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The Disappearance of Suspense
Lately I’ve been lamenting the absence of genuine suspense in our present-day cinema, especially in the Horror genre. I’m worried that it’s getting to be a lost art, or at least, a lost portion from the cinematic form.
The cynical side of me suspects that the recent generations of filmmakers have stopped spending time learning from “the great ones,” the pioneering filmmakers of the 20th century. I’m worried that black and white film has scared them away.
But I have a more likely theory: I believe we’ve lost genuine suspense with the advent of computer-generated imagery (CGI). Because we’re now able to conjure any being or environs out of thin air, I think the erroneous but pervasive belief must be that we don’t need to spend time “building up” to something; we can just make it happen right now.
Hence, the death of suspense.
Let me tell you a few things about the man we call “The Master of Suspense.”
Alfred Hitchcock worked in the cinema for 50 years. During that time, his efforts spanned silent film and sound films. Hitchcock worked in three different countries for various studios, and he worked independently. Here are just a few of his greatest works. If you haven’t seen any of them, consider them “must-sees”:
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Rear Window (1954)
North by Northwest (1959)
The Birds (1963)
This has been a long-winded preamble, but I was attempting to keep my readers in suspense, despite the computer-generated imagery that you’re reading.
Here is a remarkable explanation where Hitchcock plainly explains the difference between suspense and surprise. He said:
“There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise,’ and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.
“We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence.
“Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.
“The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you, and it is about to explode!’ “In the first case, we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that, whenever possible, the public must be informed, except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.” —Alfred Hitchcock
Jason again: From the Master himself, that is the difference between surprise and suspense.
If you’d like to study this matter on a much more in-depth, much more scholarly level, then I’d recommend reading the greatest living film scholar, David Bordwell.
If this blog article was even remotely interesting to you, please know that we have a weekly movie podcast where we review new movies that are in theaters every single Wednesday. Last week we reviewed “Pixels,” “Southpaw” and “Paper Towns.” And this upcoming week we’ll be reviewing “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” (2015). Join us free on iTunes or here at Movie Podcast Weekly.com.
Postlude and Dedication
Today is August 1, the 57th birthday of one of my all-time favorite teachers in life: Dr. Rick Moody. He taught me Film History and Intro to Film classes, and I loved the latter so much that I still attended his class (while in significant pain) on the very same day I had heart surgery and was released from the hospital. His class was that good to me. I didn’t miss it for anything. 10 out of 10.
In honor of Dr. Moody’s birthday and his greatness, I’m going to provide a couple of my all-time favorite Dr. Moody quotes from his class (which I wrote down verbatim), and I’ve written the short article above about suspense, as taught by The Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Happy birthday, Dr. Moody.
Regarding “Jurassic Park”: “I’m OK with little kids being torn apart by dinosaurs, but not everyone is…” — Dr. Moody
Regarding Meryl Streep: “Do you dress up like her when you watch her movies? … ‘Cause I do.” — Dr. Moody
Regarding “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”: “If you’re good enough at Kung Fu, you can fly.” — Dr. Moody
Regarding “The Real World” TV show: “I know all their names, and they’re all my friends.” — Dr. Moody
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