….that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art
– Walter Benjamin
This question came to me recently as I pondered the relevance of a “news” story I read about the production of the remake of Stephen King’s horror novel, It. The article purported to reveal the new look of the infamous villain, Pennywise. Being slightly interested, I clicked on the article. What followed was a report on a series of Instagram posts by the film’s director, Andy Muschietti, teasing images synonymous with Tommy Lee Wallace’s original television adaptation, as well as the film’s logo on a director’s chair, and then the money shot: a crude pen sketch of a demonic head on the front of a marble notebook.
The article goes on to say that this drawing may have no correlation to the film or the character whatsoever, but, man is it scary looking!
This got me thinking, did I need to know this information? Don’t get me wrong, I know the article was meant to generate clicks and nothing more (kudos, you got mine!) but I still have to question its mere existence. Film speculation, fan theories, and teasers are firmly entrenched in the digital space of film coverage. These tactics are used by websites to generate traffic, and also by studios to manufacture interest in their properties. In this instance, the website gets the clicks of curious genre fans and the studio gets positive attention cast upon its troubled production (the original director attached, True Detective helmer Cary Fukunaga, left the production after disagreeing with the studio’s vision for the film).
The same could be said of the recent reveal that a Star Trek character, Sulu, will be openly gay in the newest film. Did I need to know this before seeing the film? It generates interest, but at what cost? Think of how much power the revealing moment just lost by informing the audience before they see it.
No matter the intention of the coverage, this type of article affects the aura of the film, which in turn influences expectations.
This begs me to ask another question: what would my expectations be if this information was never written? I’m aware the all-consuming masses don’t regularly visit film sites that report this news on a daily basis, but with the far-reaching arms of social media wrapping around the whole of the population, most people are bound to find out sooner or later.
Think about the effect Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho had on the audience when they first saw it. The shower scene was a shocking experience that truly scared audiences. And I have to think part of this is because people had no idea what to expect, aside from another suspenseful film from the master of suspense. The scene had a different kind of teaser, which was revolutionary at the time. The trailer for the film was a 6-minute Bates Motel walk-through with Hitchcock, himself. He took a tour through the motel and the Bates’ house and ratcheted up tension by pointing out the locations of the murders, important places within the two buildings, and areas where revealing clues might be found. The end of the trailer teases the shower scene perfectly without the revealing anything but a moment from the scene.
Here’s the trailer:
Consider that. How many directors could tell the audience exactly what was going to happen in a horror film, but still manage to scare the bajeesus out of everyone who saw it? Filmmakers forget it isn’t the horrifying act, necessarily, that makes things scary, it’s the action plus the way it’s shot, written, scored, lit, and acted.
So, I ask, what would our movie experience be like if we didn’t have the internet to spoil things for us? Modern trailers (most of which appear online before television) show most, if not all, of the story and beats of the film. Genre films tend to show the audience exactly what they are about to see: we know who the villain is and what they look like, the major action set-pieces, the climactic battle, etc.
The worst example of this is the conventions such as the San Diego Comic-Con, and Disney’s D-23 Expo. All of the major studios book presentation Halls to literally give away parts of their most coveted films, most of which gets published on the internet shortly thereafter for all to
Imagine if audiences went into Captain America: Civil War not knowing Spider-Man was going to show up, or not knowing which heroes were going to choose to be on Team Cap or Team Iron Man. Every trailer showed some footage from the big fight on the airport runway, as well as the Bucky-Cap vs. Iron Man fight at the end. If they just teased us with the concept that Cap and Tony were going to be on opposite sides of a fight and the rest of the heroes were going to have to choose a side, wouldn’t that be enough? Hell, my girlfriend and I saw that movie wearing matching shirts with the hero line-ups of both Teams. Spoilers are marketable now.
Those action scenes are still gloriously fun to watch, and they get away with it because the action is so well shot, but they lack an element of authenticity and true awe from the audience. There’s a restlessness in the audience who expects to see these familiar moments, as opposed to an excitement from an audience that doesn’t know what to expect. Psycho audiences had the luxury of being in the latter camp.
I understand completely that trailers are a major marketing tool and they’re used to generate excitement, which has been monetized in our digital age. Writers, websites, and studios make a living off of this type of marketing. The earlier they can get the excitement going, the more money can be made. But, this monetizing has stripped film of a different kind of aura: we know what to expect, how to expect it, and when to expect it.
Think about sitting down in a movie theater on September 18th, 2017. The title card pops up: Stephen King’s IT. In our age of mass media consumption, you will have seen countless trailers, read dozens of articles, set reports, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and possibly even seen whole scenes well before the film opens. In Hitchcock’s day, you’d be dying to know the answers to questions like: how terrifying is Pennywise going to look? What crazy shit will he do? How is he going to terrorize these kids? What will he sound like? Who is going to get killed? How will they stop him?
How does this process go in modern times? After you’ve seen all the promotional material the internet has to offer, you’ll sit down knowing the answer to most, if not all, of those questions and you’ll only have one question left: Any chance this lives up to my expectations?
Where’s the fun in that?