By the time this appears in print, I may actually have seen the new “Star Wars.”
I know, I’m just a little late to the party here. By the time I actually walk into a theater and launch into that galaxy far, far away, the rest of my fellow fans will have purchased enough tickets to paper a small moon. (Or is it a space station?) By now, every last detail has been dissected and analyzed, whether it’s the precise dimensions of the new cross-hilt lightsaber or the dents acquired by the Millennium Falcon since its last run in “Return of the Jedi.”
I can’t wait to join the conversation. But I also can’t wait to discover the movie. And that means I’ve been filtering social media like a riverside gold panner, trying to keep from becoming The Man Who Knew Too Much.
One must be careful. The Spoilers are on the prowl.
“Spoiler culture” is a funny thing. In an older time, it was expected that one would know the crucial points of the great stories of the day. Some even spelled out the entire plot in a quick summary right at the start for those who might not otherwise keep up, such as the opening prologue of Romeo and Juliet. (A friend joked that the Shakespearean narrator should begin that speech with the words “Spoiler alert!”)
But something changed in the last century and a half or so. Partly, I think, it was the rise of plots whose dramatic power depended on hiding information until a certain point. Think of Citizen Kane and the need to identify “Rosebud.” Or the plays and novels of Agatha Christie with their hidden twists. Or even the quests of Frodo Baggins or Harry Potter, where the choice that the hero makes is all-important, but it’s not always clear at the start what choice the hero has to make or what the cost may be.
Partly, too, it’s an explosion of novelty and individuality at the same time. The 19th and 20th centuries especially set off an avalanche of stories and plot lines. And while the new mass media could make sure that many of them became community knowledge (is there anyone who doesn’t know how Gone With The Wind goes?), the exact timing would depend on individual choice and budgets and lives. Those who had undergone the shared cultural experience first had an advantage – however temporary – over those who didn’t, and could shape the experience of the “not yets” by what they chose to reveal. (“Don’t tell me the ending!”)
So – you have the spoiler. The information that would reveal a plot’s mysteries and surprises too soon. There’s been a debate over when is “too soon” to put spoiler information out in the open, especially for reviewers: should one wait a week after release? A year? Should the information stay locked away forever, despite all blandishments and temptations?
Some audiences are better at keeping secrets than others – there’s a reason that thrillers like “Deathtrap” retain their power to surprise and startle. And there’s no doubt that some storylines are damaged less than others by a premature revelation. A black-and-white action tale usually has all its cards on the table … and yet, how different is a new viewer’s experience of “The Empire Strikes Back” these days when it’s common knowledge who Darth Vader really is and what he’s after?
Ultimately, it comes down to the individual reader, viewer or listener. It has to. No spoiler law will satisfy everyone or will be perfectly adhered to. Each of us has to decide how much is too much to know, and do what we can to protect our own decision.
And really, isn’t that true with any sort of learning? All the way to the beginning, knowledge has been about choices. What do I need to know? What do I want to know? Sure, some things come in by osmosis (my wife Heather knows any number of movie ‘moments’ that she’s never actually seen), but the best learning is directed learning – making the decisions that will make someone a better student, a better citizen, a better member of society.
Choose well. Choose wisely.
And if you choose to tell me the new Star Wars plot twist before I can get in the theater, then may the Force be with you.