Angel Face ★★★★½

Don't even look at the poster if you want to watch this. Although, I'm not one to believe that "spoilers" could actually spoil a film. In fact, instead of reviewing this film, I think I'm going to bitch about "spoilerphobia" and how it's actively deteriorating film criticism as an artform.

First, let's talk about how film criticism in the era of late capitalism has become solely a vehicle for consumer decision, resulting in the proliferation of star ratings (of which I am guilty of using) and "yes/no" binary decisions. The film review ends up answering the question (that was never asked) of "is this worth your time?" which I firmly believe is a terrible way of engaging with art. Criticism should engage with the cultural object, take it apart, put it back together, attempt to elucidate what makes it work, what made it elicit specific affective responses from the subject (ie a subjective and personal reaction). By reducing the critic to a yes/no logic gate, this affective interaction is eliminated. What is art but an effort to invoke emotional responses? Removing those affects seems to disregard the cultural object itself, turning it into a consumable, to be disregarded and tossed aside.

The nature of late capitalism is to flatten objects into a system of equivalence; specifically, this process functions by assigning exchange value (beyond its use value). The objects (in our case, films) become interchangeable through a commodity market, especially as the film industry is one of profit first, artistry second (arguable, of course, and not universal). With so many "equivalent" objects vying for the consumer's attention, the consumer must figure out a process by which they can choose. The flattening of this objects is one part; the reduction of criticism is another.

Concomitantly, this has an effect on the very content of film criticism: plot becomes the paramount virtue of the cultural object rather than the more subtle formal aspects that perhaps the layperson might not have the jargon to parse the judgement. Plot ascends the (false) hierarchy constructed by commodification as all people understand stories before they understand, say, aspect ratios, semiotics of colour, focal length, depth of field, etc etc etc. Thus, the film review must prioritize the judgement of plot over any other consideration for the sake of the possible viewer and reader.

The film journalist is embedded within the late capitalist structures as well. They rely on viewers, traffic, and clicks (subscriptions, too) to produce revenue to further the spectatorship of film. Film critics require the reader to perpetuate their scopophilia (ie cinephiles are all perverts, he said with a wink). Thus, a dialectical structure emerges: critic must attend to the desires of the reader, the review must attend to the desired outcome (yes/no), the cultural object itself is flattened in order to facilitate easier, quicker, judgements.

Because of plot's paramount position, a reversal has taken place (as with any metanarrative, its existence is predicated on the contemporaneous hyperbolic reversal). Readers want to enjoy the plot and only the plot, but learning of the details can potentially spoil the experience. Many spoilerphobes argue that you can only experience a film the first time once, a sentiment I can hardly dispute. Yet, this attitude that plot is the primary mode of consumption does a huge disservice to the object and its attempts at eliciting responses through the tools of cinema (eg sound, visuals, mise en scene, editing, etc etc etc).

With this in mind, what can the film critic speak of in their review? They can only gesture to narrative and say "yes this is worth your time experiencing" or "no this is not." If plot can only be experienced the first time once, then the critic can't spoil it, for fear of alienating their readers and thus their revenue. So film criticism is unfairly muzzled. The critic can't talk about what the plot means, the formal elements. The critic can't expand on their thoughts in the initial review. For sure, I won't say that all film criticism has been reduced to "yes/no" answers (The Dissolve was an oasis of good film criticism while it lasted), but certainly, the artform of criticism is being eroded—and not just through spoiler culture; there are all sorts of other economic and social factors at play here. How and when and where we consume art has changed radically in the past twenty years. Perhaps, criticism just needs to adapt to a newer practices of consumption.

Of course, my irritation with "spoiler culture" is one partly based in misguided elitism. I want people to talk about more than just the plot, but many feel intimidated because they lack the jargon to articulate themselves. They fear being sneered at by cinephiles who are armed with the lexicon, with the experience.

I want to get away from that. I welcome more discourse around film. That's why I'm here on Letterboxd. I regard criticism as a dialogue between critic and object, but also between critics (and we're all critics in a way, even if we judge without articulating why). I read opposing reviews to films that I watch to understand why and how the object affected another person. Criticism is a secret empathy machine. We could all do with more empathy.

A couple of my friends lack any and all formal training in film criticism and theory. They watch tons of movies and we have passionate discussions about it. Certainly, they articulate concepts and ideas from film theory without ever identifying it as such because film is supposed to be universal, supposed to be transformative. At the risk of sounding super patronizing, I appreciate their criticism just a smidge more than, say, a professional reviewer, because it feels more pure, a closer relationship to the object itself, without being muddied by the worry of getting the jargon right.

Spoiler culture bothers me because it puts plot above anything else, and through the complex intertwining of the apparatuses of film criticism and capitalism, plot dominates discourse, when there is so much else to talk about when it comes to cultural objects. We need more discourse, not less. We need more critical thinking about objects in their totality. We need more holistic thinking about cultural objects.

On a lighter note, here's a couple screenshots of two outfits that Jean Simmons wears in this great film noir: