Many filmmakers view themselves in opposition to the dialogue around their work, and often grow paranoid once it takes on a life of its own. For years, Quentin Tarantino has been a welcome contrast: A restless cinephile who values the discourse surrounding movies, he advocates for the process of engaging with the art form as much as creating it. By running a movie theater in Los Angeles and presenting restorations around the world, Tarantino may be one of the most famous film educators ever. In interviews, he has said that he would have been a film critic if filmmaking hadn’t found him first. This guy gets it.
But then came the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, the imminent premiere of Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and a curious edict. Ahead of the 1969-set epic, in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays a fading movie star and Brad Pitt his devout ex-stuntman, Tarantino published an online request that audiences avoid spoilers. “I love cinema. You love cinema,” he wrote. “It’s the journey of discovering a story for the first time.” The request may sound innocuous, and even practical, but it raises a number of troubling issues.
First off, I understand Tarantino’s motives, which speak to a growing paranoia among storytellers and the general public alike about the potential for their work to lose its currency once the secret’s out. Tarantino’s posting followed the blockbuster campaign by the Russo brothers to keep fans from spoiling “Avengers: Endgame” during its initial run. It worked — but would the spoilers have been that much worse if the filmmakers didn’t bother speaking up? This approach suggests an inherent distrust in audiences, as well as future viewers who should know how to avoid gathering too much information before watching a movie.
More than that, it has the inadvertent effect of antagonizing professional critics who know what they’re doing. Having seen “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” I can attest that there is one major plot development that shouldn’t be revealed in advance. I don’t know a single writer who feels otherwise. It’s just obvious.
However, because future audiences don’t know the plot specifics, Tarantino’s request could be seen as applicable to literally any detail in the story, from the brief cameos by several Tarantino regulars to the canny in-film references to previous Tarantino joints. I see no reason to elaborate on those here, either. But Tarantino has put fans into panic mode, making them less likely to pay attention to any early responses to the movie, and denigrating the act of processing his work in public.
I have no doubt that Tarantino fans will assume that I’m not one of them and tell me this is an inane overreaction. For the record, I grew up admiring Tarantino’s work, which provided me with a portal to discovering so many other kinds of movies, from the French New Wave to Hollywood noir. That has made me especially sensitive to the miscalculations here. Rather than inviting audiences into his latest rich tapestry of film history-as-narrative, he enveloped it in a cloud of paranoia irrelevant to the pleasures within.
More than that, there is an ironic outcome from Tarantino’s very public declaration of spoiler-phobia. By fueling the news cycle with this request, Tarantino intensified speculation about the secrets of his latest plot, including some very shrewd expectations from savvy viewers familiar with his previous work. In effect, by asking audiences not to spoil the movie, he spoiled it himself.
Tarantino wasn’t the only filmmaker at Cannes 2019 with specific requests along these lines. Korea’s Bong Joon-ho included a note in the press kid for his brilliant comedic thriller “Parasite,” about a family that cons their way into overtaking a wealthy home, asking critics to avoid revealing any information not readily available in the movie’s trailer. While still a bit too extreme — just let journalists see the movie and figure it out for themselves — at least Bong has given more precise guidelines. The veteran filmmaker behind “Okja” and “The Host” is such a precise storyteller that even his marketing materials play a role in the processing of his narrative. If spoilerphobia continues as an industry mandate, then Bong’s model may be the best path forward.
In any case, most serious moviegoers I know would never spoil a movie just for the hell of it. As for critics, their job is to assess the movie, not summarize it. If “Psycho” was released today, would most critics write about how Janet Leigh dies in the first act? I think not. Oh, and if you’ve never seen “Psycho” but somehow missed this nearly 60-year-old twist…see “Psycho.” It’s a masterpiece.
Of course, the internet’s expansive forums mean that you can basically find spoilers for anything as soon as they become available. When movies are completed and released, they become cultural objects that the public can process however they choose. Filmmakers must make peace with this inevitability.
Tarantino seemed to think he could preserve the rarified film festival experience for future audiences: “I’m thrilled to be here in Cannes to share ‘Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood’ with the festival audience,” he wrote. “The cast and crew have worked so hard to create something original, and I only ask that everyone avoids revealing anything that would prevent later audiences from experiencing the film the same way.” But if Tarantino wanted non-festival audiences to experience his movie with fresh eyes, Sony Pictures probably should have simulcast the world premiere to theaters around the globe.
Ironically, the main spoiler of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” isn’t even what makes it a worthwhile viewing experience. That comes from DiCaprio and Pitt giving some of their most enjoyable performances ever, and a loving recreation of the culture surrounding Hollywood filmmaking during the bygone era that Tarantino misses a great deal. At the Cannes Film Festival, there are many kindred spirits who can relate.
“See you on the Croisette,” Tarantino told the audience in remarks after his first screening, referencing that crowded strip of land along the French Riviera, where Cannes moviegoers argue endlessly about what they’ve seen. That intellectual energy keeps film culture alive and vibrant, but it doesn’t do any good when everyone’s afraid to talk.