Surprise Me

As someone working in comedy, I’m all too familiar with how comforted people are by hearing exactly what they expect to hear – think of any joke you’ve ever heard on Radio 4 – but I also know that beyond that safety, in the transcendence of surprise, bigger laughs are to be had. They just come at the risk of failure – the audience won’t get it, or, even worse, they just won’t like it.

In an era of safety, sequels and superheroes in cinema, I think the urge to push through to that moment of surprise and enlightenment is missing – even in arty, intellectual fare. In the card game cribbage, the ‘box’ – the secret hand made up of cards from everyone at the table – is most likely to contain points from the dealer, because they get to add them to their own score. So in the excitement of this potential goldmine, getting ‘what you knew of’ – the points you put in and no others – in the box is a disappointment. I’m going to see brilliantly-reviewed films, getting ‘what I knew of’, and feeling disappointed. Yeah, I went all out for a cribbage analogy; that, at least, is a surprise.

Maybe cinema would be more impressive and surprising if we knew less about it before we got to the screen, but in this social networking age, filmmakers are deluding themselves if they think that’s where we’re at. And I don’t think they are – although sometimes the Academy certainly seem to think that way. Boyhood, for example, was widely lauded, because Richard Linklater filmed Ella’s Coltrane in real time, a couple of weeks a year, as he grew up. Well I knew that about the film, and sat down to it thinking ‘what else have you got’. Some light soap opera and an unlikely story arc for Ethan Hawke, as it turned out, but everyone lapped it up; apparently everyone was happy to be amazed by what they knew of.

Now La La Land is perhaps about to sweep the Oscars, and as far as I can see, the thing people are mad for is that it’s a proficient musical. I’m sorry if proficient sounds harsh, but I challenge you to sit down and watch Singin’ in the Rain and La La Land back to back and say the latter is a comparable classic. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling don’t put a foot wrong, and the music all works perfectly, but surely at the green light stage those things were considered entry level requirements; what else have you got?

It’s not just Oscar fare. T2: Trainspotting is a beautifully crafted sequel to Trainspotting – but that is all it is. I’m after the transcendence of surprise. Am I asking too much? Maybe – T2 really was good; what was it that I wanted that wasn’t there?

I think perhaps, in these straitened cinematic times, where the auteur-led films are subconsciously playing it safe, the shackles of the franchises can sometimes lead to inspiration. I’ve talked previously about the surprising wonders of Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was all kinds of new; most recently Rogue One has ploughed a very familiar furrow and come up smelling of surprises. But – apart from their obvious cultural limitations as money-making entertainments – the real trick with these films was actually backward-looking; put simply, they snuck old genres up on us – Shane Black films, 70s conspiracy thrillers, and World War Two desperate mission films, respectively.

Where is the film that shows me what I expected to see – and much more? I’m still waiting. But then, I haven’t seen The Lobster yet.

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