Friday, November 27, 2015

What to Expect When You're Expecting

In the last year, I heard a story on NPR that made the argument that people tend to enjoy a story more when they already know the ending (the example used was “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, in which the ending is a complete reversal from the first part of the story). This baffled me completely. In an age where finding out the ending to a new movie or book is as easy as reading the Wikipedia summary, is it possible that people now find endings meaningless? I mean, you can hardly read an online review without seeing an obnoxious “SPOILERS!!!1!!” tag. But on the Internet, people are infuriated when they accidentally read about a twist. So the sides must be split.

The basis for the argument is that when we know what is coming, it makes the journey to get there more special. Sort of like when a suspenseful moment rises in a horror movie, there is no surprise, but the excitement is still heightened. Sort of. I find it hard to believe that knowing (<spoiler> “Vader is Luke’s father” </spoiler>) in 1980 would have made Empire more enjoyable. It’s called ruining the plot for a reason. But, hey, I guess times change.

I got to thinking about this claim and realized that it is not an easy thing to prove. You cannot experience the same movie twice, once knowing the ending and once not knowing, so you would have no way of comparing the two experiences. Two people--one who has not seen the film, another who has--cannot compare their experiences; one person might simply like the movie better. It is a qualitative judgement call, anyway. There really is no good way to compare how enjoyable some piece of entertainment is based solely on knowing or not knowing the ending. But still, the question bothered me. For me, the best way to go about looking at this is to simply ruin the ending to a movie, short story, or video game. Then, hopefully, I would have some better understanding of this absurd claim.

Needless to say: warning, spoilers ahead.

* * *

I found the perfect movie to test this hypothesis, and you are going to laugh at it. I realized that I was the last person on Earth in 2015 who had not seen The Sixth Sense. I know what you’re thinking: that movie came out 15 years ago, and everyone saw it. A few people might even swear they saw it with me, but I have no recollection of it. It was the movie that established M. Night Shymalan as the king of suspenseful twists, a title he promptly lost in the years to come. It was one of the most talked-about movies of the time. I just never got around to it. I’ve been busy.

Of course, it is impossible to get to this point, even having not seen the movie to know the iconic line, “I see dead people.” So, I surmised what this meant in the context of what I knew about the film, and then read through a plot summary of the whole film. Generally, I had the main points correct. All I needed to see now was the execution.

With the details fresh in mind, I watched through the movie and truly enjoyed myself. I picked up on subtle hints about Bruce Willis’s character, because I was acutely looking for them. The discreet hints were a little more obvious, but I appreciated them in the way you feel upon rewatching a movie. And still, the intense moments were no less intense because I knew what would happen. I was watching a movie for the second time without having seen it the first time.

In the end, I obviously can’t say whether or not I would have liked the movie better if I was going in blind. On the contrary, the first time I watched Memento, I went in without knowing a thing about it, and had to watch it again immediately after finishing it. So, maybe there are really no ways to ruin a well-made, suspenseful film. All I can say is that fifteen years later, The Sixth Sense still holds up as a fine movie. I would give it a belated positive review, but you’ve already seen it, probably more than once.