Sunday, February 5, 2012

Expectations and Repeat Viewings

Have you noticed recently that your expectations going into a film have impacted on how much you enjoy that film? Sadly, I have noticed that it plays a big role. Take The Artist for instance. Scheduled for a release on February 2, 2012, months after it has screened at Cannes and Toronto, months after a wide release in the United States, and on the wave of buzz following ten Oscar nominations (and unchallenged favouritism) and wins at the PGA, DGA and SAG. As a film buff who has been trying to keep up with the awards coverage, and constantly seeing the film praised and honoured, it is pretty difficult to go into this film with an open mind. Hugo was another example, though it was released here before the Oscar nominations. I had quite high expectations - and though I warmed to the film in the end - I was initially underwhelmed. It is quite difficult to cull all knowledge about the film's potential and watch it with neutral expectations.


The Artist is a very good film, and I was immensely entertained - but I did feel like there were some pacing issues. Ultimately, I was not blown away. I didn't walk out of the cinema and have nothing negative to say about the film. But say I had seen it back at Toronto, before the buzz started, would I have felt the same way? Would I have been blown away? I think my experience of the Sydney Film Festival from June last year tells a lot. Most of the films I watched, I went in knowing very little. I had seen a recommendation, knew a little about some Berlinale or Cannes success, but had seen no trailers, and my knowledge of the film was slim. I enjoyed almost all of the films I saw at the festival, and many of them have since had theatrical releases, but months later and aboard the Sydney Film Festival hype. Seeing them before the hype no doubt enhanced the experience.

Expectations have played quite a large role in influencing several film experiences this year - Bridesmaids, X-Men: First Class, Melancholia, Drive, Beginners, The Descendants, Hugo and The Artist are just some of the  films where I have left the cinema feeling underwhelmed. In some instances (Drive and The Descendants are the best examples) a repeat viewing has eliminated most of the issues. Of course low expectations can play a role as well, and Warrior, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and most recently Chronicle and This Means War (the latter was not good, but much more entertaining than I expected) are examples. There was a moment in Warrior, where I had this great wave of excitement wash over me, when I realised I was watching a damn fine film, and seemingly against all odds. That doesn't happen very often, but it is a great feeling.

Having said that, repeat viewings have been the charm in 2011. Many of the films I have initially been disappointed by, have been more impressive on a re-visit. This is for a variety of reasons - it might be that the emotional resonance of the story (having appreciated the visuals and spectacle the first time around) becomes more profound, plot points that might have initially seemed confusing become clearer, and the strength of the performances more apparent. Often, these re-watches have taken place following my review of the film. Perhaps I am more relaxed - not concerned with trying to craft a review as I watch the film (often a detriment to the film experience) - but then I find that my new thoughts on the film don't reflect what I have included in my review. Frustrating.

This issue was raised the other night when I was out with some Sydney critics and bloggers: Do you dismiss the possibility of a review if the film experience does not accommodate and provide a comfortable and neutral experience? The cinema could be too hot/cold, you may have to take a bathroom break (influencing how much of the film you see), someone could be talking in the cinema, you may be tired and disengaged or you may have had high expectations, which cloud your judgement of the film. With the exception of seeing a film when tired, and having polarised expectations, none of these circumstances have impacted a recent experience, but it is interesting to consider.

I guess my goal is to try and remove myself from any expectation or buzz as much as I can; to avoid trailers (unless it is in the cinema - and then it is hard to avoid), to minimise my visiting frequency to Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic, and to view each film on its individual merits without influence. Is anyone else having similar experiences trying to manage expectations, and discovering on a second/third viewing, a vastly different (more appreciative?) opinion?

23 comments:

  1. Expectations is something I've decided to give up on. I just decided to just see the film and see what will be the outcome of it. It's something I've learned over the years.

    Repeated viewings is a rare thing for me when I watch a film again where my opinion doesn't really change about what I saw the first time around. Recently on TV, Never Let Me Go was on. When I first saw, I thought it was a really good film. Now through repeated viewings, it's now in my top 10 films of 2010 and the upcoming subject of my favorite film series. That's one of the rare examples of opinions changing.

    Films like Crash and the last Indiana Jones movies were examples of changing opinions as I liked both films when I first saw them but knew they were flawed. When I saw them again, the flaws become far more evident and there were also things I that I overlooked that made me realize how wrong I was on both films as I really despise both films.

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    1. Often I find myself disliking films more over time. The more I watch them the less interesting (and surprising) they become. It has been odd this year because most of the films have significantly improved (Bridesmaids and Melancholia are two exceptions) and that's why I thought the trend was interesting.

      I have never had the opportunity to see films multiple times at a cinema before (working at a cinema has its advantages) and I know that for most people, re-watching a film at a cinema is expensive. I am endeavouring to give up my expectations, and to learn to go in with an open mind - not with too much excitement, but with a level of pre-film anticipation when it is warranted, and not fuelled by Oscar buzz.

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  2. This is a perfect post. It's funny because expectations have been doing funny things to me this awards season. Some films I went into with really high expectations, like The Descendants or Bridesmaids, and have come back disappointed. But then I went into films like Hugo or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I'd heard so many bad things about in the blogosphere, and I loved them.

    In fact, it is not Rotten Tomatoes which is telling me what expectations I should have, it is other bloggers. In the past year, too often I have gone into films with such low expectations because of them, and come out surprised. I'm not slagging off other bloggers in any way, but it's almost like my mind is influenced by them (or just one, lonely hater, sometimes) and it is impossible for me not to start seeing the cracks in something I loved. I really must train myself not to do this.

    Anyway, I'll basically watch anything and I admit to enjoying a few critical duds (What's Your Number - to a point, Perfect Sense, Chalet Girl...) so expectations do not always have the better of me. But yes, rewatching helps. Especially in the case of The Tree of Life. My review that I wrote on it after the first time makes absolutely no sense now that I've watched it three times.

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    1. Yes, occasionally it is bloggers that influence my hope in a film - but not normally if it is just one. If I check out ten of my regulars who all see the film before I do, and all of them like it, then I hope the film lives up to that praise. If the majority dislike it, I won't check it out in most cases, and if I do, it will be with low expectations. Since I have been getting screening invites - there have been a few films where I entered knowing nothing, and that has been really great. But with most of the films (especially considering where we live) there is always some pre-knowledge. My DRIVE review at MIFF was pretty ordinary - but after watching it again, I looked back and saw almost nothing that captured how I felt after that second viewing. It made no sense. I know what you mean. Thanks Stevee :-)

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  3. I find repeat viewing are often necessary. I was starting to doubt my reaction to A Separation until I saw it a second time and realized that my original feelings were pretty bang on. I loved Drive when I first saw it, but it only got better the more I watched it. The same with Attack the Block. This is also one of the reasons I'd like to see The Artist again I went in expecting a truly great, funny, dramatic and emotional silent film, but what I got resembled more of a charming pastiche. Maybe seeing it again would help me love it for what it is rather than what I wanted it to be.

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    1. Sometimes when films are thematically dense, or the story is complex and relayed through multiple plot lines and timelines, one can lose themselves (TTSS, We Need to Talk About Kevin for example) and a repeat viewing feels necessary to feel like one has grasped everything. With a film like The Tree of Life - I was so blown away by the visuals and the sound that it was difficult to absorb all of the story and be emotionally affected. When I re-watched it, it was this part of the film that stood out. A repeat was necessary. But not all the time. Attack the Block, Moneyball, The Ides of March, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Project Nim, Senna are just some that come to mind when I think about films I loved immediately. I am in the same boat as you re: The Artist, and I feel like I owe it another chance - going to check it out again tomorrow. I think I will love it. Thanks for the comment Corey.

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  4. Is it expectation, or is it hope? I don't usually expect anything of a film unless I have sufficient prior acquaintance with its particular creative forces. I might pick up a film I haven't seen before by, say, Ernst Lubitsch with a reasonable expectation of enjoying it cos I've generally liked his work in the past. If I'm dealing with someone unfamiliar, though, it becomes more of a case of hoping that it'll be good and I'm not wasting my time.

    I think this becomes especially true of a film like The Artist that's received so much hype, you hope rather than expect it'll live up to the hype. I haven't seen it myself, but I have a terrible feeling The Artist will end up on the receiving end of a bad backlash, because of the hype: if you expect to be blown away by something and you aren't, you may be harsher towards it than you might've been had your expectations been lower.

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    1. I guess it is hope and you make a valid point about differentiating the two. If you place your trust in the awards voters, you hope the film will be good, but in a way, expect it to be too. Did I expect The Descendants to be as good as Sideways, or did I expect not to be bored by one half of Melancholia? Yeah, I hoped that what I expected would be delivered. I think The Artist will cop some backlash, and unjustly so. I really enjoyed the film - and I don't feel I was harsh on the film (bit maybe I was a little harsh on HUGO). I gave it 4/5 because I think there are some genuine faults. But perhaps I was expecting the film to be something different. A chat with a colleague tonight about the film's middle (which she believes was the perfect length) has me questioning my opinion - and I really want to see if my perceptions of the film change on a repeat.

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  5. I have no problem with expectations raised by awards, especially the Oscars. If anything, I lower my expectations a little if a movie gets an Oscar Best Pic nomination.

    The trickiest is when I hear of a film through the first reporting of reviews. For example, the first I heard of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY was the promotional ads on tele, or maybe O saw one at the cinema, and of course that campaign made big use of the 'quote the review' approach. "The cinema event of the year" etc is quickly placed before the viewer, for our consideration. I'd heard of the Le Carre novel, and knew it was in the spy genre, but I knew nothing about the movie or story otherwise, so my overriding impression was of this quality film that critics seemed to love, but had no other expectations other than it being a 'thriller'.

    After watching the film, I thought it was very good, but I was a little underwhelmed. I suspect that that feeling wouldn't have been there had it not been for the props from the reviewers.

    However, it was such a dense film that ultimately a settling period was required, and on reflection the movie has stayed with me in a way I don't typically expect of films of that type. I'm now rating it higher than the already high rating I gave it.

    So I think your right: second viewing can obviously help get around the problem. But I would also say for many quality films even just time for reflection can eventually provide the perspective to recalibrate your judgment.

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    1. I think you make a great point Stephen, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with its abundance of 5 Star critics excepts, generated a lot of hype. I was impressed on first viewing, but I was tired when I saw it. The second viewing was AMAZING - and it became one of my favourites from 2011. One example of a film that improved without a second viewing was Meek's Cutoff. I wasn't sure what to make of it after leaving the cinema, but on my walk home (45 mins) I thought about it, and when I wrote my review later that day, I liked it significantly more than I did straight after the viewing. Thanks for the comment. Appreciate it!

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  6. I'm terrified by my expectations of Drive and Bellflower, Two films I'm salivating over. Every review, trailer, poster, everything is leading me to believe that these films will be mind-blowing. If they are anything less than two of my new fave films, I'll be gutted. I need to hear some bad stuff to sort this out before I see them.

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    1. Well DRIVE is pretty awesome. Hard to say too much negative about that one. Bellflower is a very commendable low-budget effort, but I didn't like the third act. Brought the film down for me. So don't go in too high on that one, or you will be very disappointed.

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    2. It's funny about this post, Andy, because I just watched "Drive" a second time and while I came around a little bit on Albert Brooks performance, well, I have to be honest....I actually liked the movie less.

      That 3rd act just doesn't have the heft - to me, at least - to make it truly tragic. I think it's at that point you become aware Refn was just too dependent on style.

      So there you go, Pete! There's some bad stuff!

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    3. That's really interesting, and I can see how you could get that opinion. I guess that was how I started out - and then made a switch. Even though the second half violence came as an almighty shock to me on that first viewing, I was thrown by the pacing, and didn't really buy their relationship. On the second viewing, the film was a thing of beauty - but the story is definitely not its strong point.

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  7. I've noticed a number of critics (professional and nonprofessional) have been talking about what could be referred to as the hype factor. It's an interesting thing to take note of, but I wonder if it's given too much credence.

    The very existence of criticism (film, art, music, literature) is that it's not scientifically engendered so it's not exact. Which means, of course, that perspective ends up playing a significant role in how things turn out, but even if you're not actively building yourself up to a movie you can't do away with your perspective. Even if you've never heard of a movie, you're bound to have heard - in most cases - of either an actor or technician involved (and even the lack of perspective might be a "perspective" if you forced the thought). It's probably tough to say, but I think if the film really works for you it'll overcome any hangups you had going in. It's like when a performer is going to do something live, an they have to combat with ambient noise and whatnot, if they're that good they'll overcome - if they're not, they won't.

    Otherwise, you might worry yourself into a quandary. What is the optimum way to view a movie? And how often can you manage it? Because, I think you're doing yourself a disservice by trying to extrapolate a reason why you didn't fall in love with THE ARTIST (or HUGO). Maybe they just didn't work for you, not specifically because of how they were fed to you.

    Lots to think on, though.

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    1. Thanks for the insightful and inspirational response, Andrew. There were a lot of films throughout the year that did work for me, but I wondered why some recently didn't work as well as I hoped. They probably should have, considering I am a film fan. Hugo and The Artist are made for lovers of cinema.

      I am thinking too much into it, no doubt, and I still have plenty to learn about watching and processing films, and though there is no optimum way to view a film - I hope to work out a way to go into each film more relaxed and open-minded, and without too much perspective. Certainly plenty to consider.

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  8. I tried to write about this myself over on AM a few months back and I didn't get my point across at all the way I wanted to, partially I think because it's such a tricky bit of subject matter.

    I don't believe that expectations can truly affect a film's quality. I think they can affect the way a viewer watches a movie - especially that first time, like you allude to - but if a viewer really, truly stops and looks at a film and thinks about it he or she will see that their like or dislike had nothing to do with those expectations. That's how I feel, anyway.

    Thoughtful post, Andy.

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    1. As I have been responding to these comments, and thinking about this post - and some of the films I have seen recently, I think that I agree with what you say here. The expectations have not influenced the film's quality - it stands as it is - but kind of unintentionally challenges the film in your brain - putting more pressure on the film to deliver 'something' beyond quality. It is only a few occasions - and the more I look over this post, the more silly it seems. Oh well. I re-watched The Artist yesterday, and all of the film's qualities (and flaws) came through, without any exterior pressures. I watched the film for what it was - and enjoyed it immensely. I appreciated it more than the first viewing - and very glad I got to see it again. I shouldn't have to see films twice as much as I do - so I have to manage the ways I watch films on initial viewings, because that is when I usually write the reviews. Perhaps it could be wise to take more time with the reviews and reflect on the film a little more. Food for thought that comes with practice and experience. Thanks for the comments, Nick!

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