Keeping cinema’s surprises

In this week's column, James looks at the tricky task of retaining movie surprises in modern cinema...

“Please, accept the mystery…” Mr Park, A Serious Man.

Last week I went to the cinema. I booked my ticket in advance and reserved a place at a screening. So far this story isn’t very unusual, but bear with me because there are surprises in store. Or, at least, there were surprises in store. And there are also surprises coming up in this column because it’s all about surprises. Whoa, it’s Bill Murray! There. That was a surprise.

Anyway, I go to the cinema a lot and normally I know what I’m going to see. This kind of prior knowledge is useful and has practical benefits. For instance, you know when you need to arrive, whether you want to invite anyone else or whether you need to adjust your clothing or mood to suit the tone and content of the film. (Godzilla t-shirt and giddy grin for monster movies. Set to melancholy-malaise mode and sombre sweaters for bleak arthouse dramas.)

Here’s where we break from the norm – on this particular occasion I had no idea what movie I’d be watching that evening. All I knew was the time of the screening and that I’d need a pair of 3D glasses because the movie would be in 3D. I and other attendees were also aware that the film wasn’t on general release yet and was, thus, an exclusive. Aside from those vital details, it was a complete surprise.

Look! The butler is being pleasured by a man in a bear suit! Weird and unnerving surprise!

This event was another Secret Screening hosted by Cineworld for Unlimited membership cardholders. Full disclosure – I have an Unlimited card and was therefore able to attend the screening, having been invited in a nice, enthusiastic email. I want it to be clear though that Cineworld are not paying me or offering me any extra incentives to write this column which may be interpreted as promotional literature for a popular multiplex chain. 

Ad – content continues below

For the record, I’m writing this to talk about a relevant film industry issue, as you’ll discover below – just a teaser, saving up the surprises – and want you to understand that this correspondent is devoted to giving you the absolute truth in his account because he’s a real, serious journalist (like Clark Kent or the crusading heroes of Good Night, And Good Luck, All The President’s Men and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas).

Putting my Unlimited card on the table, I have one because I go to the cinema a lot and love movies, so it herefore makes sense, financially and philosophically. The card also gets me a discount at a local Indian restaurant Mondays through Thursday, but they have nothing to do with this story so I won’t name them and give them free advertising space on a pop culture website of some international renown. I’m now itching to make a ‘curry favour’ joke but that would be too obvious and therefore unsurprising so I won’t, because I’m a serious journalist who is currently mainly interested in surprises.

Leia, Luke and Darth Vader are all relatives! Surprising family revelation with massive dramatic consequences!

Back to the screening, and the minutes before the mystery motion picture rolled were fraught with suspense. What were we about to see? On passing through the entrance to Screen Seven, we’d each been handed a letter from the cinema’s manager. In it, he excitedly explained that he was writing this two hours before the time we’d be reading it, and that he’d just found out what the evening’s unrevealed entertainment was going to be. “The sequel to one of the best films of 2011!” he hinted, which was another clue to work with.

All riled up on adrenaline and puzzlement, I retreated into my mind palace as the trailers played. What came out and was outstandingly excellent in 2011? What sequels are due to come out soon and are fixed up to be exhibited in 3D? Did someone greenlight Black Swan 2 or Rango Strikes Back and not tell anyone?

This film you thought would be a standard Rocky retread is actually a punishing picture about feminism, class and euthanasia. Utterly devastating, smashing knockout-blow surprise from which you may never be able to recover!

Eventually the trailers ceased, the screen went black and the auditorium lights dimmed. And then all the tension and anticipation dissipated as Andy Serkis appeared in front of a sign that said Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. I didn’t need my Sherlock deduction skills to work out what was coming next. Serkis said “Hi!” to us and welcomed us to the screening, told us that we were among the first UK cinemagoers to see his new film, mentioned how much he loves working on the Apes films and then left off by saying that he hoped we enjoyed it. 

I did very much enjoy it and appreciated the opportunity to catch a film I was really looking forward in advance of its general release (even if it was only a couple of days early). Another thing I really enjoyed, though, was the surprise, and the whole experience highlighted just how rare and precious a phenomenon that is.

Ad – content continues below

Creepy demon child jump scare out of nowhere! Shocking surprise that frightens you to your wits’ ends!

Generally speaking, modern audiences are quite jaded. In a postmodern world oversaturated with pop culture, we figure that we’re pretty wise to everything and have seen and done it all before. We also live in a world that has become increasingly absurd – or we’ve rapidly evolved to become comfortable with life’s absurdity – so fewer ‘weird’ or ‘unusual’ things throw us. Zeroing in on the world of film, odd things happen, but these days we’re rarely really surprised or completely blindsided when bizarre curveballs start bombarding us. This is a problem if it impacts on our personality and outlook on life – it’s no fun being a weary cynic – and on our entertainment experiences.

Films rely on surprise, especially thrillers and horror movies. Suspense is the hook that keeps viewers hanging on and following the plot or on the edge of their seat in an acute state of anticipation. The alternative – knowing everything and no sense of uncertainty – is a more passive experience and that, to my mind, is far less appealing. Audiences crave familiarity and get a kick out of formulas and the repetition of things they know and love, but novelty is also prized. If we have no such novelty – no surprises, no mystery, no ambiguity – things are liable to become very bland and uninteresting.

It was Earth the whole time! What do you mean you saw that one coming? They revealed the big surprise on the DVD cover? The maniacs! Damn them all to hell!

The Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes secret screening reminded me that I really like surprises and that I really like the sensational feelings that come with ‘the unknown’. That thrill, I believe, is more of an endangered entity than ever before in this digital age of abundant data, social media and pop cultural oversaturation. There are far fewer secrets and our structures and culture are less secret-friendly. What’s more, as I’ve already noted, we’ve collectively conditioned our minds to be more aloof, cynical or blasé about things because we’re all well-read postmodern hip kids who’ve seen it all before.

Websites, entertainment services and distributors are also very aware that we’ve ‘seen it all before’ and, on that basis, tailor recommendations for what we should buy and watch next. Netflix, Amazon or whoever – I’m reluctant to mention any more brands because I’m a real, serious journalist and none of these companies are paying me to plug ’em – run their “you liked that film so why not try this film?” algorithms and the inclination towards the familiar and sticking to what you know is re-enforced.

The marketing machine is also a monster hell bent on ravaging any remaining mystique in the world movie. Trailers are now major attractions in themselves, and have become longer and more revealing as they seek to find favour in hope of future box office success. Other forms of pre-release promo material likewise operate as information dumps in order to raise awareness and advertise to potential audiences.

Then take into account the additional hype generated by blogs and entertainment websites – like this one, which is one of the best because it employs real, serious film journalists – in addition to social media buzz, and we’ve got a hell of a lot of info ahead of a movie’s actual appearance. Long before the point where we’re booking tickets and taking seats in the cinema auditorium we’ve already armed ourselves with a Godzilla-tonne of advance knowledge. Now clued up and viewing the film from a prejudiced position, mystery and surprise are missing entirely.

Ad – content continues below

They’re all witches and the coven is trying to raise a new Antichrist! Soul-destroying Satanic surprise!

There are several obvious examples of excessive hype taking the edges off anticipation and threatening the freshness of upcoming films, and studios, consumers and the media are all responsible for this tempering effect. The scene appears odd when you realise that the two hottest movies on the slate right now are Star Wars VII and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Both of them have a long way to go before they wrap shooting, and their respective release dates are both well over a year away. Nevertheless, they dominate conversations and are generating more column inches, news bulletins, message board essays and speculative analysis articles than the blockbusters you can actually see in the multiplex today. 

I think it’s reasonable to suggest that by the time many movies have finished post-production and are ready for their premiere, interest and enthusiasm have plateaued and film fans are already more excited about future tentpoles looming on the horizon. That’s mainly due to over-familiarity with the current releases and the fact that the far-far future flicks still have intrigue and novelty as they exist as distant, out-of-reach, as-yet-unknown prospects.

As I’ve already noted, I like surprises – even the body horror surprises where I find that there’s a living alien organism surging through my torso, itching to come out and wish me good morning before I’ve had chance to digest my breakfast. The problem with being so smart and savvy – or with having all this prior knowledge spoon fed to us by marketing teams or media outlets – is that we don’t get to enjoy surprise, and I hope I’m not the only one who feels sad about this.

He’s a clone and his memories are all implants! Heartbreaking sense-of-self-identity surprise!

Being so well-versed in the medium’s myriad tropes and carrying advance understanding of an individual film before viewing, our approach and attitude are affected. We’re liable to get pretentious and figure ourselves as superior to an artwork that we never get to enjoy on its own terms. What’s more, once again, we miss the joy of sitting in a state of absolute uncertainty enwrapped in the enigmatic.

Returning to the quote that introduced this column, I’d urge that sometimes we “accept the mystery”. Surprise! That opening statement wasn’t an inconsequential throwaway! (Though you may be familiar with the Chekhov’s Gun rule and are not surprised to see me pick it up again and wield it as a blunt dramatic device.) Come to think of it, A Serious Man was one such glorious cinema experience steeped in mystery when I first saw it. Aside from knowing that it was the Coen Brothers’ latest, I went in completely cold and that, I feel, is the idealised-albeit-near-impossible condition in which to encounter a new movie. 

I keep on finding that embracing obscurity brings really rewarding experiences, like when I checked out a film called Blue Ruin with no idea what it was about or opted to go and see Prince Avalanche purely because I liked the title. I knew nothing about these films, and they completely blindsided me with their brilliance, probably even more so than if I’d been familiar with them before viewing.

Ad – content continues below

All I had on Short Term 12 was one tweet of praise from a respectable film buff and an awareness that Brie Larson was in it. This superb movie’s power and the profound effect it had on me would’ve definitely been diminished if I’d known what I was about to engage with before viewing.

The best scenario would be taking a blind date, Secret Screening-style, and watching things without knowing what you’re watching at all. Those opportunities are rare, as is the chance to be completely surprised so I’d say we should seize upon the moment when possible and “accept the mystery” as best as we can in this dizzying information age. And now I’m going to say goodbye and close by whispering something sweet in her ear, but you’ll never find out what I said to her. Life is sweeter and more interesting when some things are shrouded in secrecy.

James Clayton is SURPRISE! You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

You can read James’ last column here.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.