Thursday, January 8, 2009

The King Of Expectations, The Princess of Surprises

There are two kinds of movie-viewing pleasure –- the pleasure of expectation, and the pleasure of surprise. Like shoes, cars, clothes and marriages, the pleasures of expectation are comfortable, soothing, happily passionless, and ultimately reinforce something; like love affairs, the pleasures of surprise are sexy, dangerous, jolting, and they don’t reinforce anything –- they reawaken you, they take a blindfold from your eyes you didn’t even know was there. It’s the difference between a room full of old lovers and a room full of beautiful strangers; or, in movie terms this winter, the difference between The Wrestler and Slumdog Milionaire.

The Wrestler is a suitcase-full of expectations. Buy a ticket to see this film and you’re handed Mickey Rourke’s film career and his appearances in the tabloids, Marisa Tomei’s Supporting Actress Oscar and her nude scene in Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, Evan Rachel Wood’s father issues and her performances in Thirteen and Across The Universe, Darren Aronofsky’s previous films, and a compilation of Hulk Hogan wrestling matches. Yes, you can watch the movie without all this baggage; but you can’t enjoy it. The actor’s lives and careers are built in. The female lead isn’t an over-the-hill pole dancer -- it’s Marisa Tomei playing an over-the-hill pole dancer, and if she’s over the hill, then I want to be at the bottom of it to hitch a ride from her. The main character isn’t a wrestler attempting a comeback -- it’s Mickey fucking Rourke attempting a comeback, okay? And don’t you forget it. In fact, you can’t forget it –- the minute you do, the movie is meaningless.

If watching The Wrestler is like navigating under the comforting stars, watching Slumdog Millionaire is like sailing blind under a starless sky. Almost everybody who’s loved this movie has said to me “The less you know about it before you see it, the better it will be,” and consciously or not, every one of them is remarking on the uniqueness of this kind of pleasure, the special circumstances of that love. It’s the difference between an outdoor roller coaster ride where you see the loops coming, every single one, and the Magic Mountain ride at Disney World -- you’re totally in the dark, you have no idea what’s coming next, and no matter what you brace yourself for, you’re always caught off-balance.

And in pure film terms, it’s the difference between watching something with movie stars and watching something with unknowns. It’s impossible to see Clint Eastwood or Will Smith fresh; whatever they’re in becomes a Clint Eastwood Film or a Will Smith Film, and you can grab onto Smith and Eastwood, no matter who they’re playing, and know ahead of time what you’re going to see (and know too that the Eastwood character will probably turn around at some point and grab you back). Watching unknowns is different. If Charlize Theron is co-starring with Will Smith, you know their characters will wind up together at some point because that’s what happens when stars appear over the title. But because Dev Patel and Freida Pinto have no prior US movie history, they ARE the characters they play, and anything can happen to them. They can die; they can change; they can surprise you.

I think the main reason Slumdog is so popular is because this thrill of surprise –- this pleasure in not knowing what is going to happen next –- has become a rarity in our info-glutted culture. Our entertainment diet is all Wrestlers these days, and our digestive system has adapted to it. It’s only when we find ourselves eating something deliciously foreign that we realize what spices and flavors we’ve been missing. It’s like finding a foreign word as the final rhyme in a poem –- by the time we get to the end, we know what vowel sound we’re going to hear, so it’s the word that either surprises us or makes us nod our heads.

In the same way that a jazz riff makes us hear the standard in a new light, The Wrestler rings multiple changes on a tune we’ve heard before –- but only when we factor the players into consideration. Your head has to be involved somewhere; it’s not just anybody doing “My Favorite Things” –- it’s John fucking Coltrane, and don’t you forget it. And in the same way that a pop song creates a never-before-heard hook, Slumdog Millionaire sings you the tune you’ve been yearning to hum without knowing it, a tune that makes you want to get up and dance, or learn the words so you can sing along. It won’t sound as good the second time; but it will always leave the taste of that first time on your tongue.

And if you’re lucky, it’ll even make you look around for more surprises.

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