05 May 2010

The Lost Art of Surprise

by Tyler Weaver.  Follow me on Twitter.

On my Facebook page this morning, I posed the following question to my fans (or like-ables, or peeps, or faces, or whatever they're called now):

Seeing the plot synopsis for Christopher Nolan's Inception, (and not clicking because I want to go in fresh) got me to thinking - do we know too much about movies before they come out? Has the Internet lessened our willingness to be surprised? Or, has it made us smarter consumers of entertainment products?

Several people chimed in with some great thoughts, so I'd like to further pontificate on the notion here.

First, "the lost art of surprise" can actually apply three ways.

1.) As a slam against the lack of originality in the modern wave of "filmmaking."

2.) As a slam against the Internet, making leaks commonplace, and ruining the theatrical experience by giving away the good bits in the trailer.  

3.) As a combo drop kick against the overload of surprise twist endings that made the surprise so common place that it wasn't a surprise - it was an expectation.

Let's take these piece by piece.

Lack of Originality

Let's face it.  Every story has been told.  It's just that now instead of every story being told with a personal and unique spin, it's rehashed with the latest pretty thing of the month.   To call the current wave of "mainstream" flicks cookie cutter is a disservice to cookie cutters.  Even the guys who made their careers with "the twist" and surprise, such as M. Night and Bryan Singer, have yet to reclaim any sort of the competence or grandeur of old.

Perhaps it's me, but I don't think so.  Maybe I've been doing this filmmaking thing for so long, analyzing so many things, that I've forgotten how to let myself be surprised.

But I've yet to see a film lately that has the same element of surprise as say, a novel, or a television show on AMC, HBO, or Showtime.  And how do they surprise? By sucking people in with such rich characters, engrossing storylines, and rock-solid craft that the edge of our seats are rubbed raw with butt imprints.

Is it any wonder that many actors, who long avoided the small screen and viewed it as an inferior art form are now making the transition?  Glenn Close. Jackie Earl Haley. Kiefer Sutherland. James Cromwell... the list goes on.

The Internet

Anything we want, whenever we want it.  Real time news feeds, an unending stream of movie news websites with exclusive behind the behind the scenes photos and conceptual art, all throughout every stage of the process. By the time we get to the actual movie, it's like loads of foreplay with no orgasm.  The Internet has now turned the movie into the end result of a long and drawn out investigative report, marketing scheme or PR campaign.

I understand why they do it.  Have to heighten awareness and make money.  I'm a filmmaker in this wild, wild west, and I'm not an idiot - I know how it goes, and I do it too with my projects.  But still - in the mad rush to be seen, we show too much sometimes - be it DIY or Kick Ass or Iron Man 2.  Sure, I still want to see Iron Man 2, but I wish I hadn't seen all of those images, trailers, TV commercials, etc.

Remember the Michael Keaton as Batman announcement?  People went ballistic.  I miss those days.  I miss the days when it was an event to see the trailer premiere on Entertainment Tonight.   And it heightened the fever pitch leading up to the film's release.

Movies used to be magical, an event.  Now, they're a forgone conclusion.  They're disposable pieces of entertainment.  Utilitarian. 

Some filmmakers, such as Christopher Nolan, of Batman Begins and the aforementioned Inception, keep an extraordinarily tight lid.  JJ Abrams is another example.  The recent announcement of an unknown trailer called Super 8 premiering with Iron Man 2 has everyone talking.

But now, movie websites are irritated that they didn't know the trailer was coming, or that Nolan is so tight-lipped.  We've become information carnivores - sucking the meat off of every bone of every single thing we can get our chubby little fingers on.  And like when Colorado closed down Cartman's beloved KFC in a recent episode of South Park, we flip.

We're info addicts.  New.  Now.  Right Now. Yesterday. Gimme. Gimme.  Gimme.   Hard.  Fast.  Quick.  Easy.  Gimme.

Chill out info addicts.  We're too damn impatient nowadays.  Slow down.  Appreciate.  Enjoy.  Or here's an idea - accept surprise as a GOOD thing.  Why don't we want to be surprised anymore?

Why do we have to know everything before we see anything?

Twist Ending Overdose

The big one.  The death knell of surprise.  Everything was a twist ending ten years ago.  Everything.  From Crying Game to Sixth SenseUsual Suspects.  Nothing was what it seemed.  Even the idea that nothing was what it seemed was called into question.

The Internet changed that.  Spoilers.  Major surprises.   So why do people want to know spoilers?  Because they don't want anything bad to happen to the characters.  They want to be secure.  Film has again become a manufactured industry.  Pity the cookie cutter.  

The surprise has become expected.  And what's the fun in that?  There's a sense of not only the lost art of surprise, but the lost sense of fun in moviegoing.  

It is no longer an event.  It is as utilitarian as a red tipped, wooden handled toilet plunger.  It does what it's made to do, but offers nothing in the way of sensory pleasure, beyond the occasional "huh, cool" stupor.

Too much leads to expectation.  Expectation leads to indifference. 

We're being taken for granted.

A Fix

A read through of the 37signals team's book, ReWork brought up a great point that I'd like expand on here.

We should think like the great chefs.  Where ReWork spoke of sharing knowledge, I'd propose another spin.

Every night, chefs tantalize taste buds.  Food has now become not a utilitarian necessity of life - it has become a pleasure.  And the artists behind the counter have turned it into that, by offering their patrons not what they want - but what they don't know they want.

The great chefs don't pander - they engage.  They take old favorites, and put an incredible new spin on them.  Being in Cleveland, I've seen this happen.  A native Ohioan, I was here for the first time when food was Hamburger Helper and restaurant food was Hamburger Helper with Velveeta at the local Applebees.  But now?

Lola. Lolita. The Greenhouse Tavern.  Melt.  They have all taken everyday, ordinary foods and turned them into works of art.  And they do it night after night, day after day, week after week, and so on and so forth.

And every night, people from every walk of life pay to eat it.  The soccer moms.  The Hamburger Helpers.  The foodies.  The hoodies.  Everyone, everything.

So why the hell can't we do that one film at a time?

How do we bridge the gap between film for idle watching, like most of it is now, and a deep involvement?  How do we become the great chefs of the film world?  The Flays? The Symons? The Morimotos?

By giving the audience what they don't know they want.  As the great chefs tantalize the tastebuds, we must tantalize the eyes, the ears, the brain.   We must not cater to the information addiction.

Control the appetizer portions, and give them one hell of a main course.

Tantalize.  Surprise.

Om. Nom. Nom.

Tyler Weaver is a filmmaker, writer, contributor to the pulptone.com website, and is the founder and EIC of Multi-Hyphenate... which you're reading right now.  He's currently making new things and yaks about that and more on Twitter under the creative guise of @tylerweaver.


dpbaker said...

Tyler, another great post. Will keep this one short.

The films I have watched again and again over the years really are films where you just "wanna hang out with the characters". And I always spot something fresh that I never saw before when I watch over.

I dont know how many times I watched Taxi driver over the years, Fargo, our countless other modern and classic old school movies. I am not really an ending sort of guy, as we usually know whats coming anyway.

Saying that, here I go and create a film with a huge ending plot twist for my next film. Death Movie. However, I dont think anybody will get what it could be. Even though many THINK it might be the same Hollywood ending.

To counteract that, I am far more interested in having charaters in it that are interesting to follow. A film that you could watch again and again, regardless of the fact you know the end after the first time. Thats so important

As for saturating with trailers, behind scenes before a film is released. 100% agree. I am almost done with a film before I even see it.

Thats why in my next film (hopefully) you will be lucky if you even see a trailer at all of the main movie.

It will be more about multiple spin offs viral videos outside the film, and from fake media and witnesses in the story that will be online.

This plugs the film, the simple plot, but you know very little about the movie and characters themselves, scenes.

I think we are in a time where we can change, bend, reinvent all the rules. We need a lot more curve balls in filmmaking.

PS. was not here to plug my flick, but your post is so close to how I feel.

Tyler Weaver said...

David - I really need to get a post from you sometime for MH - you'd be more than welcome. You've earned your hyphen many times over.

I agree - I'm not much of an ending guy. I like to be surprised and intrigued throughout, and the way to do that is with engaging characters.

Curveballs are the order of the day - just well-done ones. Things move along so quickly now, and film crews and partnerships can be so small that adherence to the old ways of doing things is the exact opposite of what should be happening.

I fear that as film tech has come to the masses, we as filmmakers have been less willing to take risk But as the cost of films come down, we should take even bigger risks!

Thanks again for posting David - your insight is always awesome and welcome.

JD said...

The surprise is missing.
Even the surprise of a trailer is missing.
As much as I love films, I Have to say the internet has taken the magic out of some films, not all.
I refuse to read anything about Inception.
Excellent article!!

Tyler Weaver said...

Thanks for reading, JD!

While the Internet hasn't taken all the magic out, it certainly hasn't helped in putting a transparency to the rabbit in the hat.

And I'm with you - I want to know nothing about Inception. Really can't wait to see it - an original sci-fi flick? So there.

Thanks again!

julie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
julie said...

Great post. You penned some opinions here that Jess and I have expressed recently. I, too, remember when movie trailers were a surprise and when I could go into a movie knowing only who was in it (the MAIN actors) and what the general story was about. I miss that.

I think you're also dead-on about cable TV offering great content. It's often difficult to muster the energy to leave the house to see a movie. Shows like Mad Men, Damages, True Blood, and Big Love offer not only surprises and twists and turns but slow simmering character development (what?!?) and a heavenly weekly fix that just can't be beat by a movie whose "best lines" have been spoiled by the trailer.

You know what else I never do any more? I never see movies in the theater more than once. I saw Batman Returns on the big screen 4 or 5 times because a) I had a friend obsessed with Batman (a friend, not ME...) and b) there were moments we JUST HAD TO SEE AGAIN. Now if you miss something in the first go-around, you can probably find it somewhere on the internet or ask a million people "hey, did this thing happen" in a chat room, and they'll tell you.

Oh, crud. Why do I write movies again...

Well done, Tyler.

Marinell said...

Guilty as charged. My name is Marinell and I'm an info addict.

"Why do we have to know everything before we see anything?" As a moviegoer, I personally try to avoid having to regret spending $12.50 after seeing a movie. So yes, I go to Rotten Tomatoes and search Twitter for real-time reviews before I see anything. That's another thing—reviews. Back in the Roger Ebert days, being a film critic is an occupation, right? Then the internet came and now our opinions are more powerful than ever. So now everybody's a movie critic just like how everybody and their mothers are now filmmakers.

The internet is a serial killer and we are proxy murderers. Should it be sentenced to death? No, because I'm making a living out of it. Hehe! :)

This is a great read, Tyler! I love your writing style!

Tyler Weaver said...

Julie -

I'm the exact same way. I rarely, if ever, watch a movie twice anymore. I used to be able to watch the same movie over and over again - maybe it's a time thing, or maybe it's just me. Or maybe it's just the movie. I shudder to think that movies are becoming less of a discussion topic, and more of a conversation filler, as in "so, see any good movies lately?"

I'm beginning to think I might be more at home working in television...

Marinell -

I agree with the more wisely spending money angle. But at the same time, that's an argument that the quality just isn't there anymore.

Like Julie said - why would I want to leave the house to go see a subpar movie when all the great storytelling is on television?

And if you're a murderer by proxy, you're my favorite knowledge junkie assassin, Marinell. =)

Thanks for reading!

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