"PLEASE DO NOT REVEAL THE ENDING," implored marquees at theaters showing Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" in 1960.
It's a good thing Hitchcock never had to deal with Twitter.
Over the past decade, communication of all shapes and sizes has grown so ubiquitous that the prospects of any cultural object retaining its mysteries seems antiquated. The moment a movie hits the marketplace, the world rips it to shreds in a million directions at once.
One of the more gratuitous examples of the surge in spoiler discussion occurred on Thursday, when Deadline reported key plot points from Christopher Nolan's upcoming "The Dark Knight Rises" — not based on eyewitness accounts of the hot blockbuster but from the 49-page production notes released in advance of the movie's press day.
While some contingency may want to wait until the movie hits theaters before browsing the notes for nuggets of information, at this point the opportunity of discovering "The Dark Knight" before one even sees "The Dark Knight" has the power to instigate the modern reader equivalent of a feeding frenzy. Today's audiences rebel against surprises. The fight gets especially dirty when filmmakers try to mount a defense.
Nolan has led the charge among those working on a mainstream level hoping to contain some of the secrets of their work, but even Batman can't fend off a paradigm shift in the way people lust for information. His Marvel cohort Spider-Man suffered a similar plight a few weeks back, when a fan pasted together countless trailers and clips from "The Amazing Spider-Man" to construct a 25-minute preview that outlined the entire movie. It's enough to suggest that filmmakers might want to admit defeat and simply live stream every stage of production beginning with the table read. The final cut is an afterthought.
However, even as details about "The Dark Knight" circulate widely, much of its shadowy mystique remains intact. The movie runs a whopping two hours and 40 minutes, which makes it unlikely that any of the snazzy trailers released over the last several months give away all the surprises.
But the persistence of "The Dark Knight" in a world afflicted by spoilers comes from a deeper place and points to one of the reasons the movie manages to titillate audiences so far in advance of its release. Its contents titillate audiences precisely because of the things it does not reveal — and never will. With its dark, eternally troubled anti-hero at the center of a dark, eternally troubled metropolis peopled by angry citizens and demonic supervillains, the movie radiates intangible mysteries that have no answers.
We know that Batman lost his parents as a kid, but we may never fully understand exactly why he inhabits such a compelling world of anger and frustration. That's partly what keeps us coming back for more, and Nolan exploits that curiosity to its fullest extent.
He's not alone, either. Today's storytellers have grown increasingly savvy about how to inject their narratives with qualities that defy the tendency to distill their contents in a reductive character limit. By turning mystery into an aesthetic choice, they emphasize the value of experience over summary.
"The Imposter," a fascinating puzzle of a movie hitting U.S. theaters next week, excels at this approach. Director Bart Layton's enthralling non-fiction feature ostensibly follows the curious story of a young man's arrival in a small Texas town in the late 1990's under the guise of a teenager named Nicholas Barclay, who disappeared years earlier. One can easily assert whether the hooded man, sporting a curious French accent and shades, has assumed Barclay's identity from the title of the movie.
But that's irrelevant: "The Imposter" delivers a distinctly cinematic experience in which the camera raises the possibility of complicity on the part of everyone involved, including Barclay's family, and arrives at no underlying solution. Layton's technique encourages active pontification — and repeat viewing as a result.
Granted, not every movie bases its appeal around surprises. (How on Earth could anyone "spoil" the magic realism of "Beasts of the Southern Wild"?). However, the tendency toward popularizing mystery over answers points the toward a means of containing a very specific kind of movie magic: Keep your audience guessing and don't let them stop — even when the lights come up.