What a Picture That Will Make!: Art and Expectation

Trailer for The Big Sleep. 1946.

A classic opening move for philosophers, especially Hellenophiles like Nietzsche and Heidegger, is to take a common enough word and remind us of its linguistic origins. Ideally, this maneuver illuminates some atavistic truth about the concept in question, exposes the inferiority of our modern definition, and then sets up the philosopher to possess the word for his own devices. It’s sometimes quite effective.

This is the trailer for The Big Sleep (’46), one of the gems of the classic film noir era (which I think begins with The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and ends with The Lady from Shanghai in 1948, although there are a few outliers) and the narrative skeleton of The Big Lebowski (’98).

The Big Sleep‘s plot is notoriously convoluted, although the leading couple’s chemistry and the script – a collaboration between William Faulkner, Jules Furtham and Leigh Brackett (who would later pen the script to one of pinnacles of neo-noir, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (’73) – is too, too brilliant a distraction for anyone to care. Famously, Howard Hawks, the director of the film, wrote to Raymond Chandler, the author of the novel, asking him to clarify who exactly had committed a murder essential to the story. Chandler later told a friend: ‘They sent me a wire… asking me, and dammit I didn’t know either.

The trailer is both bizarre and revealing. Humphrey Bogart, apparently in character as Philip Marlowe (or maybe Sam Spade?) is browsing the ‘Hollywood Public library’ for ‘something off the beaten track like The Maltese Falcon,’ in which Bogart, of course, had starred. The clerk offers him a copy of The Big Sleep, which she promises to be ‘everything the Falcon had and more.’ Bogart reads a passage from the book and the scene fades into footage from the film itself. A vague mystery is narrated over images of danger, which then give way to extended, dreamy glances and kisses between Bogart and Lauren Bacall. (It’s also notable that advertising a film’s studio was once such a potential draw for filmgoers that Warner Bros. is mentioned twice.)

bacall-truman-pianoScandal! Lauren Bacall, Vice-President Harry Truman. 1945.

One of my focuses in aesthetics is art consumption: how viewers are exposed to works of art, why and how often they seek them out, what they’re expecting from the encounter, questions of frequency and intensity and so on. I find the trailer revealing because it exemplifies an inconspicuous aspect of the commercial film.

Bogart and Bacall first appeared together in To Have and Have Not in 1944 and subsequently married. (It was Bogart’s fourth marriage.) Their romance was a sensation, and The Big Sleep was marketed with that in mind. Indeed, two different versions of the film exist, the second playing up their romance. (The couple would go on to appear in two other films, including the supremely weird but worthwhile experiment Dark Passage in 1947).

They’re together again! That man.. Bogart! And that woman Bacall! Are that way again!

Again! Again! Note the ambiguity: they’re that way again! What way? ‘Isn’t that what you liked last time? Don’t you want to see it again?’ The trailer’s frankness is amusing now, but are modern commercial film trailers all that different? Aren’t the same suggestions made, just in a more subtle form? ‘That man.. Will Ferrell! Making that face! Remember the joy you got from the last film with him? You can feel that joy again! Again!’

This reminds us why movie stars exist.. Are these actors really the best suited for all these roles? Is the talent differential between them and other actors really that drastic? Why not give someone else a chance? (I’m actually submitting a paper on the subject to an upcoming aesthetics conference.)

People commit actions because they have expectations. When an action does not result in the expectation, the actor is confused and disappointed. The same applies to art consumption.

If a supposedly shocking or sexy film comes to town, and the public attends the film expecting to be shocked or aroused, and the public leaves the theatre feeling un-shocked and un-aroused, the public is likely to condemn the film for defying its expectations. Even though the film might have provided many other aesthetic pleasures, this expectation (and its betrayal) becomes the most salient critical basis for the public and the film scores lowly.

Like our clearly defined film genres, movie stars mainly serve marketing purposes. (Seeing how a Blockbusters in Tulsa, Oklahoma, organizes its films is fascinating: Action, Drama, Horror, Comedy – all purporting to satisfy very clear expectations – and, of course, Foreign: thematically diverse films whose subtitles are so essential to their identity that they demand a separate shelf.) Trailers are there to create expectations, and movie stars serve as a familiar emissary sent from the film’s producer to the potential audience member: ‘What you see here is only a small part of the film, but I’m in it. And you know me, don’t you? I’m that way again.’

A telling article appeared during the filming of The Matador (’05) starring Pierce Brosnan. The performance marked the first time that Brosnan had worn a mustache for a film, and the centimeters of hair on Brosnan’s upper lip caused a minor stir among fans of Brosnan’s debonair, hairless James Bond and Thomas Crown. The article quoted a Brosnan representative who assured fans that their dear Pierce, despite not being ‘that way again’ in The Matador, had deeply considered the matter and felt like it was a wise step at this point in his career and for his development as an actor. (Speaking of James Bonds, look at the projects Sean Connery was involved in – The Offence (’72), Zardoz (’74); film dork classics all – while trying to reinvent his image after leaving the 007 franchise.)

As you know, French people love Woody Allen (and jazz and Jerry Lewis and How I Met Your Mother), even bad Woody Allen. One of the most common criticisms I’ve heard of Vicky Cristina Barcelona (’08) is that the film is not good because Woody Allen isn’t in the film being ‘Woody Allen.’ As my roommate, Gilles, critiqued: ‘The words sound like Woody, but it’s not Woody saying them.’ (Because the French title for Sleeper (’73) is Woody et les Robots, French people refer to Woody Allen as simply ‘Woody’ and expect that Anglophones do the same. Similarly, the French at one point gave the name ‘Charlot’ to the unnamed vagabond character in early Charlie Chaplin films and now use it to refer to the actor and the character.)

woody-et-les-robots-sleeper

Woody Allen doesn’t appear in Vicky Cristina Barcelona trailers, and I think that Gilles knew going into the movie not to expect Woody, but at some point Gilles must have decided that good Woody films have Woody speaking Woody and bad Woody films do not. Voilà. (Another reason for, well, unsophisticated aesthetic remarks like this is the imperative we feel to communicate our feelings about a work of art after exposure to it. Saying ‘I did not like it,’ is insufficient, so we compose valid – in the formal logic sense – critical arguments to justify and confirm our feelings.)

As Noël Carroll has demonstrated, because film stars are such public personas, an actor’s image is essential to his or her career. We cannot fully separate the ubiquitous press coverage of Jennifer Aniston the jilted lover (who recently won my heart when talking about Caryn Jones, author of a negative 2006 New York Times article on Aniston’s career: ‘Who fucking shit in her Wheaties?‘) from the character she plays in her latest movie, so we love to see her in The Break Up (’06) because, well, it’s just like real life! – And what’s that you say? She might be dating Vince Vaughn, who plays a character she dates in the film? Oh, pleasure! Must see! Art! Life! Chicken! Egg!

The importance of the expectations of the viewer accounts not only for movie stars, but also for many movie sequels. (I’m thinking of strictly commercial cases and not projects conceived as a trilogy, and so on.) Why watch a sequel that promises to give us the same thing its predecessor gave us when we could just watch the first film again? It’s a tricky marketing question, although I think the fake  Scorcher VI trailer from Tropical Thunder (’08) captured how studios avoid it: ‘Now.. the one man who made a difference five times before.. is about to make a difference again.. only this time: it’s different.

We shouldn’t try to discount our expectations of a work of art entirely: the aesthetic experience is as broad and inclusive as our perception. And, besides, it’s impossible.

I only think that expectations are ‘harmful’ when they’re used as the basis for a negative critical evaluation: ‘I thought it would be one way, it was another, therefore, it’s bad.’ I try to go out of my way for novel aesthetic experiences, but it’s perfectly natural to want more of what you like, even if it varies little.

As the late John Peel said approvingly when introducing his favorite band, The Fall: ‘Always different, always the same.’

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~ by ohkrapp on December 5, 2008.

One Response to “What a Picture That Will Make!: Art and Expectation”

  1. A blog post on the use of the Hollywood Public Library in this film – http://librariesatthemovies.blogspot.com/2011/01/it-would-be-impossible-to-sleep-in-this.html

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