Lowered Expectations: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

With the holidays soon approaching, here’s the perfect gift for any movie lover looking to have a good time watching movies that never fails: lowered expectations.  I noticed on TCM’s schedule for the early morning hours of Tuesday that a short on the making of The Blue Lagoon was on.  I’ve never seen that movie and have no intention of ever seeing it but if I happened upon it on cable one day and saw a few scenes, I wouldn’t be disappointed.  I know that because I have absolutely no expectations that The Blue Lagoon is good in any conceivable way.  If, in the couple of scenes I watched, they managed to not drop the camera or accidentally insert footage from another movie, I’d feel I’d gotten my time’s worth.  Oh hell, let’s be honest, if they dropped the camera it probably wouldn’t make any difference.  That’s the joy of lowered expectations.  You, quite obviously, don’t expect anything, or at least, you don’t expect anything good.  When it goes in the other direction, you’ve got trouble.

Back view 2 boys with book packs walking to from school

You know how many times I’ve heard about people being disappointed by movies ranked among the greatest ever made?  Too many to count.  You know why they’re disappointed in movies ranked among the greatest ever made?  Because they’re movies ranked among the greatest ever made.  Expectations run exceedingly high.  In this space alone, I’ve been informed on several occasions how many people are disappointed and/or bored with 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  It’s understandable.  Though it’s a personal favorite of mine, the expectations run extremely high on a movie like that and expectations are hard to meet once they reach a certain level.  Now, the example above of The Blue Lagoon is a little misleading because I don’t intend this post to be about movies “so bad they’re good.”  No, no, this post is about movies that are pretty damn good in their own right but so completely expectation free that they succeed where expectations would have killed them.

One series of movies I’ve always liked are the Torchy Blane movies with Glenda Farrell.  In fact, I own the Torchy Blane DVD set which has all the Farrell versions.  That’s how much I like the Torchy Blane series.   How did I discover them?  Was it through word of mouth that escalated to the point where I felt like seeing them would change my life?  No.  Was it through entries in film books discussing the greatest achievements in film history?  No.  Was it a list of the greatest movies of the thirties?  No.  Here’s how I discovered them.  One night, years ago, I was flipping through the channels and happened upon it on TCM.  I watched a little bit, recognized Farrell from one of my all time favorite movies, Michael Curtiz’s The Mystery of the Wax Museum, and enjoyed what I was seeing.  It had slow parts, fairly static cinematography, passable dialogue and a routine plot.  But it had Glenda Farrell and she was, is and will always be, awesome.  So I watched it through to the end, sought out more, enjoyed all of those, too, and finally bought the entire DVD set so I could always have Torchy Blane at my fingertips.  And all of that because I didn’t have one, single, solitary, iota of an expectation for Torchy Blaine going in.  Had I, the story might have ended quite differently.

It kind of works that way for most movies of the thirties and forties I see because so much time has passed that many of the movies from those years shown on TCM have no major write-ups on them in film books or by major critics so I see them all with almost no expectations outside of the star of the movie.   For instance, when I first saw The Ghoul a few years back, all I knew about it was it had Boris Karloff and I liked Boris Karloff.  So that was all I had going in:  It starred someone I liked watching.  I knew it had been recently restored (in 2003) but, still, I was taken with how sharp the images were and really impressed by the beautiful and haunting cinematography throughout the film (by Günther Krampf).  It wasn’t the story I thought it would be and by the end I was thoroughly impressed by what I’d just watched.   I would now consider The Ghoul among the many Karloff movies I would gladly watch again and again.

1950s two teenage couples at booth in diner wearing plaid and solid color shirts drinking sodas talking together

It also happens if I see a movie after everyone else has panned it. Often, if a movie gets too raked over the coals, when I finally see it I’ll think, “Well that wasn’t that bad.”  A classic example for a lot of people would be Heaven’s Gate.  When I finally saw it a few years ago in its original widescreen glory, I admit I didn’t think it was very good.  I found it rather plodding and dull but found the critiques of its cinematography oddly misplaced (I think it’s gorgeous) and found the performances to be just fine, taking into account that Kris Kristofferson is one of the most undemonstrative actors in history. Overall, I thought it was an okay movie.   At least, that’s what I saw.  What I didn’t see was an obscenely bad, intelligence-insulting, cinematic nightmare that I’d been led to believe I would be seeing.  Instead, I saw an over-budgeted, bloated epic that moved a little too slowly.  Had I been told it was excellent, which a lot of revisionist views on the film are now doing, I might have thought the opposite.

Other movies that received pans I thought were wonderful.  Like Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart.  I wrote that up years ago elsewhere after I saw it and was taken by its amazing imagery and set design.  It was quite delightful, really, and I don’t use the word “delightful” often to describe anything.  Had I been told to expect one of the greatest musicals ever mounted, I might have been disappointed in the result but I was told to expect a dud and walked away pleasantly surprised.

Lowered expectations are a way to almost guarantee, if not a good, at least a decent time at the movies.  When you expect riches, you often get a bag of coal.  But when you expect little, or nothing, you often strike gold.   It’s another example of how going into a movie blind can often be the best thing a viewer can do.  It’s why I avoid reading reviews before seeing a movie, though it’s often impossible to not know the general consensus on a movie before I see it.   Who knew going into a movie without any idea of how good or bad it is could make such a difference.  But, hey, what did you expect?


37 Responses Lowered Expectations: The Gift that Keeps on Giving
Posted By swac44 : November 27, 2013 1:38 pm

I discovered the Torchy Blane series the same way, stumbled over one of the titles on TCM, and found myself thoroughly enjoying its formulaic charms. Haven’t bought the set, but I’ll DVR the titles I haven’t seen when they pop up in the schedule.

Same goes for the Mike Shayne detective series, which was discussed in another post recently. Found a cheap copy of Vol. 1 (there was never a Vol. 2, as far as I know) of the Lloyd Nolan-starring series, thought, “Hmmm…1940s detective movies, how bad could they be?” and found myself burning through the series in a couple of days thanks to Nolan’s dry, wise-cracking persona. (Also recently enjoyed his slacker corporal in Bataan, the living image of lethargy, until it’s time to go into action.)

Posted By Cool Bev : November 27, 2013 2:31 pm

I’ve never seen a Torchy Blane movie, but I have ridiculously high expectations. Come on, her name is Torchy!

I have seen the Lloyd Nolan Shayne movies, and they are great. Now The Midnight Ghost, with “Nick Trayne”, that’s one I had no expectations about.

Posted By Andrew : November 27, 2013 3:15 pm

The first time I saw Silence of the Lambs was right after it got the awards (or at least nominations) and I let my expectations get affected and came away thinking blech.

Several years later I somehow found myself watching it again. Now my attitude matched Greg’s toward’s the Blue Lagoon. (Which I am embarrassed to admit I have seen and a few dropped camera’s might have actually helped. But I digress…) This time I was pleasantly surprised the other way.

I have since seen it a couple more times and while I am not saying it is Citizen Kane or anything, it is a pretty good movie with a few clever moments and some good performances. Which is the reaction if would have had the first if I had remembered that people are dopes and I should never listen to them. (Excepting of course the brilliant posters and commentators on this blog.)

Posted By Andrew : November 27, 2013 3:22 pm

Which is the reaction *I* would have had the first *time* if I had remembered that people are dopes and *that* I should never listen to them. (Apologies for the clumsy fingers)

Posted By robbushblog : November 27, 2013 3:50 pm

And here I go again mentioning John Carter, as I did in Suzi’s most recent post. I had low expectations for John Carter and really liked it. And I also had low expectations for the recent movie Now You See Me. I just thought it was a light, breezy, fun little movie. The critics, including one Morlock, were not so kind to it. I just thought it was fun.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : November 27, 2013 4:15 pm

I feel fortunate to be old enough to have come of age at a time when people just went to-the-movies, to see whatever was showing. Sure, one would hear about a movie ahead of time (“WILLARD sounds awesome!”) but by and large you just went down to the movie house come the weekend. I can be as critical as the next guy (looks to right, sees Bill Ryan) but when I sit down to a movie I do it almost entirely without expectation. It’s a good place to be.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : November 27, 2013 4:15 pm

Oh, also… Torchy 4-ever!

Posted By Doug : November 27, 2013 5:51 pm

Like Greg, I avoid reviews/trailers of the films I really want to see.
This past Summer I saw something on line for the movie “Pacific Rim”-saw the name Guillermo del Toro and ran right out to view it-one of the best Summer movies I’ve seen.
We love to discover cinematic gold among the lesser pyrites; I can remember going to see a Star Trek knock-off…which turned out to be Star Wars.

Posted By kingrat : November 27, 2013 6:06 pm

Excellent column, Greg. I’ve definitely had the “I’d give RULES OF THE GAME a thumbs up, but it’s not one of the 10 greatest films ever made” feeling. And the “THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER is OK to watch while you’re folding the laundry, but awfully stagebound and lacking the Lubitsch touch…oh” feeling.

I can understand why people with no expectations of DETOUR found much to admire, but I saw it with high expectations, like “This is going to be one of the best noirs ever!” and found a film that gets under way slowly, doesn’t really come alive until Ann Savage appears, and its climax is a long, long scene with two people arguing about whether the guy can use the telephone. So, two and a half stars out of four, which isn’t bad, but not one of the best 50 noirs I’ve seen.

Then there all the undiscovered gems on TCM, far too numerous to mention.

Posted By gregferrara : November 27, 2013 9:21 pm

Swac and Cool Bev – I still haven’t seen the Mike Shayne movies but when I do, they’d better be flawless!

Posted By gregferrara : November 27, 2013 9:23 pm

Andrew, I was also a bit underwhelmed by Silence of the Lambs when I first saw it. If it was greeted as a good serial killer movie I would’ve liked it a lot better but I was anticipating something over the moon. I like it a lot better now.

Posted By gregferrara : November 27, 2013 9:24 pm

Rob, still haven’t seen John Carter but I want to, I just haven’t gotten around to it. I have expectations that it will be pretty good so I hope I’m not too disappointed, or disappointed at all.

Posted By gregferrara : November 27, 2013 9:27 pm

Richard, I can remember that, too, especially in middle school and high school. I don’t know, I could be wrong, but I bet a lot of kids still do that. We would just see whatever “looked good” and roll with it. This led to things like, “Hey, BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. I liked the first one. Let’s check it out.” And then, even without expectations, it felt like a really bad choice.

Posted By gregferrara : November 27, 2013 9:28 pm

My friend and I also saw THE FISH THAT SAVED PITTSBURGH without knowing anything about it. I can’t imagine any expectations changing anyone’s attitude towards that one.

Posted By gregferrara : November 27, 2013 9:30 pm

Doug, I still remember me and my friends deciding to go see STAR WARS, thinking it looked kind of cool and then when we showed up there was a line stretching into the parking lot and we had to wait until the next show to see it. That made our expectations run much higher and, I gotta tell you, it didn’t spoil the experience one bit.

Posted By gregferrara : November 27, 2013 9:32 pm

Kingrat, I’ve had too many experiences with films considered the greatest of all time where it feels like a slight disappointment while, at the same time, you can completely understand why it’s considered great. It’s just that, somehow, you expected more. It is by far more enjoyable to go in the opposite way, expecting nothing and coming out loving it. Like you say, that’s happened to me time and time again on TCM. So many old treasures that no one ever mentioned to me before.

Posted By Emgee : November 27, 2013 9:36 pm

” while I am not saying it is Citizen Kane……”there it is again, in this very commentary section! .Aaaaargh!

For years i’d been hearing that CK is the Holy Grail of Cinema, Best Movie Ever Made, Number One on every selfrespecting film critics list. The Sistine Chapel of movie Art…….

Well….i was bound to be….not disappointed ,it’s obviously a fine film, but Best Film Ever? I still can’t see it that way.

So yeah: a boxset of Charlie Chan or Mr. Moto for me please!

Posted By gregferrara : November 27, 2013 10:00 pm

That’s totally understandable. There’s such an apples/oranges syndrome at play with a lot of movies ranked the best that I could never rank just one as the greatest I’d ever seen. I can only say this movie is one of the best I’ve seen or it’s excellent or great but ranking any one movie – any movie – as better than all others has always seemed ludicrous to me.

Posted By Doug : November 28, 2013 2:19 am

I just finished watching “Escanaba In Da Moonlight” again and, if you know nothing of it, that’s good-seek it out and enjoy. If you already know the film,chances are good that we agree that it is worth watching.

Posted By terje rypdal : November 28, 2013 2:22 am

I couldn’t agree more — although I was more pleased than displeased with all the hullaballoo surrounding Vertigo’s upset of CK in last year’s Sight & Sound poll — since Vertigo is a film which speaks much more to me on a personal level than CK …

Your point is a great one, I think … When watching “Wild Guitar” for the first time recently, I took note of Maltin’s “BOMB” rating — & could only hope that it would be in that “so bad it’s good” category like Plan 9 etc. … And although some might consider it such, I wound up finding it an enormously amusing, engrossing, entertaining film … IF you can get into its unique, crazy spirit … & although exaggerated, it actually tells the truth about show business!

Hall Jr. actually acts a lot more like a relatively normal person than he does in “The Sadist”, which Maltin gives 2 1/2 stars, calling his performance “distressingly believable!” … Well .. maybe … if by “distressingly believable” he means that from the first five minutes or so, the audience gets an extremely strong sense from Hall Jr.’s ludicrously over-the-top demented cretin performance that, um … we might just be dealing with somebody who wasn’t the top SAT scorer in his class

Another recent example for me was finally getting around to watching the restored version of “Major Dundee” the other day … I’d heard again & again how disappointing & disjointed it was & how it falls apart in the second half … But, wow — I found this to be a really wonderful ,gripping, thrilling film … Personally I think I might like it BETTER than “The Wild Bunch” (though not quite as much as more “cult” Peckinpahs like “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” or “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” which I really love!) … But this was really a FUN movie — with lots of scenery-chewing by a crazed Charlton Heston

Or to take a counter-example, I also just saw the restored version of Truffaut’s “Two English Girls” … Maltin says that speaking specifically of the restored cut, he considers it to be a four-star masterpiece … Boy, I’d probably give IT 2 1/2 MAX … From where I sit, Truffaut made a critical mistake in making so many films starring Antoine Doinel … YES, he was perfectly cast as a child for the masterpiece 400 Blows! … BUT .. I consistently find him dry & flat & boring as an adult actor … OK, there’s my two cents … Awesome topic & a great companion thought piece to suzidoll’s Turkey concept thread 1 or 2 below!

Posted By Marjorie Birch : November 28, 2013 3:09 am

Heard dreadful things about “The Sandpiper” and “Ryan’s Daughter” — watched them both recently, enjoyed them both.

Posted By vp19 : November 28, 2013 3:47 am

Just to set things straight, the character Glenda Farrell played in that series of films was Torchy Blane (no “i”)…in case anyone wants to learn more about those movies and was going to use some sort of search engine.

Posted By Stephen White : November 28, 2013 2:41 pm

I mentioned on the TCM messageboards not too long ago that I once attended a small gathering where casual conversation came around to Heaven’s Gate, and to a person, everyone there but me was convinced beyond any doubt it was one of the worst movies of all time. It also turned out I was the only one there who had actually seen it. My opinion was very similar to yours, Greg – in need of some judicious editing, for sure, but full of authenticity of time and place and fantastic production values. So, I tried for a minute or so to argue the film’s merits, but was met with nothing but blank stares and even snickering from a couple of people present. So ossified in public legend was the idea that this movie was terrible beyond redemption, that clearly none of them were ever going to give it a try.

Posted By gregferrara : November 28, 2013 4:16 pm

Thanks. I always – always – put that damn “i” in there. I’ve corrected it now. The next time I write about Torchy, I guarantee you, I’ll put the “i” in again.

Posted By tdraicer : November 28, 2013 4:58 pm

I think what this really shows is how much one’s reactions to art (in any form) are about you and not the art. Your past experiences, your future hopes, your current mood, the environment where you experience the art in question, all have at least as much to do with your appreciation as the object itself. Which is why I have such problems with those critics who write as if they have escaped the subjective realm the rest of us poor fools dwell in to give us a definitive “objective” judgement. Fortunately, this site is an antidote to that.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : November 28, 2013 10:36 pm

i was the one that brought up the Lloyd Nolan Micheal Shayne films in a previous post,and this is exactly how i stumbled across them,on the Fox channel at about 2am,and the first was so enjoyable i scoured the online schedule for more,eventually buying what was available,the four film collection,and a another film “Dressed To Kill”…it might not be high art,but it always provides a good chuckle and a smile,like the best of the serial detectives always do

Posted By gregferrara : November 29, 2013 4:25 pm

Hell, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was put on that idiotic Medved brothers list of the worst movies ever made! And it’s great!

The thing is, when I see a movie touted as great, I can be disappointed but still recognize why it’s considered great. But often, when I see a movie considered horrible, I don’t quite get, in some cases, why that was the prevailing sentiment. I’ve brought it up here over and over and over, so forgive one more mention of it, but for years I heard Tora! Tora! Tora! was awful and a bad misfire and I’ve seen it three times now and each time find it compelling and engrossing.

Posted By gregferrara : November 29, 2013 4:28 pm

Which is why I have such problems with those critics who write as if they have escaped the subjective realm the rest of us poor fools dwell in to give us a definitive “objective” judgement.

Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum but many people treat it as if it does. Whenever I read, and I have, someone saying that this or that movie is objectively bad, I can’t help but find that amusing. It may well be technically incompetent but still have one or two saving graces. Like I said in a previous comment, it’s the movies that get panned that I often have the hardest time understanding why they were panned.

Posted By gregferrara : November 29, 2013 4:31 pm

i was the one that brought up the Lloyd Nolan Micheal Shayne films in a previous post

And I still look forward to seeing those. Lloyd Nolan is criminally unknown these days to too many people, including plenty of budding cinephiles. Frankly, I think Hollywood dropped the ball by not making a movie where Nolan and Hume Cronyn could have played brothers. Maybe one good, one bad. One a police lieutenant, the other a gangster. Hell, it took me years to straighten the two out in my head.

Posted By george : November 29, 2013 8:54 pm

Too many academics have killed foreign and older movies (especially silents) by making them sound so difficult and intimidating. Or by praising them as Great Works of Art.

Even if they ARE great works of art, that’s generally not how to introduce classics to young people. It makes them sound like medicine or homework, instead of something they might actually enjoy.

To gregferrara: BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is a deranged masterpiece. Even CONVOY, often derided as the low point of Peckinpah’s career, is an interesting movie.

Posted By jbryant : November 30, 2013 10:00 am

Two of my favorite perennially-maligned titles are Leo McCarey’s MY SON JOHN and Gregory La Cava’s LIVING IN A BIG WAY. The former has finally begun to receive a little respect in some circles, but the latter rarely finds any love (another aspect of this whole subject is that many people avoid these “tainted” films altogether). I see the flaws in both, but they hardly outweigh the good, IMO.

Posted By Richard Brandt : November 30, 2013 10:11 am

I went to see STAND AND DELIVER expecting it to be just dreadful, one of those “inspirational” and “motivational” movies about kids and their teacher triumphing over adversity that just fall flat where the filmmakers obviously expected the audience to cheer when prompted; instead I absolutely loved it, a brilliant script which seemed to play fair and show how these kids legitimately had the odds stacked against them, and how math of all things offered them a way out. The audience did genuinely cheer at the end, at someone reading out numbers over the phone, of all things.

I thought from the previews that MY COUSIN VINNIE would totally suck, and the early scenes did little to dissuade me, as our characters get themselves into a complicated predicament which we all know will be all hunky-dory by the last act (but then, I have the same gripe about Shakespeare plays like MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING). But its charms won me over, especially at the point you realize Joe Pesci’s character has the makings of a really fine lawyer.

I even saw bits and pieces of ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE in a video store and expected it to be painfully awful, but once I watched it on cable I realized that Jim Carrey guy was just plain funny.

On the other hand, I saw L.A. CONFIDENTIAL in the theater and was just turned off by the dire cliché of its reveal of the main villain; but once it showed up on cable I found myself watching it time and again, finding so much to admire in it. (Some of the behind-the-scenes anecdotes I discovered later gave me even more appreciation of the filmmakers’ commitment to period detail and the genius of Russell Crowe’s performance.)

Another movie I found compulsively watchable once it turned up on cable? Eddie Murphy in DOCTOR DOLITTLE. Watching an extended version indicated it must have had some issues in post-production (which you could sorta have guessed from its last shot anyway), but the voiceover work by Norm MacDonald (as a dog) and especially by John Leguizamo and Reni Santoni (as rats!) is hilarious. Plus you have Albert Brooks as a tiger and Chris Rock as a guinea pig; what’s not to like?

Posted By gregferrara : November 30, 2013 5:34 pm

George, I haven’t seen CONVOY in years but I never disliked it.

jbryant, I haven’t seen either of those, actually. Never heard much one way or the other which is always the best way to go in.

Richard, I felt the same way about L.A CONFIDENTIAL. I could recognize it was an excellent movie but the hard sell of how great it was tainted it a bit for me. Haven’t seen it since but have often thought of it. Need to give it another look.

Posted By jbryant : November 30, 2013 8:08 pm

Greg: Both have aired on TCM, though not lately. MY SON JOHN was part of TCM’s 2010 “Shadows of Russia” series, the brainchild of film blogger Farran Smith Nehme (The Self-Styled Siren) and critic Lou Lumenick. It was even on Netflix Instant for quite a while thereafter, but has since been dropped. Olive Films released it on DVD and Blu Ray last year.

LIVING IN A BIG WAY got a DVD release from Warner Archive last year, and can also be bought for download via Amazon Instant Video.

Posted By robbushblog : December 2, 2013 4:50 pm

I love L.A. Confidential and have since I first saw it on its opening weekend.

There are a few John Wayne movies that have gotten bad reviews over the years that I actually like: Big Jim McLain, The Alamo and The Green Berets. Big Jim is worth seeing for the team-up of Duke and James Arness. Most people dismiss it solely because it was so anti-Communist. I enjoyed it as an action vehicle. I love The Alamo. I actually prefer the longer cut, which includes a great speech from Colonel William Travis, played by Laurence Harvey, where he discusses Jeffersonian democracy. And I really like The Green Berets. Most people dismiss it as oversimplifying the Vietnam War. I say “So what?” We got plenty of Vietnam movies later on that were more complex and took a totally different view of the war. I have no problem with this one.

Posted By Richard Brandt : December 4, 2013 9:16 am

I find the ending of THE GREEN BERETS incredibly sad, because wouldn’t have been great if it were true?

Posted By Commander Adams : December 5, 2013 5:33 am

A recent example: I greatly enjoyed AUSTENLAND, a movie that, it turned out, most critics had savaged. The same week, I saw the South Korean film PIETA, and utterly despised it…and was utterly gobsmacked by all the rave reviews it had received, for a film I found to be an completely degrading, nonredeemable experience.

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