Fooling Expectations

Suspense in action

By the time the car pulls off the lot and drives down the road, I was more terrified than I had ever been by a movie. The beginning of Psycho had my guts wrestling my fast-beating heart for room in my throat. And yet nothing scary has happened yet at that point in the movie.

Such is a master of suspense.

The whole movie is about expectation. As pure cinema, it isn’t the best movie ever made. It isn’t great because of its acting. Or dialogue. Others have done it better. But damn, did it scare me.

Sitting there, twenty years-old, I was scared before I had seen anything scary. This was in part because of the way the story was told. And a bigger part was that I knew what genre the film was in: that it is, by definition, a “scary movie”. Most of all, I knew about the movie and its ubiquitous shower scene. I knew the very way this movie would scare me. I had much different expectations than a “pure” viewing would have.

The problem we have with art today is about expectations. Wrong and pig-headed expectations. Even though I self-identify as a hipster, I have also come to despise the cult of cool. That sense that everything has to pass a certain style test. Or originality test. Unless it is genre, then it, by definition can’t be original. Unless it is an original take on the genre. That’s a cool original. Mess with your expectations. Like a mobster who goes to therapy. Original, but not.

Defining art as originality

I still remember the first deep conversation of college. It was with my friend, Dave. Dave is the sort of friend that is always everyone’s favorite friend. We all wanted time with him. And for me, I got hooked on the deep conversations from the beginning.

We talked about art and music and film and literature. We had both grown up in artsy families, but we had strikingly different understandings of art. For me, art was simply any creative expression. My postmodern sensibility (before I knew what postmodern was) told me that there is no such thing as a truly new thing—except that there is a pure moment of inspiration that is individual and from which we create something. Something that has aesthetic character and meaning.

Dave believed art is not about expression, but of originality. Crafting something beautiful does not make it art, but making something unique is.

His definition of art challenged my 17 year-old mind as it would continue to challenge the next half of my life.

Photo by Carole Segal/AMC
Photo by Carole Segal/AMC

Expectations kill art

I’m devoted to The Killing. I have loved it from the first scene to the last one Sunday night. It thrills me and chills me. It always leaves me begging.

It does this because it uses genre to tell a non-genre story.

It is also far from perfect. It may seem derivative. But so is the cult of cool. So is the hypocrisy of the professional critic. Who hates formula unless it is a formula she likes. Who demands his expectations be met, then trashes the show for meeting them. Who prefers comfort and tidiness from a serial TV show, but complains when other serials wrap up too many loose ends.

The critical wisdom about Twin Peaks was that they never should have revealed who killed Laura Palmer. Not that they had a choice. The network demanded they do what they never planned to do. Then they canceled the show anyway. The Killing brilliantly took that lessen to heart. Then it got punished for it.

So many shows have mined this territory before, which means viewers have built up a bevy of expectations. Most of them ridiculous. Most of them expectations that no one really wants. We don’t want to be strung along, but we are never happy with the solving of the riddle. Our favorite part is that tension…will they? When? How?

The best part is living in the expectations: that incredibly complex web of expectations in which shows are supposed to have resolutions and cliffhangers at the same time. That are supposed to be messy and tidy. Original, but stick to the formula. Predictable, but unpredictable (but never too unpredictable because then we say it jumped the shark). Just predictable enough, I suppose. That we can see opaquely what is coming—where that car is going to end up. Who is going to be there. What is going to happen to her.

And when she gets there, do we trust the show? Have we really watched it? Have we noticed her character? Do we see her, in that moment, enacting the natural response, truly characteristic moment of all that happened in her life? Is this what she would do?

Or do we throw it away and call it derivative. Predictable. Are we so cool that we can’t admit that in those final climactic moments, we know what will happen next? Not because we saw something in a movie once or because there is a convention that says this is what happens here, but because that is what she would do?

That the beauty of such a flawed show that somehow feels flawed despite unparalleled acting, writing, pacing, and storytelling, is that it is actually not after all, a genre show about homicide detectives, with all the accompanying expectations that go with it, but that it is a character-driven one that tells us about these characters in this environment—not platitudes about the human condition or cheap attempts to manipulate the audience.

We have watched the show all wrong.

Perhaps this is why The Killing is as far removed from Psycho as it is from Mad Men. That it is genre and not. It is rebellious and conforming to expectations. It confounds and infuriates the viewer because the one thing it refuses to be is neat and tidy and perfect and lovable.

Loving the broken

Regular readers know I love shoegazing. The genre’s music is defined by the strange synthesis of bright with the dark and the melodic with the challenging. Poppy vocals flutter above the chugging guitars. I also love its precursors, which include the dreampop of The Cocteau Twins and the ear-splitting noise of Sonic Youth.

What I determined in my younger days was a sense about art that it needn’t be beautiful, though we often gravitate to that. And it needn’t be perfect, though we marvel at that. It needn’t be first, because sometimes first is utter crap. It needs to be profound. It needs to effect (not just affect).

Art isn’t just butterflies and rainbows (though right now some of my favorite pieces are). I have a little artist whose talent is incredible and her imagination is fathomless. It gets to me.

Good art gets to you. Good art moves you.

We are given the gifts to experience art. Not just receive it, but to make it. We are created to live art, not to be coolly detached from it.

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  1. Rebecca Owsley says

    …I just discovered The Killing, when it was referred to me a couple of weeks ago–caught up as much as they’d let me via On Demand before the season conclusion…mesmerizing; lots to chew on between and after episodes.

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