My Personal Path to Movie-Going Nirvana

Let’s start with the obvious: there’s no right way to watch movies.

A still from the trailer of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria. IMDb/Amazon Studios

I randomly started watching the new Suspiria trailer the other day, and something odd happened. Not only did I have a surprising reaction to the trailer itself, but I saw a wide array of divergent opinions within people’s responses. Everyone seemed to be coming from a different place of expectation, from “How could they remake Suspiria?” to “It doesn’t even look like Suspiria!” to “I’m glad it doesn’t look like Suspiria!” and, of course, “Wait, what’s Suspiria?” But everyone was shouting about why their opinion was the one that mattered and why everyone else seemed so ardently stubborn.

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And it all got me thinking about the big, grand questions of movie-dom: Why are certain movies regarded as sacred? What is it that really creates our set of expectations? Just what do want from trailers? I started thinking about our individual approaches to cinema, which led right into the biggest question of all…

What do we really want out of movies, anyway?

So let’s start with the obvious: there’s no right way to watch movies. I know this. You know this. We all know this. When you look at the landscape of cinema-going itself, you’ll see there are people who go and see every blockbuster opening night, but you’ll also see unhurried people who catch things a few weeks into a theatrical run. Then there are people who weren’t going to see something, but heard enough good word of mouth that they end up doing so. Then there are people who will go and see whatever’s out if they can find a babysitter. There are people who like watching the most esoteric art films imaginable, people who like explosions, people who like tension, people who like to laugh, people who like total immersion into a story and people who genuinely like falling asleep in the theater. There are people who just want an escape, and there are people who want films to have a lasting impact. There are people who obsess about every detail and people who largely forget what they just watched the moment they leave the theater. And in the end, no one is more “right” than the other when it comes to approach, but I’m going to talk about my own particular journey, and how it’s helped form me along the way.

Suspiria, 1977. YouTube

When I was young, back in the ‘80s, there was very little in the way of understanding what movies were in production. Sure, we had some special interest periodicals like Fangoria, but that mostly took you behind the scenes of existing work and the making of movies on a larger scale. It wasn’t “news.” Meanwhile, newspapers and general culture magazines were still mostly in the review game, rarely reporting on the films on the horizon. Which just mean that, for audiences, a movie trailer would be how you actually found out that a new movie even existed.

Popular movie magazines didn’t start coming in until the end of the decade with Premiere (1987), Empire (1989) and Entertainment Weekly (1990). Their innovation was twofold. One, magazines suddenly had lots of room to prognosticate. And two, movie studios realized they were getting lots of free promotion and hype, and that audiences were into it. This really did change so much with regards to our general access to information. Soon, E! and Access Hollywood would start covering it like a beat. And us? The movie-goers? We could suddenly obsess about every detail, dream of every sequel and eagerly await not just the movies, but their trailers before the films had even arrived.

The shining example of this is the absurd level of excitement for the release of the first trailer of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. “What would it even look like?” we wondered—the film was cloaked in so much mystery. Then, thousands of old Star Wars fans marched to the theater as it would be playing in front of that week’s slew of movies: The Waterboy, The Siege and Meet Joe Black (which is the one I chose because I had a date. It is very important I mention I had a date…for no reason whatsoever). Months later, I would even tape the debut of the second trailer from E! on VHS and watch it seven times in a row. I was obsesseda man trying to get every little morsel out of the movie that he could.

So it’s no accident the eagerness for The Phantom Menace coincided with birth of rough-and-tumble online film journalism and sites like Ain’t It Cool News. Suddenly, there were all these insiders who tapped into the behind-the-scenes gossip and rumor mongering and reported on it because they didn’t care about the normal rules. All of this added together to help us become “a culture of anticipation.” Yes, there have always been these elements of fandom (fans of Star Wars obviously couldn’t wait for The Empire Strikes Back and such), but literally everything became about trying to devour the movies we wanted before Hollywood would let us have them.

Popular movie conversations shifted from analyzing the last movie and became all about conjecture for the next. And Hollywood responded by meeting our appetite and putting the marketing machine into overload, both mastering the art of hype and saturating the market place. They didn’t care about the results because they only had one goal: getting “awareness” numbers up and getting people to buy into the idea that a movie was going to be oh so very awesome.

Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Lucasfilm/All Star Picture Library

Which is exactly how we started getting those hyped expectations crushed by the reality of the movies themselves. Not just with the thud of The Phantom Menace, but so many movies that didn’t seem to live up to the idea that was in our head. Granted, this kind of expectation was all based on the impossibly false notion that any movie is just a two-hour version of a two-minute trailer, but still, we didn’t know what else to do. And so I went along with it in a harsh cycle. There was no way to change how things were being delivered. More importantly, I somehow thought this was the way to best appreciate movies—to have impossible, sky-high expectations where the only joy could come from a movie somehow living up to said expectations. I thought this was correct. Mostly, I would be excited for months on end only to be crushed. I would go from months of conjecture to a few short days of stewing discussion before I found my next high of anticipation. I thought it was the only way to be the most passionate movie fan. But I really wasn’t that happy with movies.

And, more importantly, I was dead wrong.

The changes started slowly and steadily. A lot of it was honestly just that thing we call “growing up” and “having responsibilities,” but suddenly I just didn’t have as much time for the same absurd level of investment, what with the massive work schedule.

But it also came with a number of conscious decisions I made, too. For instance, I started noticing how trailers that came out closer to the release date spoiled the really big, climactic moments in a way that early trailers never really did. This had such a wonderful effect that I started pushing it further. Soon, I pretty much stopped watching trailers all together (sometimes I would take in the first 20 or 30 seconds just to get a “vague sense” of what the movie was like). And in doing this, movies suddenly felt like they were capable of surprise again. The experience was so enthralling that I became aware of just how much advertising (which only cares about getting your butts in seats, not whether you enjoy it) had really been warping my sense of expectation with stories.

But there was a negative reaction that came with this change, too. Because I then became a spoiler-phobic git. If I caught something that gave away even the barest image of a film, I would get so upset. I’d even walk into a movie and realize I was thinking about that moment like it was checklist (I have a pretty good memory, where things unfortunately stick). And so I found that I was really grumpy with this whole push-pull game of what I did and didn’t know.

What I didn’t realize was that whether I was watching trailers or not, it was all part of the same  coin of attaching emotional meaning to any kind expectation. It didn’t matter if I was lacing my thoughts with positive or negative information, it was creating a system of “pre-thought” that I was bringing into movies. And so I starting doing something new altogether…I stopped caring about movies that were coming out. I stopped caring if I saw a trailer or didn’t. I stopped paying attention to sequel news or caring if I heard some little plot detail. I know this gives a heart attack to every marketing person in the business, but I genuinely stopped caring.

And it’s been so gosh darn lovely.

Detached from the notion of expectation, I now just get to wade into movie-dom like I’m swimming in a pool, not trying to touch every molecule of water. I see things that pique my curiosity. If enough people tell me something is good, I will see it, but that doesn’t mean I believe them.

Does this mean I love movies any less? I am telling you, it feels like the opposite. I’m swimming in rapturous love with film more than ever before. Everything feels like this pleasant, unexpected gift that has magically come into my life out of nowhere. There is nothing I am watching out obligation, just out of the film’s own love for my experience with it. And as a person who loves films? I suddenly have so much more space to ruminate on what I just saw instead of thinking about what I anticipate will be next. I have room to digest instead of hunger. And I have time to talk for weeks and weeks about the things I’ve just seen, instead of expounding on the prognostication of some movie that will not come out for months.

In other words, I feel free—and in deeper ways than mere expectation of film quality. I feel unbound from so many notions that shackle our critical dialogue. For instance, I no longer care about remakes or the sanctity of classics (those films will always exist, and can only receive more attention in this process). I care not for the arbitrary ranking of movies and whether or not I place them into certain parts of the canon. Because I suddenly hate the notion of being some old guard gatekeeper who goes around trying to dictate what is sacred and what is not. I am not the custodian of the pantheon. It’s all part of the same reason why I don’t like it when readers treat critics like they are the arbiters of hype, as if my job is to properly manage their wanton expectations. I don’t know how to do that, nor should I.

I only know how to talk passionately about movies. I know how to express what I think is great about them, or think critically about what I might find troubling within them. And in that self-understanding of my role, I find myself living more and more the life of “the eternal student,” one who can grow and evolve with the medium of film rather than dictate its arbitrary value and decorum.

Which brings us back to that new Suspiria trailer. Once upon a time, I would have found the idea of remaking the film to be absurd. It’s a classic! It’s one of the most visually distinct films ever made, layered so deeply in Argento’s unique, color-soaked sensibility. And that haunting, genre-defining score from Goblin is so firmly entrenched in my brain that I cannot divorce it from anything. It is as singular a cinematic experience as you can point to, so the notion of trying to “remake” it seems so patently false. It’s like trying to recapture lighting in a bottle.

But with that trailer, the “new purpose” of it suddenly clicked. They turned away from trying to recapture the glaring optics and instead adopted a muted color scheme. Coupled with Luca Guadagnino’s oddball camera placement it makes it all feel claustrophobic and askew. And suddenly Thom Yorke’s atmospheric, buzzing score gives life to a film that seems like it is going to be very, very different. And that’s when I realized they weren’t even trying to copy a sacred cow, but take that conceit to create something new.

Suspiria, 1977. YouTube

Of course, this notion also bothers people and makes them go “then why try to remake it!? Why call it Suspiria!?” My only real response is “why not?” Why does this inherently ruin a past movie or play with our expectations? In the end, it might just be a little marketing boost, or a way to comment on the original and get at new themes they they find more timely (Luca is certainly as thoughtful as they come). Any contrary expectations can only hamper what the movie “is” and block any little joyful little discovery you might find. Having undone my own expectations, I suddenly get a kick out of this little trailer. And even then, I now know enough to understand that this will have no bearing on my expectations of the movie. It might be dogshit. It might be revolutionary. I cannot even pretend to know, nor could anyone. And that very thought makes me so very happy and excited for it in a much deeper way.

I discovered movie nirvana not by turning movies into blank slates, but turning my own mind into  one. By divorcing myself from any kind of expectation and yet coming at everything with an open curiosity. By putting trust in myself that I will find all the ways to truly care or criticize the film there, in the dark, where films truly live. And I will find the voice to talk about it in the echoes that reside with me in the ever after. Decry this notion if you like.

But I have never been more in love with movies.

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My Personal Path to Movie-Going Nirvana