Friday, January 9, 2009
Shh! The synopsis is secret!
This summer, my wife and I watched Soylent Green for the first time. (Warning! Spoilers to follow! In the next sentence!) Though I hadn't seen it, I was familiar with its famous ingredient, as it were. (Okay, not in that sentence, but definitely in this one!) So near the beginning -- or perhaps before we even started -- I dusted off my best Charlton Heston voice and, as melodramatically as I could, said "Soylent Green is made of people!"
Except my wife hadn't heard what I thought was Heston's second-most-famous melodramatic sound bite, next to "Get your hands off me, you goddamned dirty ape." (Or maybe, from the same movie, "You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you, damn you all to hell!")
So I had just given away the film's big secret, thinking that all I was doing was tapping into our collective experience of cinema. Even cinema we had yet to experience.
A similar thing happened tonight. (No, I wasn't watching The Crying Game with a bunch of newbies.) I was over at a friend's watching his screener copy of The Reader with three others (as you can tell from my handy dandy side bar to the right -- at least, if you are reading this in pretty much real time). Question: Is it legal to have other people watch the screener along with him? I don't know the rules.
About halfway through, I busted out with (Warning! Spoilers to follow in this sentence!) something along the lines of "Hmm, maybe she's a Nazi war criminal!" Whatever my comment was, it was meant to be ironic. See, I knew that Kate Winslet plays a Nazi war criminal. And I figured everyone else did, too.
Except that at least three heads turned to me and said "Is that what this movie's about?" I saw that the moment was fraught with peril -- their suspense hung in the balance -- so I had to act quickly. "P'shaw, no." It was actually convincing, even though I don't know the best way to spell the sound conveyed by "p'shaw."
See, I figured they'd read the same synopses of The Reader that I had read. You know, the ones that go along the lines of "A story of a 15-year-old boy who has an affair with a Nazi war criminal." It's that kind of detail that's on the lips of anyone who's heard about The Reader -- and since it is considered an Oscar contender, that's quite a few sets of lips.
About 16 minutes later they learned Winslet's true identity, and one said, "It is about a Nazi war cirminal!" At which point I repeated what I just said to you about them "giving away the secret" in the synopsis. One other friend was in my corner, having known what this film was about prior to popping in the DVD,
But it did beg the question. What are we obliged to keep secret about a movie? What details about a movie make a viewing more effective if you don't know them? Isn't that decided by whoever synopsizes the film for a public audience? Especially in an age when trailers give away a whole bunch that a regular synopsis doesn't. This seems like a good rule: If the makers of the film are trying to keep it secret, then it should be. But if they're pimping Winslet as a former SS guard, then I think it's definitely "out there."
Knowing what to reveal about a movie is always a tough judgment call, especially because certain movies take on a cultural relevance after a certain point, and people know what happened in them even if they haven't seen them. I mentioned the most obvious example, The Crying Game, earlier. In fact, the only reason The Crying Game has household familiarity is that everyone knows the chick was a dude. The true identity of Keyser Soze is a similar example.
It definitely has something to do with time. You gotta give it at least a couple years and a couple Saturday Night Live spoofs before you can be sure it's safe to flap your gums.
Either that, or read it in the synopsis.