I haven’t solved my formatting issue to post my syllabus so for the next two weeks I’m discussing surprise endings, great reveals, and the idea of spoilers.
I wonder about the notion of a **spoiler**. For essays I’ve contributed to the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) I’ve had to swear that my writing did not contain a **spoiler** or that, if it did, I would have to make that clear at the beginning. Can truly great art be spoiled by knowing the ending or the reveal? (This question will also be dealt with in a later blog that explains why teachers have to adopt the roles of Magician, Stripper, and Sherpa in their lives.)
Usually, knowing the ending, no matter how much of a “surprise” cannot ruin a text for me since I see the plot as only one element of my reading of the text. Sometimes knowing the end of a text allows one to study the set up, the clues and red herrings that make up the structure of the text, to watch for other artistic elements without the distraction of concentrating on following every plot twist (though there is an undeniable joy in that). I’ve seen most “Simpsons” episodes more than once–but my enjoyment at each new viewing is often in the background art I didn’t see or some juxtaposition that I hadn’t noticed or a reference (pop cultural, classical, or otherwise) that I hadn’t really heard before. Even as I do the reading for my class each day I am conscious that I am reading differently from my students who usually are approaching a text for the first time. I think Heraclitus MEANT to say, “You can’t read the same text twice.”
There are some “disposable” texts (I call them “Kleenex texts” because they are done after one use) that have a reveal that is the only thing holding them together so that once you know the plot there is NO OTHER reason to return to the text. Maupassant’s widely anthologized “The Necklace” and O’Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” fall into this category–and more’s the pity because Maupassant wrote some brilliant stories–I’d recommend “Mother Savage” as a good start–that even though containing a reveal–will bear repeated readings. O’Henry has some amusing things but his works rarely compel re-reading though I dip into the ironic “Cop and the Anthem” every once in a while.
Below I list and give away several “reveals” in literature and film with some commentary–each of these texts will stand up to reading/watching them even if you know the “reveal.” I’d also like to solicit any readers who have great reveals in mind to send them along to me.
Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, despite its brilliance and my unalloyed admiration for it, is only a partial qualifier as a great reveal. The audience knows before Oedipus (through Tiresias) but Oedipus doesn’t find out until later. I am using the term to refer to the reader’s shock at a particular twist and not a character’s shock (though in a first-person narrative you can pull off both). In addition, it is almost impossible for a modern reader or viewer to NOT know the great reveal of this text.
M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense is slightly overpraised in this genre and is close to a disposable text. Still, a second viewing almost compels the viewer to ask, “How did I NOT see this the first time?” (Actually lots of great reveals feel this way.) The realization that Bruce Willis’ character, Dr. Crowe, is dead actually struck me moments before the reveal. Dr. Crowe is “treating” Haley Joel Osment who teaches him that he is dead–this actually allows Crowe to reconcile with his wife–and to move on. There are several satisfying episodes inside the movie including a scene where a murderer is revealed. In part because the acting is wonderful and understated for a ghost movie and the plot is compelling we are pulled past the things that should have acted as “splinters in the brain” (The Matrix)–we are willing to overlook the things that didn’t quite make sense.
William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel is a tremendous thriller; for many years I described it as the scariest book I’ve ever read. A hardboiled supernatural thriller sounds impossible–and it should be unless you’ve read it (skip the movie, Angel Heart, which doesn’t work). In 1959 New York City, PI Harry Angel is hired by Louis Cyphre (Lou Cipher > Lucifer) to find a Sinatra-like singer named Johnny Favorite who has been missing since WWII. Bodies pile up and some seriously scary events happen with a voodoo priestess as Harry gets closer and closer to finding the missing singer–and himself. His discovery that he is a murderer as well as a victim is exceptional.
Lone Star is a masterpiece of film-making by John Sayles who excels in the novel form and as a film director (baseball fans will recognize Eight Men Out and his latest novel, A Moment in the Sun, was reviewed in The New York Review of Books). Set in Texas on a border town and at the intersection of the past and the present (a huge ensemble cast is needed to pull off the events from 35 years ago and current events spliced together), and involving the interplay of three cultures, Mexican/Spanish, Black, and White, Lone Star shows Sayle’s playing at the margins of all sorts of taboos–and later that will turn out to be important. But it serves to help Sayles question identity, history, culture, destiny–all the really good, big questions–and it gives him a chance to confound everyone’s expectations. Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) has returned to his home town and is elected in large part because his father was the town’s most beloved citizen (and a great Sheriff). He and an old flame, Pilar Cruz–the beautiful Elizabeth Pena–reunite after having been driven apart when teenagers, ostensibly because of the racism of the white and Mexican communities. (There are wonderful side plots about racism and prejudice including a one where a white army Sergeant is going to marry a black Sergeant and his friend asks how her family feels about their daughter marrying a white man. He responds that at their ages the family is just thrilled that their daughter isn’t a lesbian. To which the friend replies: “It’s always good to see one deep-seated prejudice drive out another one.”) A murder–maybe by the father of the current Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper)–of a racist, bigoted Sheriff (wonderfully played by Kris Kristofferson) leads Deeds to discover that the people working against his teenaged relationship with Pilar Cruz were doing so not because of racism but because he and Pilar are half-siblings–this knowledge will obviously complicate their current relationship! Wow.
The terrific craftsman and master of two genres, the Western and the Mystery, Loren Estleman outdoes himself in The Master Executioner. Carpenter Oscar Stone and his wife move west from Philadelphia looking for work and he ends up building scaffoldings and then becoming a hangman. Over the course of years he becomes “a master executioner”–in fact the novel is filled with explanations of killing by various means (and why hanging, when well done, is the best method). This choice of profession (and his lies about it) alienate him from his wife–and make him an outsider in every community that nonetheless needs him to come and do the work. Stone studies at the feet of Fabian T. Rudd, a veteran executioner and frontier philosopher and Stone reenacts parts of Rudd’s career–including a stint as a drunk. Stone sloppily kills a man by pulling his head off during his time as a drunk (the counterweights weren’t calculated correctly) and he recovers to devote himself to humane killing (I’m aware of the oddness of that phrase). He cares deeply about his craft though it makes him a pariah and he seems to come to grips with just working hs craft for the reward that doing a job well brings (no high and mighty sense of passing out justice, no belief that he is God’s avenging angel). In truly flinch-inducing scenes he places his hands around the necks of those he is to execute to judge musculature and size but the action resembles a pitiful shadow of an embrace–a kind of intimacy denied him by his profession. After years of work he tracks down his estranged, dying wife and after discussions with her realizes that he has executed a son he never knew he had (and that he had unknowingly placed his hands on his son’s neck in his sort of faux embrace and with clinical detachment). He then hangs himself with the same efficiency he has approached so many executions. It’s tremendous.
Part 2 Next week on Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind and some more thoughts about plot twists, epiphanies, reveals, surprise endings and spoilers–and how these might be related to profound taboos (notice how many of the above have to do with either incest or killing inside the family unit–or both).