Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Heath Holland On...Expectations, Great.

Sometimes the thing standing between me and enjoyment of a movie is myself. And that fat guy at the concession stand.

We’ve been talking a lot about expectations lately. Seems like it started toward the end of the summer, when many of us realized that the level of enthusiasm we had for certain movies wasn't realized by some of the films themselves. All summer long, we seemed to collectively stare at our shoes and sigh.

The most recent Weekend Weigh-in asked us what movies we were looking forward to most in December. My two most anticipated movies, Inside Llewyn Davis and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, were on a lot of your lists, too. But that question made me think a little deeper and want to qualify my answer. You see, one of those movies is directed by the Coen brothers, whom I completely trust. The other is directed by Peter Jackson, and…yeah. I love PJ and think he’s a really gifted director, but he doesn’t have the near-flawless record of the Coens.
Both of those are movies for which I have pretty high expectations for. I’ve completely given myself over to my expectations for Inside Llewyn Davis, but I’m reserving my expectations and doing my best to keep them low for The Hobbit. If I were wise, though, I’d keep my expectations low for both of them. The problem is, I just can’t help it. I just can’t stop myself from getting excited about certain projects and allowing my expectations to soar. 

Expectations are more dangerous than nitrate film in a Tarantino movie. They have torpedoed many a movie I might have otherwise enjoyed, and have made it hard to approach other movies with legacies that loom so large that they could never possibly live up to expectations.

Example: the first time I saw the The Godfather, I was pretty disappointed. Like I did with so many of its critical peers, I first watched it during my college years with a keen critical eye, expecting the movie to reach out of the screen and batter me about the face and ears. Watching this movie will make my smooth, teenage face blossom with manly beard hair. I will be a man when this movie reveals the secrets of life to me.

It did not.

The wedding scene seemed to last forever and I had little patience for the characters they were building during those scenes. Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone was such a staple of pop culture that seeing him deliver a performance I’d seen satirized for years was a let down. He seemed sleepy and bored.
Of course, it only took another viewing (or two) before my opinion of the movie rose substantially. Now I could go on and on about the beauty and the subtlety, the tragedy and the irony, and these days I think Brando delivered one of his greatest performances. The problem there was expectation. The bar had been set so high that even near-perfection couldn’t reach it.

The same thing happened with Citizen Kane. That film is touted by just about every film school student, critic, and high school movie enthusiast as being the greatest movie of all time. How many years has it crowned the AFI list of 100 Greatest Films?

When I watched Citizen Kane, I wondered what the fuss was all about. I gathered that it was important, and it certainly wasn’t BAD, but when something is routinely touted as the greatest thing ever, how can it possibly live up to that reputation? For the record, I do now very much appreciate Citizen Kane as well. I don’t think it’s even close to the greatest movie of all time, but I understand what makes it so important and I do value it. I named my penis Rosebud.
But this happens time and time again. I’ve had to warm up to so many movies because my expectations were set so high that the film could never live up to them upon the initial viewing. These days, when I recommend a movie to someone that has a reputation preceding it, I tell them that they probably won’t enjoy the movie the first time. They likely won’t be over the moon for it by the second viewing, either. In my experience, it takes three viewings over a stretch (rarely a short period) for a movie to work against lofty expectations. Ultimately, time is the great equalizer.

Is there really a way to avoid expectations? You can try, but I don’t think you can ever truly succeed. Sir Mark Ahn (sage elder and he-who-knoweth kung fu) has suggested that you avoid marketing material from a movie, maybe even trailers, until you’ve seen the film itself. Read as little about it and don’t follow the breaking news as it shows up in the news feeds.

I always aim toward this goal, but it’s so hard in today’s technology-driven world. I stopped going to movie news sites a while back, but Facebook always gets the last laugh. “Heath, you have a friend request.” Oh, lovely. Let me just click confirm here, scroll down here to see—OMG, Colin Farrell has been cast as Ambush Bug in the new Superman movie. I suppose the best we can do is our best.
So here I am in the run-up to the release of Inside Llewyn Davis and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The publicity phasers are not set to stun, they’re set to kill. Reviews are coming out, people are seeing them and talking about them (on Facebook, no less), actors are appearing in interviews that I don’t want to see and the only way these movies stand a real chance for me is if I go into them without any expectations.


In this age of information, we’re blessed that we can find out the most trivial of facts about the movies we see with a few mere mouse clicks. I can find out what toilet paper Leonardo DiCaprio used on the set of The Wolf of Wall Street, or which brand of razor Joaquin Phoenix used to shape the mustache he sports in Spike Jonze’s Her.

But what I can’t do is turn off the flow of information, no matter how much I want to (and do I REALLY want to?). Expectations carry such power! What was the last great movie you saw? Now ask yourself, what were your expectations? More often than not, the movies that blow me away are the ones that I didn’t even see coming. Yet now, more than ever, I can’t stop myself from allowing the movies I’m looking forward to run wild with my expectations. I love movies. I look forward to them for months, sometimes years, at a time. I put my hopes on them, and I anticipate and plan my life around them. I seek meaning in their artistic expression. I put them on pedestals that few can attain.

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.


  1. When the 2012 Sight and Sound poll came out, and Vertigo was named the #1 movie (replacing Citizen Kane after many years), I had profoundly mixed emotions. Vertigo is my favorite film, and has been for at least 20 years. I am grateful that it is getting such recognition. However, I'm now afraid that people will go see it, sigh, and mutter "What's so great about that?" My love for the movie grew gradually with successive viewings. There was something that kept me coming back for more, and it is one of those great films that keeps rewarding you no matter how many times you see it. Now that it has been burdened with the "Greatest Film Ever!" label, I fear (like your first viewing of The Godfather) it cannot hope to match such expectations. I am glad you went back to The Godfather instead of shrugging your shoulders and writing some silly "Overrated" article.

    On the other hand, now that Citizen Kane no longer has to struggle under that burden, hopefully people can just watch it for the terrific film that it is, without feeling like they should be experiencing the Second Coming.

  2. We lightly tease Erika a little bit about not wanting to rank her top 10 movies for a given year, but the issue of expectation that Heath is talking about and that Steve K. brings up is related. I'd rather have good movies to be identified as potentially good movies, first, before any rankings are attached. I have no idea how to stop that information from getting to me, though.

    I still think there is joy to be had by ranking something, and definitely having favorites, but too often, we see a movie pop up on somebody's top list and then the crazy expectations start forming. What can you do?

    I echo Heath's idea that the movies that come from nowhere usually end up being some of my favorites. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD comes to mind.

    Full disclosure: I still struggle with CITIZEN KANE. I've only seen it twice though.

    1. Citizen Kane is an interesting film, because by design it's difficult to connect with the main character. The whole thrust of the movie is trying to figure this guy out, which we do by talking to his former associates and hearing their recollections and perceptions about him. But ultimately Charles Foster Kane remains a remote figure, and at least to me it makes Citizen Kane a rather cold film. What makes it worth watching is the fantastic visual design, direction, editing, music, and so forth. As Mr. Plinkett said, Citizen Kane the film is more about just watching how a guy becomes a selfish a-hole.

    2. For me the film is just so wonderfully shot. I could sit and watch it with the sound turned down bathe in its cinematography alone. Personally, I think the plot is a touch boring.

    3. Tom, are you talking about Citizen Kane or most of the movies being made today? Ba-dum-bump. :)

    4. I have to say, when I think of the things I admire about Citizen Kane, they are mostly related to the cinematography.

  3. I completely agree with everything you wrote here HHH. For a long time this was something I knew but didnt know, until it was put into words by Patrick when he said something to the effect of "the first time you see a movie is through the lens of expectations, the second time you see it for what it is". Thats a Bingo.

    This also links into my experience with JBs column yesterday, where one of my fondest movie memories was when my dad surprised us at the last minute with a trip to the movies. No Expectations = Everything is a plus.

    How to curb this phenomena? I think the first step is to admit that it happens. I have a couple friends who refuse to admit it. They think they are too smart for something like that to change the way they see a movie, or simply being aware that they have expectations is enough to mean it wont have an impact. Their opinions of movies are nearly always unreliable.
    If we admit that our perception is influenced by expectations then we are allowing ourselves to be open to as much of the movie as possible, and also to have our opinion altered with subsequent viewings. I think that is the best way to approach it. Maximum flexibility by acknowledging the rigidity.

    1. Patrick also opened my eyes to the the idea of "the movie it IS versus the movie you WANTED it to be," which is something I think about all the time now.

    2. Yes. Movie education is a wonderful thing.
      I still struggle with that in some instances though, such as Watchmen for example (which I think is a fairly extreme example). But I'm trying Ringo, I'm trying real hard.

  4. I like to think I keep my expectations in check at most movies I go to. The lone exception to that would be PIXAR movies, despite their recent output in the last couple years I want their movies to either move me or send me somewhere I never get to go in the movies (like Ratatouille or Up).

    A quick note on Citizen Kane, I havent watched it in some time but my memory of it is thats its very good but feels like it lacks the heart that some of the all time classic movies that are out there for us. I think I need to give Kane another look see.