Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Spoiler Alert!: I'm Talking About Spoilers.

I linked to this piece about how great art can never be spoiled, and had been intending to write my reaction to it for quite a while, until, well now, in which I’ll do just that. The argument the author presents is that while most art can indeed be spoiled—it being plot-driven—great art, with artistic ambition, cannot be spoiled because:
Put simply, a truly ambitious and successful work of narrative art is spoiler-proof. If a show or movie or book is really, truly great, you can watch it again and again and again, well after you know what's going to happen, and the aesthetic pleasure you derive therefrom will not diminish. It may even increase. This is an essential part of the work's greatness.

Consider this: Alfred Hitchcock knew as much about creating suspense as perhaps any narrative artist of the past century; and when he made what is, hands down, his most artistically ambitious movie, Vertigo, he went out of his way to spoil the mystery halfway through. Vertigo is the story of one woman pretending to be another in an effort to deceive a man, and Hitchcock easily could have preserved the mystery of that woman's identity until the end of the film.

But the pleasures and satisfactions of Vertigo don't depend on not knowing a basic aspect of the plot. They derive from the movie's brilliant illustration of love and desire and the ways we idealize and romanticize particular human beings and then become disappointed or even disgusted by their simple, physical humanity. It's the best thing Hitchcock ever did, and knowing who is actually who doesn't change that.

On the other hand you have The Usual Suspects, which, after you have learned the identity of Keyser Soze, really isn't very good.
I think it’s a convincing enough argument, though I’d argue The Usual Suspects wasn’t much good before you knew who Keyser Soze was, but I take his point.

I remember being told in English class—I suppose it was in middle school—that ultimately Theme was what was important, not plot. Plot was the domain of mysteries and thriller writers—and, while these things might be enjoyable, were certainly not enduring nor pointing at any larger truth. (Here’s the author’s theory on the same idea:
I have a theory, though, one that is at present about quarter-baked at best and will probably sound even more pretentious than everything I've written so far (which, considering the repeated use of the phrase "narrative art" and the appearance of both "thereto"and "therefrom" is, I imagine, saying something). I think it has to do with life and death and the way the former leads inevitably to the latter. That is: Life is not a mystery. We know how it ends. And if a work of art can be "spoiled" when we know the ending, it can't really have that much to say about life, can it?

While all people die, it’s true that everyone dies in different ways. Some people die old, some people die young, some die horribly, some die in their sleep—incredibly banal—some people die in a way that seems something like a cosmic joke…The variety of possible deaths, the variety of events leading up to that, are as wide an expanse as the horizon.

Let’s take a novel that’s as freighted with theme as any other: Great Gatsby. The novel is (to reduce to stereotype at the first) about the American Dream, but it is also about reinvention, and it is about money, and it is about decadence, and it is about history and the past, and so much more. Of course, merely saying it is about these things does not make them vivid or alive; indeed I suspect non-readers of The Great Gatsby are nodding impatiently at this point in time while readers (who are admirers) are nodding while remembering. And that feeling of nodding while remembering, of recalling Gatsby and Daisy in their car, doomed—well, that’s plot giving the themes relevance. The plot is there to illuminate and vivify the themes.

And because the plot performs that role, it’s the surprise of seeing exactly how those themes and ideas are developed that powers any great novel. And since surprise is a central element, why, I don’t want the way events inform the ideas spoiled. Claiming only the ideas are important is like ignoring the vine for producing fruit. So of course great works of art can be spoiled, and this by the way should serve as a very sincere injunction not to ruin anything great for you.

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