This is about spoilers, so it is going to include spoilers on various films and one TV show. These include Witness for the Prosecution, Anatomy of a Murder, The Matrix, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Squid Game and I Don’t Want to Be a Man. All of which you’ve already seen or never will.
There’s a voiceover in the 1957 version of Witness for the Prosecution:
The management of this theater suggests that, for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture, you will not divulge to anyone the secret of the ending of Witness for the Prosecution
I don’t know if this is the only such request in movie history, but I can’t remember another and I’ve seen plenty of movies from the era. The director, Billy Wilder, made plenty of films with twist endings, but it would seem to me that this is the only one where he felt he needed to make this warning.
The ending is that the wife of the accused murderer decides to take matters into her own hands and thus perjures herself by forging love letters from herself to a fictional lover to make her earlier testimony against her husband suspect and thus have him acquitted of the crime. Turns out that, because they were never really married, as she had never ended her previous marriage, her husband decides to take on a younger lover and leave her behind.
While at the time the ending was clever, from a current point of view, it’s just one more twist ending. It is well executed, but these kinds of stories are now a dime a dozen. Not that they were especially novel even at the time. The author of the short story this movie is based on, Agatha Christie, had been writing these kinds of stories for ages.
But since it was a short story, Wilder had to pad it. Sir Wilfrid, played by Charles Laughton, is only third-billed, but clearly has the most screen time as our point-of-view character. So, we get a lot of witty banter from him as he tries to avoid his nurse and her rules as he is recovering from a stint at a hospital. The whole murder trial thing just starts to feel like a background for a screwball comedy (but it is still a Billy Wilder movie and thus very much worth a watch). At that point, how much does it actually matter whether you know the ending? With Sir Wilfrid’s exploits taking over the story, the crime just becomes a vehicle for his hijinx.
On the other hand, Anatomy of a Murder is a movie with many quite similar themes, but the comedy is quite toned down. It was made only two years after Witness for the Prosecution in 1959, but it didn’t feel the need to ask people not to spoil it. However, it would seem that because of the different tone, this is the movie of these two I would be more hesitant to spoil. Because there is less emphasis on the comedic antics of any of the characters, the mystery becomes more interesting and central to the movie.
Each of these movies can be spoil-worthy in certain situations. What if you are trying to explain something about the problematic parts of the judicial system? Sure, these movies might or might not be realistic, I couldn’t really tell, because I’m not an expert, but they still convey ideas about the weaknesses of having humans be responsible for the fates of others. After all, the judicial systems of various countries are rife with many different kinds of prejudice. In these two cases, the two people basically get away with it with their charming presence. That’s not something we want in general and these kinds of movies, despite their shortcomings, can be excellent basis for discussions on such a topic.
I think this happened around 2009, because I seem to remember that The Matrix was already ten years old at the time. We were sitting around a campfire with a few people and somehow the discussion turned to that specific movie. Then someone just stopped us and requested that since he hadn’t seen the movie, we wouldn’t talk about it, so he wouldn’t be spoiled.
My immediate reaction was that if he actually wanted to see the movie he would have had a decade to do so already, so does he really want to stop us from discussing it? Well, the other people in the circle were more courteous than me, so the subject was changed.
I only learned earlier this year that the whole trilogy was about transitioning into a new gender identity and is thus an important movie to many transfolk. I guess this should have been obvious, as the sisters have been out about this for a while now, but that’s just it: I can’t say that I would have learned this in the specific discussion above, if it had happened, but there would have been a chance.
Maybe I would have gained some insight into the movie, which would have allowed me to understand the message of the movie better. Instead, for me it was just a good action movie with a superficial philosophical theme as added spice. And you know what? I actually liked the movie better on a rewatch with this new knowledge. Maybe I should even give the sequels a second chance.
All of this raises a question: How much could I have learned through movies over the years if there wasn’t this weird taboo against spoiling movies? How many other important movies to someone are out there, which I just don’t get, because I wasn’t able to recognize a major theme in the movie?
How much spoiling The Matrix even matters at this point? Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably have a pretty strong idea about various things that happen in the movie since our popular culture is so inundated with memes, homages and so forth.
Here’s a more recent example: Squid Game, a recent hit show from South Korea. It’s easy to see the anti-late stage capitalism sentiments of the series, in which everyone, including the supposed winners in the system, the actual rich people, are victims of the system, which forcibly removes them from everything they hold dear.
But there is more to this. South Korean history with capitalism is quite brutal. During and after the Korean war of the 1950s, the US Army took control of the country and made sure there wasn’t dissent. A lot of people died as a result of this. At one point the main character remembers a strike he was a part of, which led to the death of his coworker. This is based on various situations where strikes were actually broken savagely, often by the US army.
If the source I learned this from would have been discouraged from talking about this, I would not have learned this. But knowing this does, again, make me want to see the series again.
I recently saw a 1918 movie named I Don’t Want to Be a Man (in German Ich möchte kein Mann sein) by Ernst Lubitsch. It’s about a young woman, who feels suffocated first by her parents and later her guardian, so she decides to go out dressed as a man.
Soon enough she finds out that being a man isn’t easy either, as she struggles to put on the white tie costume, has to give up her seat on the tram and easy women try to get into her (or his) pants. While Lubitsch is probably somewhat progressive for the time, as the movie isn’t that much about “know your place” than it is about “know what you are getting yourself into”, there is a weird sort of sexism here.
How about this? “Luke, I am your father”, or more accurately “No, I am your father”. I knew of this back in the early 80s before I had seen the movie or learned English. In the almost 40 years since, this has become so ubiquitous in our culture that there is no chance anyone goes into the movie for the first time without knowing this major spoiler.
Is the movie worse for it? No. The scene is so intense and well-made that at that point you don’t care about being spoiled. What you care about is Luke and what he is going through at that time. It is still a great movie. Easily best in the franchise.
So, this is my argument: While we might lose a little bit of our enjoyment of films, that’s a price I am and we should be willing to pay. I’m not advocating going out and shouting random titbits of information from movies from the rooftops, but what I am advocating is that if someone around you wants to talk about something they find important enough to discuss in a movie, maybe you should be willing to listen even if you haven’t seen the movie. You might learn something.
To me, shouting on the Internet about spoilers is pretty akin to shouting at people about their preference of pineapple on pizza. It might not be for me or for you, but it shouldn’t be something you should concern yourself about.
Just trust that people around you have a reason they want to talk about movies and don’t be a dick and shut them down. There is value in sharing these kinds of experiences and all the thoughts born from them. Much more value than that small bit of entertainment possibly lost. And you don’t even lose it, at least if the movie is any good.