I still vividly remember going to see “Super Bad” back in my senior year of high school with my friends who were kind enough to chauffeur me to an opening-night screening in the wake of my wisdom-teeth removal. For weeks leading up to the release, I must have watched the unrated “redband” trailer on YouTube over a dozen times and was bombarded with the abbreviated television-ad even more frequently. When I finally got to see the flick, I obviously laughed my ass off (the pain killers from my surgery the day before made sure of that). However, I couldn’t help but feel like I would have enjoyed the movie significantly more if I had gone into it without seeing its best jokes excerpted and played out of context, over and over. I knew what to expect. I was perpetually waiting for the punch lines and the memorable plot points I knew were coming, trying to place them into the narrative still unfolding.
Trying to connect the dots like that when you go in with so much information about a movie feels subconscious and inevitable. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t forget what I already know about a movie. And as a result, it often seems as if my perspective is inescapably clouded.
That’s one of the things I love most about film festival screenings. Despite their often uncomfortable venues, they offer certain fantastic features that you just can’t get anywhere else—accessible Q&A sessions with the director, writer and/or the cast; opportunities to see films that will not see mainstream distribution for a year, longer or maybe not at all. And perhaps the most under-appreciated benefit provided by the festival setting: the chance to see films without knowing literally anything about them going in. Especially with festivals like South by Southwest and Sundance that happen earlier in the year, when most films have not been seen anywhere else. Often, the only information offered to audiences is a vague, single-line description that is notoriously regularly unrepresentative of the actual move you’ll be seeing.
As I write this, I’m in the process of sojourning down to Austin, Texas, for the first day of the SXSW Film Festival. I’ll be seeing a plethora of indie movies lacking any and all preconceived notions about them, and will surely enjoy them all the more for it. But in the real world, it isn’t entirely impossible to dodge spoilers about such indie flicks, as they largely don’t advertise, so you likely won’t be subjected to any information you don’t seek out yourself. However, big-budget Hollywood movies are another matter entirely. With the endless cavalcade of ads plastered all over TV and the Internet, spoilers are almost inevitable without dedicating yourself to life as a reclusive hermit, living under that rock somewhere everyone likes to talk about. That’s where SXSW offers an interesting opportunity every year with their Super Secret Screening.
Each iteration of SXSW features at least one of these screenings, usually a highly anticipated Hollywood release hitting theaters in the near future. This year, rumored identities of the secret flick have ranged from Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers,” to “The Hunger Games,” or even Ridley Scott’s eagerly anticipated Alien-prequel out this summer “Prometheus.” However, viewers can never know quite what to expect, considering that last year’s screening was widely expected to be the upcoming Marvel superhero film “Thor,” and ended up revealing the low-budget indie sci-fi flick “Another Earth,” featuring the multi-talented writer/actress Brit Marling. The lovely film certainly won over my devotion last year at Sundance, and gauging by Twitter reactions, it did the same to surprised audiences at SXSW.
It may seem like a herculean task to escape the onslaught of ads, trailers, reviews, summaries, descriptions and previews for movies these days, but if one somehow manages to, the cinematic experience is unrivaled. There is no truer suspense, no purer intrigue, than of the truly unknown. So do yourself a favor: Next time you’re about to watch the trailer for a movie your friend wants to go see, stop yourself and just go with it.