The Good Dr. Bordwell on the Nature of the SPOILER and our historic quasi-acceptance of it.

Everyone seems to have a different idea of what constitutes a *SPOILER* in terms of a book or o movie. There is a lot of nuance in what is enticing to watch a film, and what spoils the fun. Many people say, “I enjoyed that movie so much because I walked in totally blind to what it was!” On the flip side of things, the films of Wes Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Federico Fellini, Michael Haneke, and many more become more enjoyable after multiple viewings.


David Bordwell (with Kristen Thompson) discusses Spoilers in Film and the old form of distribution makes this an even more complicated argument in light of cinema history. Well worth a read!

Who doesn’t come to Casablanca knowing about “Here’s looking at you, kid,” or “Play it, Sam,” or “Round up the usual suspects”? You likely saw the ending of King Kong in compilation films before you saw the whole movie, yet you probably still watch it with enjoyment. I saw Potemkin’s Odessa Steps sequence many times, on an 8mm reel I bought as a kid, before I saw the whole movie. I still enjoy Potemkin, possibly more than many who see it for the first time. Yet people complain about trailers that tell too much, and critics who give plot twists away. Accordingly, it’s been a convention of fan and Net writing that if you’re going to give away major story information, you alert readers with the word “spoiler.”

Surely people want to know something about a film’s story. Viewers clamored for the most basic information about Super 8. And evidently many moviegoers would feel less disgruntled about The Tree of Life if they had known in advance a little bit more about what they would encounter. It seems we want to know about the story’s basic situation, but not too much about how things develop. Say: bits from the first half-hour or so, up to the beginning of the Second Act (or what Kristin calls the Complicating Action). Beyond that, we want things kept quiet. Above all: Don’t tell the how things turn out in the end.

Also, see Jim Emerson on the subject (linked within the above article and here as well)

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Jandy Hardesty

This is all linked to a recently-done study (publicized in Wired Magazine and others) that finds people actually get more pleasure from knowing the endings of movies and books than they do if they don’t know the ending. I don’t buy it in my own viewing experience; I prefer a pure first viewing and a full-knowledge rewatch. Haven’t read the Bordwell yet, though.

Andrew James

Along with Kurt’s U93 example, I rewatched Apollo 13 a bit back. Seen it ten times and the final sequence with the radio silence is still as hair raising as ever. That film thrives on its details, performances and reaction shots. It doesn’t matter if you know the story going in or not. The film still kicks ass.


I’m one of the people who likes to go into films fresh. Not so much for plot, but for style, tone and the overall look of a film. I would never cry “spoiler” on stuff like that, but still. I like the experience of watching a film for the first time. That doesn’t always mean I’m watching it just to “find out what happens next.” Sometimes watching it for the first time is for the composition, the color, the score and the general feel of the movie. If I’ve seen a teaser trailer, a regular trailer, a red band trailer and a couple of online clips, some of that “first-time feel” is lost.

At least for me.

Jandy Hardesty

Andrew, that’s exactly what I mean by wanting a “pure” experience the first time. I don’t like to read reviews first, really, even if they don’t tell anything about the story, because something about the freshness is gone if I do. It’s why I like festivals so much – the chances of stumbling into something awesome without knowing anything about it are pretty good.

I do agree that good movies don’t depend on not knowing in any way, and even that really good movies are better when you watch them knowing what will happen (you can pick up on nuances and foreshadowing that you otherwise might not’ve). But I don’t want that the FIRST time I see something.