This week’s question is one directly stemming from a debate among A.V. Club staffers:
What pop culture experience has benefited from you going in blind, not knowing anything about what you’re going to see/hear/read/etc.?
In March 2010 a friend and I headed to the Downer Theatre in Milwaukee to see Chloe, the erotic thriller starring Amanda Seyfried as a sex worker who becomes entangled in Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson’s marriage. At least, that’s what the trailer makes it look like, but I can’t be sure because I never saw it. The Downer Theatre had taken Chloe out of rotation that day and replaced it with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Neither my friend nor I had heard of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy or seen trailers for the Swedish film, but we were at the theater anyway, so we went in blind. While David Fincher’s subsequent 2011 adaptation improved upon the 2009 original in almost every way, the Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist version is still a solid thriller. With no information from the trailer to provide the basic plot points and no visuals as to what I was about to see—violence, computer hacking, men bound and gagged, a creepy family, political intrigue—everything hit with more force, as I had absolutely no idea what would happen to Lisbeth and Mikael, and where they’d wind up. The twisting thriller is arguably one of the better genres to go into with no context, and it made the film that much more riveting.
I’m pretty sure I saw The Matrix in what might be its absolute perfect first-viewing environment: In the theater on its opening weekend, at age 15, with absolutely no idea of what I was about to see. (Admittedly, my mom was also there, which might count as a slight demerit. But since she was the sci-fi nerd who’d suggested we go see it, I can probably give her a pass.) The Wachowskis’ masterpiece has been diminished over the years by familiarity, over-analysis, and the outright theft of some of its best ideas, but sitting in the dark, taking in its mixture of Philosophy 101 weirdness, Hong Kong-lifted action choreography, and now-goofy trench-coated style, it did exactly what it was supposed to do to a teenage dork: It blew my fucking mind. It’s easy to forget, 20 years later, that “What is The Matrix?” was once a legitimate first-act twist, the moment when a dystopian hacker thriller becomes something far more sci-fi ambitious and strange. Knowing the answer to that central mystery (or even just being exposed to too many shots of the then-revolutionary action direction, which I’d somehow avoided in the run-up to the film’s release) would have robbed me of the all-important disorientation, fear, and wonder that made that first viewing such a world-shaking experience.
I can’t remember the last time I played a game without already knowing a ton about it, but generally, that’s not a huge problem: Controls and ideas carry from game to game. Conventions are strong; genres are sturdy. That was not the case on the day many years ago when I went to the house of a friend who had recently come into ownership of a Sega Saturn. We immediately gravitated toward the most evil-sounding game imaginable—Resident Evil—and proceeded to spend the remainder of the evening figuring out how you even moved in the game. (So, you just rotated? And you held a button to hold a gun? And you had to activate stairs?) A huge part of this was the fact that Resident Evil was inventing a new genre, but, for all the game’s legendary hamminess, it was still a genuinely terrifying experience. And when those dogs came crashing through the window in one of the game’s most famous scenes, I do not need to tell you how goddamn terrified we were.
I had just started working at The A.V. Club when A.A. Dowd walked over to my desk, plunked down a DVD screener of The Babadook, and said, “I think you’ll like this one.” This was before the movie came out in theaters, and way before the “Babadook as gay icon” meme, so while I had maybe read a couple hundred words about the film from a Sundance writeup (my geekiness about film festivals pre-dates being lucky enough to write about them professionally), beyond the fact that it was a horror movie about a mom, I didn’t really have any idea what I was in for. And reader, it scared the shit out of me. It freaked me out enough that I laid awake most of that night, waiting for a creature with a top hat and creaky voice to come creeping out of the shadows, something that rarely ever happens anymore. There seems to be an inverse relationship with this movie in particular between how much you’ve heard about it and how much you enjoy it, so I’m both glad to have seen The Babadook before the hype bubble burst, and apologize for my role in inflating that bubble. People who say it sucks are still wrong, though.
This phenomenon is especially powerful with music, where knowing nothing allows hooks to dig in deeper. I’ve had a few instances of just happening to see some band I didn’t know and walking away a convert. The best is probably the first: I was 16 when Sonic Youth came through my hometown on the Dirty tour. It was my first time seeing them, and even better, a beloved local band called the Pain Teens was opening, so my friends and I made sure to get there early. In the middle spot was a new band none of us had ever heard of: Pavement. I remember thinking three things during their set: 1) “What the hell is this?” 2) “Why is there a second percussionist guy?” and 3) “Holy shit this is awesome.” Their set stuck with me, and not just because Sonic Youth was a bit of a let-down. I immediately purchased Slanted And Enchanted and basically listened to it on repeat for the next few months.
The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild doesn’t have any plot worth spoiling, but it’s full of discoveries that are significantly more magical if you make them organically. The game gives the player very little direction, with the final goal—“Defeat Ganon”—popping up almost immediately, so it’s up to you to decide how to do everything. If you go in without seeing a single trailer, you can appreciate the way the developers guide your eyes to certain areas (like the mountain with a crack down the middle that makes a clear landmark) or the gameplay elements that add interesting wrinkles to how you play (like how metallic weapons attract lightning). Then there are moments, such as risking your life to prove you’re worthy of the iconic Master Sword, which you can only accomplish by trying and failing—unless you just look up the trick. Doing it one way is an intense and beautiful illustration of what makes the game a masterpiece, doing it the other way reduces it to a boring puzzle.
As an internet-savvy teen during the explosion of file-sharing sites and album leaks, I hardly ever bought a record without sampling it first. The only exception that really sticks out is one that went on to become an all-time favorite: LCD Soundsystem’s Sound Of Silver. I was only casually aware of the band at the time, and when this second record released, I went out and bought the CD on a whim without having heard a single cut or reading any reviews. I can vividly remember the first time I spun to it, too: I dragged my crappy boombox into the bathroom and played it while in the shower. And I just stood under the water, completely rapt by the opening build of “Get Innocuous!” and every track that followed. It clicked with me harder than most anything I’d ever listened to, and I think a lot of that is owed to the way I approached it: with no expectations, no prior knowledge, just a shot in the dark that became a pillar of my musical history.
One of my all-time favorites ways I’ve ever been introduced to a movie is also my best instance of going in to blind to a work of pop culture. I spent a solid number of years on a Twin Cities-based message board in the 2000s, a good way for me to keep up with friends after I had moved to New York. One day after a spirited debate about film, one of my fellow posters asked me for my address, and roughly a week later I discovered a small package in the mail: It was a burned copy of a DVD-R, and the only communication included was a sticky note attached to it from him, simply saying, “Prepare to have your mind blown.” That night, I popped the disc in, hit play, and that’s how I first encountered Possession, the bizarre and fascinating 1981 film from the late Polish auteur Andrzej Żuławski. In its broadest terms, it’s a film about the fracturing of a marriage; but when it comes to the particulars, it is through-the-looking-glass levels of unclassifiable, what our own Ignatiy Vishnevetsky recently described as a film in which “the game is to keep as many genres and meanings in play as possible,” and all of which I firmly believe is best served by going in cold. Don’t even watch the above trailer.