By Nathanael Griffis
Hyperbole is fun, but it’s also the cute girl that flirts with you at the bar for drinks and then says no to dinner. Not that I’m bitter or that that’s ever happened… Anyways moving on, sometimes I find myself getting carried away with how excited I get for a movie and use hyperbole. I might expect it to be another stupid romantic comedy with no depth and a waste of my precious time and then discover that The Notebook is a great movie. On the other hand, when all the trailers tell me a film is going to be the best comic book movie ever made and I really want Matthew Vaughn to be a good director, then sometimes our hearts are rendered to shreds of… I don’t know, X-Men: First Class was just bad, it didn’t really scar me.
My expectations and how they influence my viewing experience has always fascinated me. Do I like The Notebook more because I didn’t expect to like it, and because the depth or characters surprised me? Was the problem with X-Men: First Class my desire for it to be good or its failure to be good? Our expectations are powerful things, and don’t think for a moment studios don’t know this. That’s why trailers can sometimes be more exciting than the films themselves. If enough good buzz is generated about a film people will see it. On Buried Cinema we did an entire podcast that dealt with this issue after we saw Catfish. I’d sum it up for you, but then you wouldn’t watch the podcast. I will say this, though: the directors of Catfish are now horror directors. I’m happy for them, no doubt, but Catfish is a not a horror movie. The way the film was advertised, though, was almost like a horror film, and you can imagine that that comes with certain expectations.
How stupid am I, this poster clearly screams middling documentary.
What I’d like to do, from here on out, is look into those expectations and try and determine how they affect my film watching experience. I’m going to drown myself in introspective metacognitive processes (i.e., probably just babble a lot) and try to discern, if at all possible, some of the connections between what we expect from a film and how we then judge it.
How this’ll work is simple. I’ll watch a film I’ve never seen before, but before doing that I’ll analyze what advertisement I’m given: posters, trailers, clips of the film, screen shots, probably not everything but enough to get a gist of the film. Then I’ll see what critics have to say. What does the mighty Internet tell us about this film? Is it highly regarded? Is it the kind of film that divides friendships? Does it involve people staring at each other for hours? I’ll sum up my expectations into a sort of hypothesis. Then I’ll watch the film and say my piece. Consider this the results and analysis section, so now it’s got scientific pretensions.
To start us off I’m going with a movie that has a whopper of expectations for me personally: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
My expectations: This’ll be a shorter article than the next few I suspect1 but perhaps deserves as much space as those that follow. The fact is I’ve been waiting for this movie for at least two years. After watching Let the Right One In, I was stunned that a film like that could be made. It was full of depth and perfectly crafted. There wasn’t a flaw in it. Every cut mattered, every performance was airtight and convincing. It transcends the sense that you’re watching a film and engages you in a shared experience. I know, I know, that all sounds very fluffy and as philosophical as it is nonsensical, but I believe it’s the truth and you won’t convince me otherwise. Although bribed with a cookie, I will gladly say otherwise.
It wasn’t long after that I heard Tomas Alfredson, who directed Let the Right One In, was working on an adaptation of John le Carré’s novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I immediately went and told all my friends and it was at this point I began to suspect I am the only John le Carré fan under 50 years old. (These suspicions, by the way, were further indicated by the silver-haired audience I sat with tonight.) My friends did not care, but the fire for espionage and paranoia continued to bubble within my blood. Then mysteriously, casting began to leak: Colin Firth, Gary Oldman, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy. Clearly Britain has heard of John le Carré. It was like they were making this movie just for me. A stupendous trailer followed that told me nothing except that there was a spy, a mole, at the head of British Intelligence, and suddenly, with as much seemingly swift power as the anticipation had, there was silence and disappointment. My small upstate New York town was not deemed important enough to receive this gem of movie.
Best Poster Ever, nope, Best Poster Ever.
The time and waiting I think built up my expectations; it drove my thirst for a slow-paced, realistic spy thriller. Enough Jason Bourne. I wanted a real spy, an old tired man with a briefcase who goes over files and tapes photos to chess pieces, yeah sexy. Lack only strengthened my desire. It was like the theater deliberately didn’t want me to see this movie and, like a child being forbidden, my thought was that the verboten must by amazing, for all adults are selfish and want to keep all the fun to themselves. So I started to devise this theory. An idea began to creep up in my head. Hyperbole dripped down through my nerves till it fed every bone in my body. I was convinced, plainly, simply, deludedly, that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was the greatest movie ever made.
With all honesty those were my expectations going into the film. I was about to watch something that would leave Citizen Kane in the celluloid dust, a film that wouldn’t even blink at Raiders of the Lost Ark, a movie that redefined violence previously exposed in A History of Violence, a movie that struck my heart deeper than Singin’ in the Rain, a film that better understood the craft of filmmaking than WALL-E, something more eternal than Casablanca. So, not a big deal right?
The Result: The best movie of the year. One of the best films I’ve ever seen. But, the best movie ever made? No. Let’s return to the pretty girl metaphor. Forgotten it already because of my stirring prose, I’ll remind you. A pretty girl flirts with you, your hopes travel wildly down the path of the delirious lie that is the male imagination. A single thought drips down a stalactite in far reaches of your brain: perhaps. Perhaps what? Perhaps anything, and that is what is so engaging. This could be the one. She’s pretty smart… and she says yes to dinner. Then comes dinner and it’s wonderful. You have salad, she orders steak, it’s fancifully contradictory. The sad thing is it never really becomes all those amazing things your imagination thought up, does it? Still, it’s something worth treasuring. This film is like that.
Saying a movie is one of the best ever made, a Top 100 film, is not an insult, but it’s a long way from the best. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, to review the film as a whole, astoundingly perfect. There is a haunting combination of cinematography and sound, a blend of acting and directing like I’ve never seen, and the sharpest editing and script this year or in several years. Alfredson does some amazing things with the camera. He on several occasions pulls back, which seems minute and a simple small choice, but it’s a brilliant subtle reference to the larger picture. We, like the characters, will at first only see a small glint of the truth, but once we stand back…well, you’ll come to realize that perhaps there is still farther back to step. Nothing is completely cleaned up or solved; most things are, but the loose ends and questions remain. There is still farther back we could step, but won’t or can’t. There is a limit to perception, and we have to content ourselves with such limits.
The film is not simple. It’s complex and realistic. There is no over-hyped Bourne tension. No globetrotting action scenes. These are quiet, nervous men with guns, reading books. My father said, as we drove from the theater, “They’re real spys: men getting killed over dangerous, boring things.” He’s right, and it adds a sense of realism to the film that is backed up by le Carré’s past as a commander in British Intelligence. The performances are the best I’ve seen all year. Each man is a unique picture of caged, controlled, and unleashed emotion. Gary Oldman deserves the Oscar, but if Brad Pitt wins I won’t throw a fit. I will, however, if Alberto Iglesias doesn’t win for his score and Tom Brown and Zsuzsa Kismarty-Lechner don’t win for their art direction.
I don’t want to give anything away, yet I suspect that even if I did it might still stand on its own. This is a film for film-lovers, and a film to make a film-lover out of you.
Analysis: So were my expectations met? No, but I think they impacted my view greatly. Trying to be unbiased with this film is impossible. I honestly cannot see any way I would have disliked this film. If something catastrophic, like a random car chase and Hollywood slow-motion suddenly crept up and ruined the film, I would have brushed it off as the producers’ fault. Excuses would have been made for missteps, and the film would have still ended up on my shelf. I just got lucky that it’s a spectacular film. It wouldn’t surprise me if my views aren’t agreed with, but I think I can chalk that up to the difference in expectation perhaps. A viewer expecting something akin to Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, or James Bond, will be befuddled when actions scenes are limited to a few frames. People expecting closure, but perhaps a sequel teaser at the end, will be grasping for answers to a serpentine plot that may come full circle or not. It’s a hard film to dislike, because I think expert artistry is simply noted and appreciated, but not free of the shackles of bias and expectation. But are any?
1: I said this before I finished writing the piece, so this is probably how long they’ll be. If they’re not, I’m clearly even more of a pompous verbose ass than I think I am.
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