Do you remember the first film that completely pulled the rug out from under you, leaving you completely blind-sided, thinking ‘Wow, I did not see that coming’? I remember mine. It was The Usual Suspects, watched on VHS about a year after it had come out. This was at a time before the internet was in everyone’s hands, and that meant that I had heard very little about it before watching. I vividly recall the feeling that overcame me as Detective Kujan’s Kobayashi-branded coffee cup shattered on the floor and Keyser Soze’s intricate plan made itself known. It was one of amazement, disbelief even, as if I too had been one of Soze’s rubes all along. It was a powerful experience, one that simply couldn’t be matched on subsequent viewings, no matter how great the film. Once the puzzle has been pieced together, it cannot be undone.
The Usual Suspects, Courtesy of Gramercy Pictures
This is the tragedy of memory. It informs your future experiences as much as it recalls your past. Unlike Leonard Shelby in Memento, most of us don’t have the luxury of regularly recurring brain-wipes, a clearing of consciousness that completely resets the expectations and anticipations of a potential experience. Once we watch a movie for the first time, we can never watch it in precisely the same way ever again. When a revelatory plot-twist, surprise character development or shock ending is unveiled, the impact from this is a one-time deal only. Sure, a re-watch can be an interesting experience, an opportunity to admire the craft on display and look for potential clues that may have been hidden throughout the film, but those chasing the dragon of that very specific initial hit they felt will only feel disappointment.
Personal experience is not the only input that influences our preconceptions. Story-telling has played a significant role throughout the history of our species, because of its ability to impart information that may otherwise not be known to us. As exaggerated as some stories may be, our minds are receptive to information conveyed in this way, triggered into a cognitive response under certain conditions. Is it possible to feel completely carefree when swimming in the ocean after having watched Jaws? You don’t need to have been bitten by a shark yourself, the information conveyed in the film is enough to set off alarm bells whenever in that environment. It needn’t be a film of course, someone passing on a story of a shark attack or a news report could instill this caution just as effectively. In this sense, story-telling and memory are beneficial to our survival, but not only this, it also demonstrates just how subliminally engrained information becomes when it enters our view.
Roy Scheider in Jaws, Courtesy of Universal Pictures
This becomes a hazard when it comes to watching movies. Not only can the impact of a viewing experience vary from a first watch to a second, that very first watch is also in danger of being detrimentally influenced by the input of information from others. Much like a film cannot be unwatched, a spoiler cannot be unspoiled. Once it has entered your mind, it supplants the bliss of ignorance that once occupied that space with the heavy burden of foresight. It essentially acts as an irreversible time-travel machine, placing yourself at the end of a journey before it has even begun. And this is the true tragedy: it’s the journey itself that has been spoiled, as much as it is the ending. That irreplicable feeling referenced in the opening paragraph? It is only achievable with the experienced context of the circumstances preceding the moment itself, and with knowledge of what’s to come, the experience itself suffers dramatically. Our mind behaves differently under these conditions, and there is simply no way around it.
In this day and age, avoiding spoilers for current movies and TV shows almost feels like a full-time job. Social media has given virtually every human being instant access to the rest of the world at their literal fingertips. For those who enjoy a blind-watch of their films, navigating the timeline is akin to walking across a live minefield, and it’s easy to understand why. Think back again to that first film you saw that blew you away. Once you had recovered, what’s the first thing you wanted to do? I’d almost guarantee you wanted to talk to someone about it, the feeling so overwhelming that it just needed to be shared. This enthusiasm should not be discouraged, by any means, but caution should be applied, as it can have a detrimental impact for those that have yet to share in the experience. Part of the immense value social media holds is in the instant connection to a legion of like-minded individuals with which to talk shop, but with great power comes great responsibility. Unbridled enthusiasm can inadvertently result in the destruction of a potentially powerful experience for a multitude of people before they even have the chance to discover it themselves.
Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, Courtesy of Hollywood Pictures
Consider this a plea for restraint when discussing, analyzing and critiquing film in a public forum. A medium whose greatest strength is its ability to surprise and astonish even the hardiest of movie veterans does not deserve to have its power depleted through the abandonment of social etiquette, intentionally or recklessly. Feel free to take discussions into private groups and forums of consenting participants, by all means, but keep the specifics away from the eyes of the general public. Each and every film has the potential to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for someone, something that sticks with them forever, a memory to be recalled fondly, even if it cannot be replicated. We all have an experience such as this that we cherish and treasure; it’s why we continue to watch films. It’s on us to protect each other from ourselves.