Posted by Greg Ferrara on November 27, 2013
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.
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.
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?
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