In 1941's Citizen Kane, journalist Thompson is on a quest to discover what the last uttered word of recently deceased media magnate and American cultural giant Charles Foster Kane means in the context of Kane's entire life. That final word, as breathlessly reported by newspapers and newsreels, is "Rosebud." However, Thompson's own employer believes the word itself is meaningless unless they can report and understand to what it refers. So Thompson interviews all of Kane's living associates, combs through the diaries of those who are not living, and doggedly pursues the key that he believes will unlock the secret of Kane himself: who, or what, was Rosebud? At the end of the film, even though all of the film's characters are still and will remain in the dark, the audience is let in on the secret. Rosebud - spoiler alert! - is Kane's childhood sled.
Now, if you've never seen Citizen Kane - first of all, wtf is your problem, go and watch it right now - but, secondly, by the standards that currently rule discussion of movies on and off the internet, I've just "spoiled" the movie for you. You know the answer to the question that drives the film.
Except - not really. Director Orson Welles was the first one to dismiss the Rosebud device as a gimmick, a flimsy framework on which to set the real substance of the film, which was the consideration of a complex individual through the impressions and experiences of those around him. Kane actor Joseph Cotten joined in, when describing Welles' second film, The Magnificent Ambersons in comparison to Kane: "Ambersons was about something. Kane was just a bag of tricks." This is overstating it a little, but his point stands. The essence of this film is not what you see on surface. If you think the simple fact of knowing what Rosebud is ruins Citizen Kane in any way, you're, to put it mildly, missing something.
This brings us to the question of what value our modern emphasis on spoiler alerts really is. It's grown to the point that if a proper spoiler alert isn't in place in a movie review or discussion, she who omitted it will face the wrath of whoever's movie experience was just "spoiled." That word, specifically, implies is that said experience is worthless without the power of that plot surprise. Which leads me to wonder - is that really what we should feel is most worthwhile in a film?
I'm not exactly advocating that we start deliberately ruining surprise endings for movie audiences. Movie experiences are journeys, and traveling territory unknown to you is a part of that experience. The impact is dampened if you already have a road map. However - I am truly bothered by the ubiquity and commonly accepted necessity of the spoiler alert to the exclusion of all else. As interesting as an individual's journey with a film is, I don't think it's more important than that film's relevance to and discussion within the larger critical landscape.
I suppose the primary argument against this is that the mass of modern film-goers just don't care about movies that way. This is true, and this is really the problem I have with the spoiler craze in the first place. The importance mainstream film culture places on spoilers is indicative that we don't care as much about the deeper meaning of film as we do with the momentary surprises, explosions and twists movies can pile on our heads. I rail against the spoiler because I don't like the values it represents. I don't care about pleasing the mass of modern film-goers. In fact, I want to see the majority of film audiences displeased. And irritated, and challenged, and provoked and pushed. Anything to rattle us out of our complacent preoccupation with the transient and superficial. If you only want to see events independent of context or meaning happen, stay the hell out of the movie theater and stay home to watch sitcoms and soap operas.
This current obsession with the preservation of immediate, base reactions is obscuring and devaluing the more profound and thoughtful potential of narrative art. Our irrational panic about not revealing anything concerning a piece of art that someone else might not already know has become so great it's hampering public contemplation and conversation about what that art signifies. If we weren't so busy crying spoiler alert and avoiding mention of anything remotely surprising, we could be spending more time discussing meaning, subtext, message and artistry, and building these into a more literate, informed and passionate cultural mindset. Instead, we are devoting more and more energy and discussion space to protecting a standard of mediocrity that doesn't deserve our defense.
Darth Vader is Luke's father, and soylent green is people. Rick sends Ilsa out of Casablanca without him. Rosebud is Charles Kane's boyhood sled.
Now that we've got that out of the way, can we talk about what it all means, what it makes us think and feel? And if it doesn't do any of that - is it really worth talking about in the first place?