post should also bring me closer to a rant than before.

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of attending two screenings at the TIFF Bell Lightbox: Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1949 film A Letter to Three Wives (a film I had been meaning to see for a long time), and Mildred Pierce (1945) by Michael Curtiz (a personal favourite). Both of these screenings were introduced by David Bordwell, a prominent film scholar visiting from his post at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Bordwell, along with his wife and academic partner Kristen Thompson, publish Film Art and Film History, introductory text books used frequently in university film classes. All of this is to say, he’s an expert, and a great guest for TIFF to have. While I love Mildred Pierce and really enjoyed A Letter to Three Wives (which sports a wonderfully absurd soundtrack at certain points in the film), Bordwell’s approach to film criticism, specifically formalism, is not one of my particular interests. That being said, I’m always eager to learn something new, and was nonetheless looking forward to hearing him speak.

Bordwell was great. He gave succinct and insightful introductions to the films, and was more charming than I anticipated in front of an audience. Then came the question and answer period. Having not attended a screening at TIFF in a while, I forgot how bad these can get. Prior to the film, it became pretty clear (from listening into the audience members surrounding me) that most of the people were there as fans of the film and not to hear Bordwell speak. Which is great! Bringing classic and cult films to the theatres and encouraging fans to come out of their homes to attend the cinema, is a great strategy for theatres struggling against new modes of film exhibition. While the Q&A following the first screening went rather well, the second unfortunately fell into the typical pitfalls and became dreadfully boring.

In an effort to avoid this in the future, I have established this handy guide for filmgoers, to help pick better questions and hopefully lead to a more engaging and exciting discussion in the future.

1. Ask a question. Let’s begin with the point that’s so obvious I put it in the title. The infamous and ubiquitous, “this is more of a comment than a question,” or any various thereof. Just so there’s no confusion, Q&A stands for “question” and “answer”. This means the intention of having someone to weigh in on these films, be they the director, the lead actor or actress, a film critic or reviewer, is that they are there to comment on the film, provide their expertise, and clarify. So if you put your hand up, and wait for a microphone to be passed to you, it should really be to ask a question. It is likely that many people in the audience came to see that person as much as they came to see the film. Whereas NO ONE CAME TO HEAR YOU SAY ANYTHING. Except for maybe you. In which case, stop. That’s not to say that some people don’t have insightful comments that may provide really interesting commentary on the film, and sometimes these comments can even result in an interesting discussion between the guest and that person. But if there is no way for the guest to respond to what you said you’re likely falling into pitfall number two.

2. Don’t use your question as an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge. Informing yourself as a film viewer is a great idea. It will make films more interesting, and discussions more fruitful. But once again, NO ONE CAME TO HEAR YOU SPEAK. This isn’t a classroom. People paid their own money to come to the venue on their leisure time to enjoy a film and listen to a hopefully interesting discussion. Using the Q&A period to show off is a complete waste of time for the entire audience, and likely the guest. If you need the commendation so badly, talk to the guest afterward. They frequently stick around, and take their time to speak with the audience. Granted, this is less likely with a famous leading actor than a filmmaker, critic, or reviewer, but in my experience those people are more interesting to speak to anyway.

3. Know the basics. This gets back to my previous comment about informing yourself as a viewer, and not wasting everyone’s time. If you are intent on asking a question during a Q&A, take some time and learn some basic information about the topic. Some people have more patience for this than others, and realistically, the inequality of information between the guest and the audience is necessary. If everyone had the exact same information, then there wouldn’t really be any point to having a Q&A in the first place. That being said, generally speaking, more informed discussions are more enjoyable and interesting discussions. Do not waste everyone’s time (hopefully a trend is emerging here) asking the guest to clarify the plot for you (unless this has become a sticking point for the audience, or there is some purposeful ambiguity left that leads to various interpretations), or ask what year the film was made. These sessions do not go on forever, and if you have a question that could be answered in 30 seconds by looking it up on your phone (AFTER THE FILM HAS FINISHED) then give someone else the opportunity to ask something more thought provoking than “how old was Joan Crawford in this film?” or “who played the daughter?”

4. Wait for the microphone. I know it seems like you can yell loud enough for everyone to hear, but likely you can’t (at least for the entirety of your question), and there are usually people in the theatre who are there for the very purpose of getting the mic to you as quickly as possible. I know the wait seems interminable at the time, but it really only takes a few second and makes things run a lot more smoothly. On the topic of microphones…

5. Relinquish the mic after your question. Some people have really interesting questions that yield great answers, but this still isn’t the time to have a drawn out conversation with the guest. Once again, NO ONE CAME TO HEAR YOU TALK and as I mentioned you can likely follow up with the guest when the official Q&A time is over. If your question really is that good (and they have the time) they will likely be more than happy to continue the conversation.

And, finally…

6. You don’t have to ask a question. Those seconds between the opening of the Q&A and the first question can seem torturous. But there is no pressure on your or any other audience member to ask a half-baked question for the sake of filling out the time. Some films just aren’t that interesting. Or, perhaps they are, but the audience was not especially engaged. Or, more unfortunately, perhaps you need more time than that allotted to collect your thoughts, and develop a coherent question. Either way, forced Q&As are not particularly interesting, and generally the host (be it TIFF, or the university, or the film club) should be prepared with some ideas before hand to help get the discussion going. And honestly, if they fail to do that and a Q&A flops, it’s not entirely the audience’s responsibility to save it.

Hopefully these guidelines help, and lead to more exciting, thought provoking, and challenging (for the right reasons) in the future.

Close rant.

Why I Stopped Downloading Films

As I mentioned in my previous post, my resolution for 2014 is to watch 365 films, all acquired through legitimate means. While I made the decision to stop downloading films illegally around two years ago, the recent court ruling forcing Canadian Internet service provider TekSavvy to provide Voltage Pictures with information on TekSavvy clients who had downloaded the production company’s films – and thereby setting a precedent in the common law courts  – has made this decision even more appealing. My desire to avoid litigation aside, my decision was based on other – though arguably equally self-serving – grounds.

Since I completed my undergraduate degree in Cinema Studies in 2011, I have been working to establish a career in the film industry, and have worked with various companies and organisations in the Canadian film and media industries. The same industries that even in the less than three years since I began taking on internships, has changed drastically with major companies merging and being bought out in both the exhibition and distribution fields. These changes, along with a less than ideal economic environment, and a morally troubling dependence on and expectation of unpaid labour in the film industry makes it a particularly difficult one to break into. And yet, many like me continue to work towards finding these jobs in cinema. Though I can’t speak for everyone, I do believe that most people in this industry (and though I wont here, this argument can be extended to most other arts industries) have a passion for film and a dedication to contributing to other’s love and experiences with film. This is why I stopped downloading films.

Unlike some of my fellow cinema studies students, my public schools were not equipped with film classes, nor did I look to public arts classes for experience. Instead I satisfied myself with TVO’s now defunct Saturday Night at the Movies, and my parents’ Blockbuster memberships. Despite this lack of filmic experience growing up, I knew my interest in cinema was sincere enough to ensure I enrolled in cinema studies in my first year of university. Initially intimidated by the more worldly viewing habits of the other students, I eventually learned to ignored the pretentious looks I got after admitting I hadn’t seen a certain Russian/French/Japanese/German/Art House/cult film/experimental masterpiece and actually expand my film experience both in the class room, and in my dorm room, taking complete advantage of the excellent campus peer-to-peer file sharing platform.

But I’m not a student anymore. And although I’m not gainfully employed, I can no longer justify cannibalising the industry I am so dedicated to working in. I have seen the work it takes to bring a film to market, and while this is a drastically different trajectory for a film like The Hunger Games compared to documentaries, experimental pieces, art films, or independent films, there are still individuals working on these films that are dedicating their time, energy, and experience to the production, distribution, and exhibition of their film. As someone who would like to be one of those people, I will not devalue that labour to allow me to watch a film two months before it is released on an SVOD platform.

I admit this is a little self-righteous, but it’s also self-preserving. And part of the reason I find it easier to make – and stick to – this decision (and why I feel comfortable hectoring certain members of my family to stop buying bootlegged copies of films from Pacific Mall) now is that film companies have started to do a much better job at making their films more accessible to the public. The same public who will watch films through legitimate means when it is reasonably available to them. This brings me back to the Voltage/TekSavvy lawsuit. Voltage Pictures absolutely has a right and a duty (to their stakeholders) to protect their copyrighted material. If companies did not ensure that they were pursuing the appropriate monitisation for their material they would be unable to sustain themselves financially. (Putting aside any argument as to whether these goods are being priced appropriately according to their inherent value to society.) That being said, it is also incumbent upon a company to exploit any potential revenue streams to the best of their ability. Specifically, giving the public the opportunity to pay for the film in some accessible manner, which today frequently means through VOD, Pay TV, and SVOD models.

This is where the privilege of my decision shines through. As a middle class (ish) person living in Toronto, I am able to reach at least 10 theatres within a half hour of travelling time. Seven are walkable (more so in the summer). One theatre is across the street from me. For an individual in a rural community, or even in many small towns, physically going to a theatre to see a film that is even marginally outside of the mainstream is unachievable. Let alone individuals with any type of accessibility challenge. As our internet infrastructure is improving to these areas, fully realised digital distribution is the best way to access these people and give them the opportunity to pay for their media comsumption. And more importantly, to access them as customers, instead of defendants.

Thank God It’s not a Leap Year: 365 Films in 365 Days

With awards season (can the six months between the September festival releases and Oscar night be called a season?) officially drawing to a close last night, it’s time for me to refocus on the only New Year’s resolution that I’m taking seriously (though I have reduced the amount of time I spend reading comments on the Internet): my goal of watching 365 films in 2014. Spurred on my my lovely friend Janessa’s successful completion of the film-a-day challenge in 2013, I have decided to put my currently abundant amounts of free time to good use and commit it to excessive movie watching. Currently, I stand slightly ahead of the game, having seen 64 films so far this year. While the pace initially may come off as intimidating, I have developed a loose strategy to meet these goals, while also committing to my dedication to refrain from illegally accessing film (something I will discuss in my next post).

1. Embrace short films

People may call me out on this one, but honestly I don’t care for a couple of reasons. First, this is my challenge, and I can count whatever I want. I call this the “you’re not my real mom” clause. Second, and more importantly, short films are films! It may seem like a way of weaselling my way out spending my time watching features, but I truly enjoy a good short film programme. As I’m lucky enough to live in downtown Toronto, short film festivals and programmes abound (One of my personal favourites to attend Shorts that are not Pants returns in April with the help of the lovely Titania Plant.), as do opportunities to see programmes dedicated to the Academy Award nominees for the best live action, animated, and documentary shorts. Aside from the privilege that my geographic location grants me, I have yet to hear a solid argument as to why short films should be excluded beyond “they’re not long enough.” The labour and dedication of the short filmmakers should not be written off for not adding an unnecessary 40 minutes to their film. Instead, we should be celebrating the achievement of making a fully formed, succinct, and coherent piece of art. Many of the short films I have seen this year have elicited a greater response from me, be it emotional, intellectual, animalistic, or otherwise. While Helium took home the best live action short prize last night, my favourite of the nominees would have to be Avant que de tout perdre by Xavier Legrand, which for the entirety of its 29 minute runtime, had me completely captivated by its impeccably rendered suspense, careful story reveal, and exceptional editing and camera work.

Furthermore, many filmmakers begin their careers making short films and music videos (which I have not included in my count, but I am certainly open to anyone who can make a case for them). Aside from the cultural capital you may gain from being able to smugly announce that you knew about a particular director/screenwriter/cinematographer/editor before they broke into the still more prestigious feature films, watching a career and a style evolve is exciting! And with support to short films, these filmmakers are more likely to be able to make that jump should they choose to.

2. Exploit SVOD

As a part of the “cable cutting” generation, I do not have a cable subscription and instead spend media money on subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) services such as Netflix and Fandor. With the sheer number of options available and a functioning “to watch” or “my list” option, I could probably achieve this goal using these services alone. As a Canadian subscriber without the technical know-how (or, more realistically, the balls) to sneak onto the American version of these services, the options can be somewhat limiting, especially in regards to newer output. That being said, this limitation is forcing me to watch older films, that I might otherwise disregard. A recent viewing of John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games (2000) ended up being a pleasant surprise, but really only for the campy action scenes. This brings me to my final strategy:

3. Just watch it already

As a film student, my list of films to see is long and unruly. Spanning genres, decades, languages, and film modes. In previous years I was satisfied (though not truly happy) to continue to add to that list, but no more! This is the year I stop my cinematic procrastination. This is the year I stop “meaning to see” films and finally see them. No longer will I be embarrassed to admit that I have yet to see a Kurosawa film. No longer will I live my life without (what I’m told is) the enriching experience of viewing the Czech New Wave. This is the year I finally sit down and watch feminist touchstones like Jeanne Deilman and Working Girls, work through the rest of Guy Maddin’s feature oeuvre, and actually watch all of the DVDs I own (many beautiful Criterions courtesy of the many lovely people in my life).

No more excuses. It’s time to watch. Even though I might have to trudge to Bay Street Video in this lousy Smarch weather.