One week in 1980 I learned two things that would change the way I looked at the world forever. The first, and probably most shattering, was that my collie Burr didn’t lick me because he loved me – it was to get at the yummy salts all over my skin. By the age of seven I already had an inkling that the dog had no idea what the hell was going on around him, but I thought that the licking was some primal display of affection. My father broke this news to me; later in life I would come to a similar conclusion about women all on my own.
But the most important revelation was that in The Empire Strikes Back, the upcoming sequel to Star Wars (a movie which had been perhaps the biggest event in my life, except maybe that time my pants had dropped while escorting the Underdog balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, a story for another essay), Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader would battle to the death. At barely seven it seemed all too plausible that that sallow dickweed Luke would go on to join the Force, and I think I was hoping he would, and leave the way clear for the obviously superior Han Solo to get the girl. I was psyched – I had a secret to the universe.
Of course this rumor was totally incorrect. Looking back I figure someone must have seen or heard about Luke confronting the pseudo-Darth in that Dark Side Tree on Dagobah (seven year old Devin had no idea whose face was in that exploded mask, by the way, and my mother explained it to me on something like our fourth trip to see the movie) and figured that was the ending of the movie or something. The important thing is that it never occurred to me that you could find out what happened in a movie before it came out. Until then.
After Jedi came out, discovering info about the next Star Wars became a religion all its own. I was the kid on the bus to camp who knew all about the Clone Wars and how the storm troopers were the outcome of that epic struggle, and about the Purge of the Jedi and all other sorts of things I had gleaned from reading between the lines of various Lucasfilm paraphernalia, from reading science fiction magazines stolen from the local Te-Amo, and from whatever the hell seemed like it would be cool to tell the other kids. If you grew up in Kew Gardens Queens and were interested you might have found out how Han Solo’s dad was Anakin Skywalker’s best pal, and how we would see Chewie in slavery. All made up, of course.
But one day it seemed like Star Wars sort of faded away. For a few of us the love was still there, but for the rest of the world, the idea of a prequel trilogy held just a little more excitement than the idea of Bakshi finishing his Lord of the Rings: none, and if you talked about it too much you might get beat up in the locker room and you could be sure no girls would talk to you.
But a seed was planted and I became deeply interested in figuring out how to get back to that position of camp bus glory, of knowing the score before the game. I became an aficionado of the fledgling Entertainment Tonight, and I picked up whatever magazines I could find on the subjects of upcoming movies and particularly horror and fantasy and science fiction films. To the younger folks out there this time before ready access to info may seem incredible, and more than a little Bronze Age. Let me tell you, we used to get excited when an issue of Cinefantastique came out BEFORE the movie on its cover hit the local cinema (which, it should also be noted, usually had two screens tops. I sound like I was doing matinees with Moses here).
I think it was the scarcity of info while we, the original Star Wars generation, were growing up, that led to the grotesque and insane frenzy around Episode I. Looking back on it, the phenomena was more than a little like the scenes where the zombies overtake the army base at the end of Day of the Dead, tearing into every bit of flesh they can find (by the way, I knew about the scene where the zombie rises off the operating table, spilling his guts all over the floor, months before the movie hit theaters. Predictably, no one I knew gave a shit, and they were all more than a little concerned that I was so excited about seeing this).
Giving the internet to people like me, who had been so used to scouring the Earth for the smallest scrap of information about a movie, was sort of like giving a nail gun to a caveman. You can be sure everything in the joint is going to end up nailed to everything else in the joint, including the caveman. That was how it was back in the dark days of the late 90s – one of the first things I did when I got to work (the only place I had internet access) was to check to find out if anyone knew what color Bail Organa’s underwear was going to be.
By the time the "A long time ago…" stuff hit the screen at the Poughkeepsie Galleria where I saw The Phantom Menace; I knew every thing that was going to happen in that movie. EVERYTHING. I knew some of the dialogue in advance. I’m tempted to think that this is why when I walked out of that theater and into the diner across Route 9 to talk about the movie with my friends (including many attractive women: how times had changed since those dark post-Jedi years!), I had to work so hard to force myself to be enthusiastic about the movie. It turns out that The Phantom Menace was just a fairly atrocious movie that pretty much skates along completely on the goodwill we offer all things Star Wars related, except for that infernal Holiday Special. And there are some pinheads willing to pay actual money to buy videos of that TV show, which I think was actually a KGB morale-destroyer planted on American television.
What drives people to need to know everything about a movie before they actually see it? And what do spoilers (the technical term, of course. Everything has its own jargon, even being a doughy internet film geek. It offers validity.) do to an audience’s enjoyment of a film?
After learning that I could find out information about a movie before it came out (or even while it was still filming!), one of my first reactions was to feel really bad for the cast and crew. If you weren’t there to be utterly taken by surprise by the fact that Vader claimed to Luke’s father (utter bullshit, I reasoned at the time. We all knew Ben was really Luke’s dad. Don’t ask me why), there is no way to convey what that was like. Of course later in life some of that was ameliorated when I learned that David Prowse didn’t say that "I’m your father" line on set, giving the key grip as much a shot at being surprised at the premiere as the rest of us were.
In the time since, in my capacity as a Sex Lord for CHUD, I have had the opportunity to read a couple of scripts for upcoming movies, one of which was Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation. Reading that script was quite an experience, and I still classify that script as one of the Best Things I have ever read, be it script, novel, comic, or the back of a Frosted Flakes box (secret wisdom to be found in Tony the Tiger’s almost Zen-like focus on all things grrrrrrr-eat). I’m even MORE excited to see the movie now because of this. I don’t know if Spike Jonze can match the movie in my head (if anyone can, it’ll be him), but it’ll be exciting to find out.
In that same vein is Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which was probably one of the most transcendent movie going experiences I have ever had. That was sort of a wacky movie to follow in the making, since spoilers were almost never about what was IN the movie (anyone with a seventh grade education could attempt to slog through Tolkien’s sub-academic prose (this will be the one thing I get letters about, mark my words!) and find out all about how Sam goes ape shit and bangs Gollum in the Dead Marshes (or does he? Mwa-ha-ha-ha!)) but rather about what Jackson et al were leaving OUT of the movie. Here was a movie where I knew everything that was going to happen, and even many of the lines of dialogue, yet unlike The Phantom Menace, it was one of my favorite movies EVER.
Yet I still feel like spoilers are a bad thing. I suppose the final test for this would be to have cloned myself (already this is sounding like an awful idea, and a smelly one at that) right after I saw the first Matrix, and keep Clone Devin free of all Matrix 2 and 3 spoilers, while allowing me, Devin Prime, to immerse myself in them as I have done over the last few years. I would in fact go so far as to say that I have spoiled the shit out of myself for at least the first Matrix sequel, and give me a couple of months and I’ll know all about the final one as well. Anyway, back to the whole cloning thing. Assuming that we aged the clone to my age and are not bringing a mewling 4 year old into the theater next summer, we would see which Devin likes the movie better, and test what effect spoilers have on film enjoyment.
But I suspect Clone Devin will like the Matrix Reloaded better, and it’s for one reason: my imagination. The very nature of getting spoilers involves us getting snippets of info: a casting sheet, a report from some guy hanging around the honey wagon who saw a certain character in certain make up, the track listing on the soundtrack. We become nerdish detectives, the Sherlock Holmes of the internet, or at the very least Watson, running around after Holmes with our pockets full of his favorite snuff. It’s this interactive element that we like, and sometimes I wonder if we don’t like it more than we like movies. And even if that isn’t the case, our minds naturally begin filling in the gaps between spy reports and rumors and snippets and all of a sudden we’ve made a movie in our heads, and like I said before, maybe Spike Jonze can match that film, and Peter Jackson proved that he can (and maybe beat it), but George Lucas sure as shit can’t.
Reading a script, or working on a movie, is so different because you’re looking at the road map as you travel. Gathering spoilers is like getting the tales of a hundred other travelers who came from where you’re headed, some of them a little mad, all of them painting a landscape that while accurate is a little over the top. And I’ll assume they’re accurate for the sake of argument – people who make up false spoilers (and the webmasters who love them! On the next Oprah) baffle me, and are perhaps worthy of an essay of their own, or a chapter in an abnormal psych text.
In the end spoilers do the exact same thing that much hated hype does: creates unmeetable expectations. While we’re accepting tangents, by the way, I would like to advance a new addition to the Greek underworld, taking his place next to Tantalus and Prometheus – Hypingiterus, who builds something really amazing but can’t stop himself from talking about it all the time so no one gives a shit when he finally gets done. Then it falls apart and he has to rebuild it. Hey, it’s no rolling a big ass rock up a hill, but it’ll do. Anyway, the point is, as film fans, we are in hells of our devising. We not only have the massive, unstoppable, mental blitzkrieg of the studio PR departments shoving Vin Diesel’s giant misshapen head at us every time we venture outside of our stay at the 1800s House, we also willingly seek out every bit of info about his further adventures as Riddick in the Pitch Black sequels. It’s like we want to make sure that we’re utterly sick of the whole goddamn thing months before the final print is even delivered to a critic’s screening.
My internet friends, admitting we have a problem is the first step to getting better. Do you realize that I know people who had no idea that Yoda was going to fight in Episode II? Yeah, it freaked me out like Dennis Hopper at a 1968 George Harrison house party too. But for these people this was a total revelation, something they had not seen for the first time in some kind of hideous Windows Media Player, or on a TV screen, or anyplace other than 40 feet of projected light at their first viewing of the movie. Of course they laughed at it like rabid jackals, but they were experiencing that derision for the first time, while I had spent a couple of weeks telling myself it wouldn’t look as silly on the big screen as it had on my computer. I think they had it better.