Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Psycho

The old switcheroo

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Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz in Vanilla Sky

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What makes a great trailer?”

A few years ago, in a post about The Cabin in the Woods, which is one of a small handful of recent films I still think about on a regular basis, I wrote:

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about American movie audiences over the past decade or so, it’s that they don’t like being surprised. They may say that they do, and they certainly respond positively to twist endings, properly delivered, within the conventions of the genre they were hoping to see. What they don’t like is going to a movie expecting one thing and being given something else. And while this is sometimes a justifiable response to misleading ads and trailers, it can also be a form of resentment at having one’s expectations upended.

I went on to quote a thoughtful analysis from Box Office Mojo, which put its finger on why the movie scored so badly with audiences:

By delivering something much different, the movie delighted a small group of audience members while generally frustrating those whose expectations were subverted. Moviegoers like to know what they are in for when they go to see a movie, and when it turns out to be something different the movie tends to get punished in exit polling.

And the funny thing is that you can’t really blame the audience for this. If you think of a movie primarily as a commercial product that you’ve paid ten dollars or more to see—which doesn’t even cover the ancillary costs of finding a babysitter and driving to and from the theater—you’re likely to be frustrated if it turns out to be something different from what you were expecting. This is especially the case if you only see a few movies a year, and doubly so if you avoid the reviews and base your decisions solely on trailers, social media, or the presence of a reliable star. In practice, this means that certain surprises are acceptable, while others aren’t. It’s fine if the genre you’re watching all but requires there to be a twist, even if it strains all logic or openly cheats. (A lot of people apparently liked Now You See Me.) But if the twist takes you out of the genre that you thought you were paying to see, viewers tend to get angry. Genre, in many ways, is the most useful metric for deciding where to put your money: if you pay to see an action movie or a romantic comedy or a slasher film, you have a pretty good sense of the story beats you’re going to experience. A movie that poses as one genre and turns out to be another feels like flagrant false advertising, and it leaves many viewers feeling ripped off.

Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky

As a result, it’s probably no longer possible for a mainstream movie to radically change in tone halfway through, at least not in a way that hasn’t been spoiled by trailers. Few viewers, I suspect, went into From Dusk Till Dawn without knowing that a bunch of vampires were coming, and a film like Psycho couldn’t be made today at all. (Any attempt to preserve the movie’s secrets in the ads would be seen, after the fact, as a tragic miscalculation in marketing, as many industry insiders thought it was for The Cabin in the Woods.) There’s an interesting exception to this rule, though, and it applies to trailers themselves. Unless it’s for something like The Force Awakens, a trailer, by definition, isn’t something you’ve paid to see: you don’t have any particular investment in what they’re showing you, and it’s only going to claim your attention for a couple of minutes. As a result, trailers can indulge in all kinds of formal experiments that movies can’t, and probably shouldn’t, attempt at feature length. For the most part, trailers aren’t edited according to the same rules as movies, and they’re often cut together by a separate team of editors who are looking at the footage using a very different set of criteria. And as it turns out, one of the most reliable conventions of movie trailers is the old switcheroo: you start off in one genre, then shift abruptly to another, often accompanied by a needle scratch or ominous music cue.

In other words, the trailers frequently try to appeal to audiences using exactly the kind of surprise that the movies themselves can no longer provide. Sometimes it starts off realistically, only to introduce monsters or aliens, as Cloverfield and District 9 did so memorably, and trailers never tire of the gimmick of giving us what looks like a romantic comedy before switching into thriller mode. The ultimate example, to my mind, remains Vanilla Sky, which is still one of my favorite trailers. When I saw it for the first time, the genre switcheroo wasn’t as overused as it later became, and the result knocked me sidways. By now, most of its tricks have become clichés in themselves, down to its use of “Solsbury Hill,” so maybe you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that it was unbelievably effective. (In some ways, I wish the movie, which I also love, had followed the trailer’s template more closely, instead of tipping its hand early on about the weirdness to come.) And I suspect that such trailers, with their ability to cross genre boundaries, represent a kind of longing by directors about the sorts of films that they’d really like to make. The logic of the marketplace has made it impossible for such surprises to survive in the finished product, but a trailer can serve a sort of miniature version of what it might have been under different circumstances. This isn’t always true: in most cases, the studio just cuts together a trailer for the movie that they wish the director had made, rather than the one that he actually delivered. But every now and then, a great trailer can feel like a glimpse of a movie’s inner, secret life, even if it turns out that it was all a dream.

Written by nevalalee

September 25, 2015 at 9:46 am

The three kinds of surprise

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Billy Bob Thornton in Fargo

In real life, most of us would be happy to deal with fewer surprises, but in fiction, they’re a delight. Or at least movies and television would like to believe. In practice, twist endings and plot developments that arrive out of left field can be exhausting and a little annoying, if they emerge less out of the logic of the story than from a mechanical decision to jerk us around. I’ve noted before that our obsession with big twists can easily backfire: if we’re conditioned to expect a major surprise, it prevents us from engaging with the narrative as it unfolds, since we’re constantly questioning every detail. (In many cases, the mere knowledge that there is a twist counts as a spoiler in itself.) And Hitchcock was smart enough to know that suspense is often preferable to surprise, which is why he restructured the plot of Vertigo to place its big reveal much earlier than it occurs in the original novel. Writers are anxious to prevent the audience from getting ahead of the story for even a second, but you can also generate a lot of tension if viewers can guess what might be coming just slightly before the characters do. Striking that balance requires intelligence and sensitivity, and it’s easier, in general, to just keep throwing curveballs, as shows like 24 did until it became a cliché.

Still, a good surprise can be enormously satisfying. If we start from first principles, building on the concept of the unexpected, we end up with three different categories:

1. When something happens that we don’t expect.
2. When we expect something to happen, but something else happens instead.
3. When we expect something to happen, but nothing happens.

And it’s easy to come up with canonical examples of all three. For the first, you can’t do much better than the shower scene in Psycho; for the second, you can point to something like the famous fake-out in The Silence of the Lambs, in which the intercutting of two scenes misleads us into thinking that an assault team is closing in on Buffalo Bill, when Clarice is really wandering into danger on her own; and for the third, you have the scene in The Cabin in the Woods when one of the characters is dared to make out with the wolf’s head on the wall, causing us to brace ourselves for a shock that never comes. And these examples work so elegantly because they use our knowledge of the medium against us. We “know” that the protagonist won’t be killed halfway through; we “know” that intercutting implies convergence; and we “know” when to be wary of a jump scare. And none of these surprises would be nearly as effective for a viewer—if one even exists—who could approach the story in complete naiveté.

Psycho

But not every surprise is equally rewarding. A totally unexpected plot development can come dangerously close—like the rain of frogs in Magnolia—to feeling like a gimmick. The example I’ve cited from The Silence of the Lambs works beautifully on first viewing, but over time, it starts to seem more like a cheat. And there’s a fine line between deliberately setting up a plot thread without paying it off and simply abandoning it. I got to thinking about this after finishing the miniseries Fargo, which I loved, but which also has a way of picking up and dropping story points almost absentmindedly. In a long interview with The A.V. Club, showrunner Noah Hawley tries to explain his thought process, with a few small spoilers:

Okay, Gus is going to arrest Malvo in episode four, and he’s going to call Molly to tell her to come, but of course, she doesn’t get to go because her boss goes. What you want is the scene of Molly and Malvo, but you’re not getting it…

In episode ten when Gus tells her to stay put, and she just can’t, and she gets her keys and goes to the car and drives toward Lester, we are now expecting a certain event to happen. Therefore, when that doesn’t happen, there’s the unpredictable nature of what’s going to happen, and you’re coming into it with an assumption…

By giving Russell that handcuff key, people were going to expect him to be out there for the last two episodes and play some kind of role in the end game, which is never a bad thing, to set some expectations [that don’t pay off].

Fargo is an interesting test case because it positions itself, like the original movie, as based on true events, when in fact it’s totally fictional. In theory, this frees it up to indulge in loose ends, coincidences, and lack of conventional climaxes, since that’s what real life is like. But as much as I enjoyed Fargo, I’m not sure I really buy it. In many respects, the show is obsessively stylized and designed; it never really feels like a story that could take place anywhere but in the Coenverse. And there are times when Hawley seems to protest too much, pointing to the lack of a payoff as a subversion when it’s really more a matter of not following through. The test, as always, is a practical one. If the scene that the audience is denied is potentially more interesting than what actually happens, it’s worth asking if the writers are being honest with themselves: after all, it’s relatively easy to set up a situation and stop, while avoiding the hard work that comes with its resolution. A surprise can’t just be there to frustrate our expectations; it needs to top them, or to give us a development that we never knew we wanted. It’s hard to do this even once, and even harder to do it consistently. But if the element of surprise is here to stay—and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere—then it should surprise us, above all else, with how good it is.

Written by nevalalee

March 11, 2015 at 9:21 am

The broken circle of Gone Girl

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Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl

Note: A few oblique spoilers follow for Gone Girl.

Gone Girl, which finally arrives on home video this week, was predictably shut out at last night’s Golden Globe Awards. But while that particular ceremony may be something of a farce—as this article hilariously reminds us, honorees are determined by the votes of eighty-seven “total randos”—it feels like an indicator of the film’s position as we enter the back end of awards season. The Golden Globes didn’t even give it a Best Picture nomination, and it has largely fallen out of the Oscar conversation: it’s a likely nominee that tops no one’s list of potential winners. And it isn’t hard to see why. Gone Girl may be a commercial hit with universal critical acclaim, but it also falls into a genre of chilly, manipulative puzzle boxes that rarely earn major awards. It took decades for Vertigo to claim its true status as the central American movie of the fifties, in part because it looks so much at first glance like an implausible toy. Gone Girl isn’t as good as Vertigo, which is admittedly the highest possible standard to which a movie like this can be held, but it’s revealing that I even feel like discussing them in the same sentence.

That said, I was halfway expecting Gillian Flynn to walk away with a win for her sharp, canny screenplay, which is a category in which similarly tricky movies, like The Usual Suspects, have sometimes eked out a consolation prize. Flynn’s original novel hinges on a conceit—a diary that only gradually reveals that it has been written by an unreliable narrator—that should be all but impossible to make work on film, and the fact that it gets even ninety percent of the way there is a considerable achievement. (I’m deducting only a few points for one scene, a fictionalized flashback, that really should have occurred later on in the movie, after the diary itself had been discovered and read. Still, the movie as a whole is so tightly constructed that I’m willing to let it pass: it’s the kind of objection that only occurs to the viewer after the fact, and it probably works better in the moment to have the scene come where it does.) David Fincher’s direction pulls off a parallel feat; he’s a filmmaker whose attention to detail and technical obsessiveness have a way of calling attention to themselves, but here, as in The Social Network, he makes it all look easy, when it really represents a solution to almost insurmountable narrative challenges.

Kim Novak in Vertigo

Gone Girl jerks us around so expertly, in fact, that I’m still a bit surprised that it falters near the end, when it suddenly stops and asks us to take it all very seriously. Again, the comparison with Hitchcock is an instructive one. Hitchcock would have loved this story, almost as much as he would have loved Rosamund Pike, but he wouldn’t have made the mistake of ruining the fun with an agonized denouement. He might have given us an ironic closing image, a last little shock, or even a gag—which doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been emotionally satisfying. The final shot of Psycho, with Anthony Perkins’s face dissolving into a few subliminal frames of his mother’s skull as he looks into the camera, is the kind of closing fillip that gets a laugh even as it burrows into our unconscious. Hitchcock films as different as Notorious and Frenzy end on a similar punchline, and The Birds came close to doing the same. At the highest level of all, you have the ending of Vertigo, a sick joke that also breaks the heart. There’s no greater ending in all of movies, and it works because it’s so cruel, arbitrary, and unfair. (The alternate ending, which was apparently shot purely to appease European censors, only reminds us of how perfect it is to leave Stewart alone on that ledge.)

If Vertigo works so well, it’s because it exists within its own sealed world, until every element seems to stand for something else in our waking life. It isn’t an allegory, exactly; it’s more like a literalization, within the conventions of the thriller, of the way in which we impose new faces on ourselves and others, or try in our doomed way to recapture the past. Gone Girl covers much of the same territory, and if it’s interesting on a level beyond that of a clinical game, it’s as a heightened vision of what any marriage threatens to be—not just Affleck and Pike’s, but everybody’s. Oddly, it’s in stepping out of that closed circle that it becomes less convincing: when it returns us to reality, the prior ordeal starts to seem less real, or like a freak outlier, when the movie would have been better off keeping us immersed in the paranoid dream it creates. (The other great comparison here is Otto Preminger’s Laura, which hints explicitly that its second half is taking place within the hero’s head, but denies us a scene when he wakes up again.) The tradition of noir, to which Gone Girl is an honorable extension, works because it presents a mirror universe of our own, with a different set of rules but equally inexorable logic. Gone Girl comes to the point of implying that the same is true of any marriage, but it ends by being about theirs, not ours.

Written by nevalalee

January 12, 2015 at 9:40 am

The monster in the mirror

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Psycho

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “If you were a horror movie villain, what would be your hook?”

In horror movies, we’re supposed to relate to the victims, but some of the genre’s most enduring works implicate us into an uneasy identification with the monster. I’m not talking about the films that invite the audience to cheer as another mad slasher takes out a platoon of teenagers, or even more sophisticated examples like the original Halloween, which locks us into the killer’s eyes with its opening tracking shot. What I have in mind is something more like Norman Bates. Norman is “nutty as a fruitcake,” to use Roger Ebert’s memorable words, but he’s also immensely appealing and sympathetic in the middle sequence of Psycho, much more so than John Gavin’s square, conventional hero. The connection Norman has with Marion as she eats her sandwich in the parlor is real, or at least real enough to convince her to return the stolen money, and it fools us temporarily into thinking that this movie will be an adventure involving these two shy souls. Because what defines Norman isn’t his insanity, or even his mother issues, but his loneliness. As he says wistfully to Marion: “Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies. They moved away the highway.”

Which is only to say that in Norman, we’re confronted with a weird, distorted image of our own introversion, with his teenager’s room and Beethoven’s Eroica on the record player. Other memorable villains force us to confront other aspects of ourselves by taking these tendencies to their murderous conclusion. Hannibal Lecter is a strange case, since he’s so superficially seductive, and he was ultimately transformed into the hero of his own series. What he really represents, though, is aestheticism run amok. We’d all love to have his tastes in books, music, and food—well, maybe not entirely the latter—but they come at the price of his complete estrangement from all human connection, or an inability to regard other people as anything other than items on a menu. Sometimes, it’s literal; at others, it’s figurative, as he takes an interest in Will Graham or Clarice Starling only to the extent that they can relieve his boredom. Lecter, we’re told, eats only the rude, but “rude” can have two meanings, and for the most part, it ends up referring to those too lowly or rough to meet his own high standards. (Bryan Fuller, to his credit, has given us multiple reminders of how psychotic Lecter’s behavior really is.)

Kevin Spacey in Seven

And if Lecter cautions us against the perversion of our most refined impulses, Jack Torrance represents the opposite: “The susceptible imagination,” as David Thomson notes, “of a man who lacks the skills to be a writer.” Along with so much else, The Shining is the best portrait of a writer we have on film, because we can all relate to Jack’s isolation and frustration. The huge, echoing halls of the Overlook are as good a metaphor as I’ve ever seen for writer’s block or creative standstill: you’re surrounded by gorgeous empty spaces, as well as the ghosts of your own ambitions, and all you can manage to do is bounce a tennis ball against the wall, again and again and again. There isn’t a writer who hasn’t looked at a pile of manuscript and wondered, deep down, if it isn’t basically the same as the stack of pages that Jack Torrance lovingly ruffles in his climactic scene with Wendy, and whenever I tell people what I’m working on at the moment, I can’t help but hear a whisper of Jack’s cheerful statement to Ullman: “I’m outlining a new writing project, and five months of peace is just what I want.”

There’s another monster who gets at an even darker aspect of the writer’s craft: John Doe in Seven. I don’t think there’s another horror movie that binds the process of its own making so intimately to the villain’s pathology: Seven is so beautifully constructed and so ingenious that it takes us a while to realize that John Doe is essentially writing the screenplay. Andrew Kevin Walker’s script was sensational enough to get him out of a job at Tower Records, but despite the moral center that Morgan Freeman’s character provides, it’s hard to escape the sense that the film delights more in its killer’s cleverness, which can’t be separated from the writer’s. Unlike Jack Torrance, John Doe is superbly good at what he does, and he’s frightening primarily as an example of genius and facility without heart. The impulse that pushes him to use human lives as pieces in his masterpiece of murder is only the absurdist conclusion of the tendency in so many writers, including me, to treat violence as a narrative tool, a series of marks that the plot needs to hit to keep the story moving. I’m not saying that the two are morally equivalent. But Seven—even in its final limitations, which Fincher later went on to explode in Zodiac—is still a scary film for any writer who ever catches himself treating life and death as a game.

Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2014 at 9:01 am

The eye of the octopus

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Snowpiercer

A genre evolves like anything else: when you’re looking only at the finished result, it seems inevitable, but it’s really the product of a long process of trial and error that could have gone any number of ways. The genres that we’ve come to know best—the romantic comedy, the action movie, the horror film—are a little like the human eye. Proponents of intelligent design like to point to the human eye as proof of a divine watchmaker, since it seems intuitively ridiculous that so intricate a machine could have emerged through time and chance alone. Really, though, the eye evolved through a series of intermediate stages, each of which conferred its own advantage, and if you were setting out to build an eye from first principles, you’d never have designed it backwards and upside-down. Even if we’re happy with our eyes in their current form, it’s possible to conceive of alternate versions, like the eye of the octopus, which evolved along independent lines. And since we’re so accustomed to the eyes we use, it requires a real effort of the imagination to conceive of anything different.

The same holds true for genres. Like the eye, genres originate as a series of solutions to specific problems, and the best ideas—all of which emerge from the needs of individual authors tackling particular stories—are gathered, codified, and packaged over time. Horror provides a good example. The quintessential slasher film is as ritualized as kabuki: you’ve got a masked killer, a series of nubile teenage victims, the jump scare, the use of sexual behavior as a proxy for guilt or survival, and the moment when the killer seems dead but probably isn’t. Part of the pleasure of watching a horror movie with a large audience is our shared knowledge of those beats, which have accumulated over decades with countless refinements: Psycho laid the groundwork, with an assist from Peeping Tom, while Halloween codified the standard and its successors raised the bar for gore. It all seems weirdly logical, but it isn’t, and it’s only when we look back at its successive stages that we realize how many other turns the genre could have taken. Why the mask? Why teenagers? Well, why not?

Human eye and octopus eye

And the best way to appreciate the role of chance is to look at films from different cultures, in which genres have evolved features that seem incongruous to Western audiences but perfectly reasonable within the context in which they arose. We might find it strange for the protagonists of an epic crime thriller to pause for a musical number, but that’s part of the package in Bollywood. (A visitor from another culture might find it equally odd that an otherwise hardbitten cop in a Hollywood movie would pause to deliver a one-liner just before dispatching the villain.) I’ve always been fascinated by the movies of South Korea, which seem to have emerged out of a fantastically different conception of what kinds of conventions and ideas can exist comfortably within the same story. I’ve never seen a Korean film—from Oldboy to The Host to Nowhere to Hide—that didn’t seesaw radically from one tone to another, with slapstick giving way to surrealism and ultraviolence. And they serve as a vivid reminder of the constraints and limitations we’ve accepted in our storytelling without knowing it.

Constraints aren’t necessarily a bad thing: genres assume a certain shape because they do a decent job of solving the problems that stories present, and there’s no shame in doing good work within a genre that we’ve come to know well. But I’m still grateful for a movie like Snowpiercer, the English-language debut of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, which I finally caught over the weekend. Snowpiercer is all the more striking because it’s being promoted as a straightforward dystopian action movie, only to spiral off on increasingly strange tangents as its protagonists move closer to the front of its titular train. Around the halfway mark, I realized that I didn’t know what to expect from one scene to the next, and that collision between the movie and the expectations aroused by its marketing campaign—which will always strive to fit a film into familiar categories, no matter how unconventional the actual product—results in a weird, giddy ride. It isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s teeming with ideas, and I expect it to stick in my head longer than most conventional entertainments. For the most part, I’m happy to look through the eyes I have, but it’s good to remember from time to time that there are other ways to see.

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August 11, 2014 at 9:49 am

The Layla effect

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Derek and the Dominos

I don’t think there’s a more powerful moment in all of rock music than the transition between the two halves of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos. For three minutes, we’ve been living near the heart of a man’s romantic and sexual agony: the critic Dave Marsh calls it one of those rare songs in which “a singer or writer has reached so deeply into himself that the effect of hearing them is akin to witnessing a murder or a suicide.” Then there’s a trailing off, a pause, and we’re launched into Jim Gordon’s transcendent piano coda, which takes over the rest of the track and leads us triumphantly to the end. It’s unclear how the two halves are meant to relate, or whether the coda is the sound of love fulfilled or abandoned, but the juxtaposition of the two movements creates an effect that is far more profound than either of them taken separately. The result is a song that has obsessed me—and so many others—from the moment I first heard it, to the point where I’ve written much of my current novel with “Layla” playing in the background.

This sort of synergy, in which two seemingly unrelated components are set side by side to create a larger whole, is such a powerful artistic tool that it deserves special consideration. Some of the most memorable pop songs ever written, from “Hey Jude” to “Dry the Rain,” consist of two contrasting halves joined together in a way that only seems more mysterious with time. In many cases, the pieces weren’t originally meant to go together at all: the piano coda to “Layla” was composed as a separate piece, and was joined to the first half—which had already been written and recorded—when Clapton happened to hear Gordon playing it in the studio one day. These sorts of decisions may seem like serendipity, but they’re really an expression of craft on a deeper level: I suspect that Clapton intuitively sensed that the song was incomplete without some form of resolution, and that he seized on the coda as the missing piece he needed, precisely because it seemed like a dispatch from a different world entirely.

Faye Wong in Chungking Express

We see this effect in other forms of art as well. I mentioned recently that many of Shakespeare’s most resonant plots—from The Merchant of Venice to King Lear—arise from the combination or juxtaposition of two previously unrelated storylines. There’s no better example of this than The Winter’s Tale, the most beautiful and mysterious of the late romances, which moves from a tragedy of sexual jealousy in Sicily to the gentlest of pastoral comedies in Bohemia. (It’s a transition that may work better on the page than in performance: the production I saw several years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, directed by Sam Mendes, did a fine job with the tormented first half, but turned the second half into an aimless hootenanny. As usual, comedy is harder to stage than tragedy, and this is never more clear than when one follows right after the other.) On a more calculated level, we find a similar transition halfway through Psycho: I’ve seen this movie countless times, and I still get a chill when I first glimpse the sign of the Bates Motel through the rain, which reminds me of which movie I’m really watching.

On one level, the impact of such juxtapositions is easy to explain: creativity, as Arthur Koestler points out in The Act of Creation, is about combinations, and when two contrasting pieces are set side by side, it’s no surprise that elements of the first half can bring out unsuspected qualities of the other. (You often see this in visual art, which has long been familiar with the power of the diptych.) But that doesn’t tell us why the pieces can vibrate so memorably in certain cases, while in others they just tend to lie there—or why two unrelated pieces are so much more effective than three, even as the rule of three works so powerfully in other contexts. A work of three parts, with its tidy tripod of effects, can come across as a piece of artistic calculation, or like the three stages of an argument, while two implies something deeper. There’s no better example than Chungking Express, with its two parallel stories of policemen in love: Wong Kar-Wai originally planned to tell three, but only had time for two, an accident for which we can all be profoundly grateful. Three stories would have come across as a narrative device, while two seem like life itself, and like the coda for “Layla,” it feels as if it could go on and on.

The bomb under the table

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In the classic study Hitchcock/Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock offers up a moment of insight so profound that it’s been quoted endlessly ever since, which won’t stop me from quoting it once again:

Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it…In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the secret.

Hitchcock concludes: “In the first case, we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.”

This advice, as simple as it sounds, should be tattooed behind the eyeballs of all serious writers of horror and suspense, but today it’s strangely neglected. These days, thrillers seem obsessed by surprise, seeking out increasingly ludicrous twist endings, even if they make nonsense of everything that came before. For every movie like The Sixth Sense or The Others that retrospectively enriches the story with a closing revelation, we have a movie like Perfect Stranger, in which the audience’s only response is an incredulous “Really?” When something like this works, there’s an undeniable frisson of excitement, but usually, all it does is sacrifice fifteen minutes of suspense—or more—for fifteen seconds of surprise, which is mathematically unsound.

But it isn’t just about the numbers. Suspense is preferable to surprise, as Hitchcock notes, because it actively involves the audience in the telling of a story, until they aren’t just spectators, but participants. In a perfectly constructed work of suspense, like The Wages of Fear or A History of Violence, we aren’t watching passively, but caught up in both plot and artistic technique, and constantly telling stories to ourselves about what might happen next. This kind of anticipation is the best kind of interactivity that fiction affords. As I’ve noted before, transferring the twist in Vertigo from the end of the film to the start of the third act contributes enormously to that movie’s power. And one of the most potent discoveries in all of literature, dating back to Greek tragedy, is that there’s no better way of identifying with a protagonist, paradoxically, than by knowing something that he doesn’t.

The sweetest thing of all, of course, is to combine both suspense and surprise: to allow the audience to anticipate, suspensefully, what will happen next, before surprising them with an unexpected outcome. In comedy, this can be something like what writers on The Simpsons call a “screw the audience” joke, as when Homer, on the run from the police, ducks into a costume shop—in order to hide in the bathroom. In a thriller or horror movie, this reversal of expectations can be almost indecently satisfying. Psycho does this beautifully, as does The Silence of the Lambs, but even a lesser film can occasionally pull it off: the quiet scene between Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz in Unknown is a small masterpiece of reversed expectations in an otherwise shoddy movie. But even a stopped ticking clock is right twice a day.

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