I realize the title of this sounds like it’s connected in some way with Miss Goldilocks and her adventures with that bear family, but it grows out of a question that arose the other day concerning how much a person should know about a movie before seeing it. Of course, this is not a one-size-fits all proposition. Some movies rise or fall on surprising the viewer, but those are specialized cases. But how much is enough for most movies?
This is a tricky proposition, especially in our information-saturated age with its endless blogs and blurbs, its specialized message boards, and its often perplexing array of communication alternatives. I can’t complain about this, since I do two columns—this and the “Weekly Reeler”—that never see ink of print, only light of monitor, and I’ve moderated a message board since January of 2000. I avail myself of some—but by no means all—of the tools of the age. To some degree this is inescapable. I cannot do the “upcomers” for the paper without knowing something about what’s opening on a given week. (And, yes, though we retain—I’m not sure why—the notion that the “upcomers” just appear by magic—hence, the word “I” never surfacing in them—I do write them.) That’s even more true of the “Weekly Reeler” (where the fiction of no human agency being involved applied to the “upcomers” is dropped).
There are, however, some things I don’t do in any tenacious manner. I don’t closely follow any of the sites that purport to keep one completely abreast of what’s coming and what the “next big thing” is. As I said when asked about this by a reader not long ago, this is partly a time constraint. I simply haven’t the time to do this, but I’m not sure I would anyway. It strikes me as information overload a good deal of the time, and it’s often fraught with errors—both of fact and judgment. I grant you that the latter is somewhat subjective, but early hype has been known to result in nothing once a film curls up and dies in New York and Los Angeles. But there’s more than that—I simply like to be surprised on occasion.
Some of my most pleasurable moviegoing experiences have been with movies about which I knew absolutely nothing when I encountered them. One that always comes to mind is Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto (2005). I suppose I ought to have known about it, but when Sony Pictures Classics arranged a special press screening in the annual push for a critics’ association vote and a shot at Ten Best lists, I’d never heard of it. And I went to it pretty much cold. It ended up being my number one film of 2005. I don’t think surprise entered into that, and in fact I took advantage of the print being there and had it run again later that evening, so it wasn’t a first flash affair. Nonetheless, coming upon it unaware was a plus from a personal standpoint.
All of this, however, is somewhat specialized and beside the overall point. I’m more curious about how much people generally like to know about a movie before they see it. This, I suspect, will vary a great deal from person to person based on temperament. I know some folks want start discussing a movie before they even get out of the theater and that’s fine, though I don’t care for it myself as a rule—beyond a simple initial response (“Well, that blew goats” is enough in some cases). It’s different after a screening where I’m not seeing the film for the first time. I’m good with that. In the same way, I imagine some people want to enter a film fully-prepared, while others might like to know nothing more than the inescapable.
I prefer to strike a happy medium myself. (I hate it when spiritualists smile too much.) I know firsthand how it’s possible to get expectations too high. This is especially true in terms of classic movies—and even more true back in the old days when it was far easier to read about a movie than to see it. I cannot tell you how jazzed I was by what I’d read about Rene Clair’s Le Million (1930) over the years. This, I thought, must be one of the most remarkable of all early talkies, based on what had been written. When I caught up with it in the early 1990s, I was gravely disappointed. It took about 15 years—and a sale on Criterion DVDs—to get me to try it again, at which time I found it utterly delightful.
Contrariwise, the fact that two friends of mine who saw it first had been disappointed by Ernst Lubitsch’s highly-regarded Trouble in Paradise (1932) made me approach it cautiously and it was love at first sight. And I wondered what the hell was wrong with my friends. (In the case of the Occasonal Commenter Known as Rufus, I more understood it since he’d seen it just after seeing the 1932 Rouben Mamoulian film Love Me Tonight, which is a lot flashier.) For me, it was—and is—the best thing Lubitsch ever made. Indeed, I saw it first on a high-quality bootleg tape and was so taken with it that I rewound it and watched it again immediately. Would I have been so impressed if I’d been expecting “too much?” I can’t say, but I admit the possibility.
It’s, of course, equally possible to build a thing up in your mind based on very little. When I was 16 or 17 I saw a photo in a book in the school library from Frank Borzage’s Liliom (1930). And I was so fascinated by that image that I tracked down the Ferenc Molnar play on which it was based and read it. That only served to interest me more. I finally saw the movie itself about 39 years later when it was handed to me as preparation for appearing in a documentary on Borzage and F.W. Murnau. The producer of the documentary asked me if it had been worth the wait and I told him something like, “It was probably worth waiting 38 years.” That didn’t make it into the documentary. Pity really, because the film both did and didn’t live up to my image of it.
It’s very easy to oversell a movie by enthusiasm. I’ve actually had people tell me they liked me telling them about a film far better than the film itself. That’s flattering in some way, but it wasn’t the result I hoped for. As a result, I try to be rather cautious about talking too much about a classic movie I think someone should see. If I know them very well, I might say more—or note that I think it’s something they’ll like. Justin Souther could better address how well I do on that score than I can. I am of the opinion that I told him very little about F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) . I do know that afterwards, he told me that it made him better understand me and my taste. I’m still puzzling that one out.
I’m certainly not arguing for an ill-informed viewership. That I find absurd in the extreme and virtually impossible unless you live in a cave or are just completely oblivious. (Roger Ebert at least used to refuse to watch trailers.) I think you should know something about a movie simply so you have a clue about whether or not you even want to watch the damned thing—certainly, you should know beforehand if it’s likely to offend you, assuming you’re the type who gets offended.
All of this makes me wonder if I’d have liked Gone with the Wind (1939) better if I hadn’t known I was going to see “the greatest movie ever made” (according to my mother). I kind of doubt it, but I did like it better years later than on that original exposure. How many film students would really love Citizen Kane (1941) if it wasn’t forced on them as the bee’s knees of cinema? A great many more than actually do now, I suspect.
I turn the floor over to readers.