Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Psycho, Black Swan, and the problem of surprise

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A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to a memorable showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho at the CSO, with a live orchestra playing Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent score. It was the second time in just over a year that I’d watched Psycho with a live audience—I saw it last August in Grant Park—and it’s always a lot of fun: everyone is appropriately jaded by the film’s most famous scene, but then there’s that second murder, which is much less well known, and which invariably results in a big scream from the audience, fifty years after the movie’s original release.

Before the screening, we attended a discussion of the film with the AV Club’s Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias, where Phipps shared the following story (which, if you haven’t seen Psycho, I’d advise you to skip):

I took a friend to see Psycho…Not only had he never seen Psycho, he had somehow managed to remain ignorant of its twist. We sat in front of a pair of elderly women who decided to provide a running commentary about the film, specifically about how much things had changed since the 1960s. “Gas sure was cheap back then,” one commented as Janet Leigh pulled into a gas station. “Cars sure were big back then,” the other responded. (It might just be my memory making the story better, but I could swear one of them also said, “It sure was dark back then.”) It was annoying. But not as annoying as the moment shortly after Leigh’s death, when one said, “Isn’t he pretending to be his mother or something?”

Phipps says that he then saw his friend “tense up with rage.” Well, sure. These days, it’s so rare for anyone to see Psycho without any previous knowledge that those women deserved, if not to be stabbed in the shower, then at least to watch that awful psychiatrist’s speech over and over again.

Not long after seeing Psycho at the CSO, I had a plot point for Black Swan spoiled for me, appropriately enough, by an anonymous commenter on the AV Club. Needless to say, I tensed up with rage, and was afraid that the movie had been ruined. But when I mentioned this on Twitter, Scott Tobias responded: “No worries. The film will work for you (or not) regardless.” And, strangely enough, he was right. I don’t think my experience of the movie was any less compelling because I knew where the story was going. I may even have enjoyed it slightly more.

So what makes Black Swan different from Psycho? One difference, obviously, is that it’s a greater crime to spoil a classic: Psycho is one of a handful of movies that will probably be watched a hundred years from now, while the jury is still out on Black Swan. More important, though, is the nature of Psycho’s secrets, which fundamentally undermine the movie that the audience is anticipating: first the star is murdered, and then the killer turns out to be something…unexpected. Black Swan’s spoilers are inherent in its premise: we know from early on that this movie will be about a young woman going mad, and the only surprise lies in what form that madness will take.

Is there a lesson here for writers? I’d like to think of it as another example of the power of constraints. Psycho tells us that it’s a film of suspense, then radically destroys our expectations of what to expect from such a movie. Black Swan, by contrast, establishes from its opening scenes that it’s a psychological horror film, then does pretty much what we expect, even if it gives itself more stylistic leeway than Psycho does. The former kind of surprise, needless to say, is much more powerful than the latter, but it only works if the story first lays down the rules that it intends to break. In a film in which anything can happen, it’s hard to expect the audience to be surprised—or moved—by what eventually does.

Written by nevalalee

December 6, 2010 at 7:50 pm

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