I’ve seen both of the main winners at this year’s Academy Awards, Gravity and 12 Years A Slave – and I came away from both of them feeling just a bit underwhelmed. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those “Why the Oscars suck!” posts, not least because I don’t really feel particularly invested in them to begin with. What I want to talk about instead is this: expectations.
With 12 Years A Slave, I went in expecting to be as much bowled over as I was with Hunger and Shame. I was stunned when I caught Hunger on TV a couple of years ago; his visual language and his storytelling, combined with Fassbender’s amazing performance (is the guy ever any less than very good?), struck me as something I’d never seen. Shame built on this, engaging me both emotionally and intellectually in a way that’s rare in films. 12 Years A Slave is by no means a bad film, in fact it’s very good, a beautiful example of moviemaking craft on all fronts – but it didn’t stun me. It felt less unique than McQueen’s previous films.
Gravity, too, is an exquisitely crafted film. It’s been criticised for being (allegedly) thematically shallow, all spectacle and no substance – which I don’t agree with. No, my beef with Gravity is this: I watched the trailer on a large screen in HD, and it pulled me in, evoking a real dread of floating in outer space, untethered, with nothing there but stars that are trillions of miles away. It’s not that the film itself didn’t summon this dread, but it didn’t build on it: basically the thing I liked best about the film was already there in the trailer. More so, actually, because it was distilled into two minutes. It doesn’t help that I’m not a big Sandra Bullock fan, finding her bland rather than relatable, but mainly my disappointment was similar to what I felt after 12 Years A Slave. I was disappointed, not because the films were bad, but because they didn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, meet my expectations.
In some ways I think those expectations weren’t entirely fair, if fairness indeed comes into the matter. If I hadn’t seen and been so receptive for that particular Gravity trailer, the actual film might have wowed me more thoroughly. If I hadn’t been stunned by Hunger and Shame, I might not have expected 12 Years A Slave to be stunning in that particular way, and this in turn might have allowed me to appreciate it more for what it was rather than being disappointed at what it wasn’t. Then again, without the trailer I might not have gone to see Gravity to begin with; I might not have gone to see 12 Years A Slave at the cinema just because of Chiwetel Ejiofor (no doubt a great actor, but I don’t go to the cinema just because of a particular actor).
How many films could I have appreciated more if it hadn’t been for very specific expectations? And how do you manage your expectations anyway? I’m not sure I could, or would want to, watch a trailer and go, “Yeah, fantastic trailer, but I’m sure the film won’t live up to it. I’ll go and see it, but ho hum…” I want to be enthusiastic about things, I want to have that feeling of anticipation – and when such expectations aren’t just met but surpassed, it feels amazing. If anything, the problem may not be how much I expect but how specific my expectations are.
Anyway: sometimes when I rewatch films that underwhelmed me the first time, I enjoy them all the more the second time around. I’m sure that in a couple of years’ time Film Four will show 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, just in time for Cuaron and McQueen’s latest works – and if I go to see them expecting to be just a bit disappointed and underwhelmed, perhaps I’ll come away enjoying them all the more.