Untouched by the Movies - Pacific Standard

Untouched by the Movies

What effect does a film's trailer—and the expectations it sets up—have on our experience in the theater?
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Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in 2014’s Wild. (Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in 2014’s Wild. (Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures)

A few weeks ago I went to see Wild, the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail while she was battling drug and sex addiction and grieving her beloved mother’s death. When the lights came up and the credits started rolling, a chorus of sniffles indicated a collective cathartic reaction in the theater. The row of middle-aged women in front of me wiped away tears in unison, the couple across the aisle held each other tenderly, and I witnessed a woman silently sobbing as her companion rubbed her back and handed her tissues. Meanwhile, I walked out dry-eyed, bored, and, frankly, a bit hungry.

I was surprised to feel so untouched, especially since I had read several reviews that lauded the film’s depth, like from the New York Times and Variety. I’ve been a longtime fan of Strayed and have teared up on more than one occasion while reading her advice column for the Rumpus, Dear Sugar. And, though I’m loathe to admit it, I cry fairly easily at movies, my low point being while watching What to Expect When You’re Expecting on a plane. (In my defense, This American Life did cover that phenomenon in a 2011 episode. Thanks Ira.)

I even left Amour, the Academy Award-winning film about a man watching his elderly wife disintegrate physically and mentally, thinking “Well, I thought that would’ve been sadder.” Am I a sociopath?

I went into Wild expecting to have an emotional release and was let down. But then I recalled a similar result when I saw Blue Valentine—a film that numerous friends described to me as “the most depressing film ever.” I expected to be devastated, and was entirely underwhelmed. I even left Amour, the Academy Award-winning film about a man watching his elderly wife disintegrate physically and mentally, thinking “Well, I thought that would’ve been sadder.” Am I a sociopath? Or was setting myself up to expect an emotional reaction during a film dulling my actual reaction?

I spoke to Uri Hasson, an associate professor of psychology at Princeton University who specializes in neurocinematics, hoping that he could provide a scientific basis to what I was experiencing. “If we have expectations,” he says, “it affects the way we think of stuff.” But his research proved quite the opposite of what I was experiencing.

Hasson and his team performed a study with roughly 40 participants, utilizing a J.D. Salinger short story that could have two vastly different interpretations. One group of participants heard one interpretation and the second heard the alternate while in a brain scanner. The scientists “used support vector machine code to look for brain areas that responded differently as a function of context.” For the most part, their opinion of the meaning of the story would correlate with the interpretation they were presented with at the beginning of the experiment.

Afterwards, the researchers interviewed subjects without knowing which story interpretation they had initially been presented with. After looking at brain scans showing activity in the subjects who listened to the story, the researchers were able to predict which interpretation the subject had heard with 70 to 80 percent accuracy.

Movie trailers function in a similar way—and so Hasson believes that “a good trailer is for a movie you want to see but you’re confused ... we’re very sensitive machines, so everything matters.” There is a hierarchy in terms of how different forms of media skew expectation. Most influential is when one’s already seen the movie they’re re-watching, while seeing the trailer provides more context than hearing about the movie from friends or reading reviews.

We’re constantly bombarded with hype and press promoting films, so it can be difficult to avoid seeing a trailer before seeing a movie in its entirety (especially if you’re a regular theatergoer)—but knowing that the trailer could impact his viewing, Hasson tries to avoid them as much as possible. He mentioned that, a few nights before we met, he saw a movie without knowing anything about it and thought it was excellent. It turned out to be Wild.

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