Every, every piece of art demands one of its audience. A buy. The buy. The keystone that holds the audience's suspension of disbelief aloft. The one, big ask that can either propel us forward should we accept its terms or hold us back and keep us at arm's length should we reject it. The buy is often the first and best reason why a piece of media just didn't work or why its audience just wasn't into it. Or, in other, more proverbial words: it's the it in I just didn't buy it.
Though the buy is by no means limited to film, film will be the focus of this essay because film is the media in which I am most versed. Though, I expect, the leap from film to TV or comics or novels or music or sculpture or painting or crayon drawing will be fairly evident. For art is a conversation between creator and audience. The creator asks its audience to believe. The audience can then either answer, Yes, in fact I do, and and add to the conversation, whether that be critically or complimentarily, or answer, No, I don't think I believe this at all and simply end the engagement right there. This is not inherently a negative or bad thing, though! This is merely an element of preference, of taste. However, the buy is most applicable to that first group, those who do believe—or, are at least willing to believe—but find that belief challenged, eroded, and/or destroyed. The buy and how it's maneuvered after its presentation is the very incitement of an audience's belief. The buy, when bought, is what makes us sit up and lean forward in the theater. And, when rejected, it's what'll have us groaning and checking our watches by projector-light fifteen minutes in.
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Above, when I said one, I meant it. You only get one. Now, that's not to say there is only one in any given film. There isn't. There're many in every film. Depending on how granularly you explore a film, too, there can be many in any given scene of any given film. In any given moment of any given scene. The micro-buys: Did we buy that reaction, that look? Did we buy that response, that word? That shot, that effect? But there's always that one, the big one. And as a creator, just like first impressions, you'll only ever get that one, that once.
And more often than not, that once isn't even in the context of the movie itself!
So, you're in the theater. Center-screen, mid-way up. The lights dim and here come the previews. The first one rolls and because this isn't the first time you've sat in a theater, a checklist starts: Okay, sci fi. Time travel, interesting, cool. Aliens, of course, fine. Big Movie Star, makes sense. Oh--wait. A time travel loop. That is caused by the alien--
And there, right there, is the buy. That other stuff, we've already bought that. Those buys—a science fiction world, time travel, aliens—are already in the popular consciousness. The macro-buys. Filmmakers get those for free. We've seen their parallels, the alternatives, so when we see something like them they're just not so novel anymore. (It's why so many sci fi worlds look so similar and why there are so many of the same show on television and why there's almost always a love triangle. Not only have those buys been bought, but they've been bought countless times again and again. It's much easier to renovate when the foundation is already sturdy. It's way more difficult to build from scratch on a muddy hillside.)
If you'll indulge me and my mixing metaphors, imagine your brain as a blank, white canvas. Nothing to reference. Nothing at all. Now, imagine the color red. Not something red or the actual word red, but red. You can't possibly! You have no idea what red is. You have no basis for what it looks like or what it feels like or examples of it or what red is used for. It's an abstract beyond comprehension. But then you see it, red. It's vibrant and warm and deep and just is. Now, when you look back at that canvas, your brain, there's a beautiful blob of red there. And then, out of nowhere, you see orange. Wow. It's a color, like red. It's vibrant and warm, like red. But it's not red. It's not as deep. But it sure is a lot easier to comprehend in the context of red, isn't it?
These macro-buys are the red on our canvas. The new elements, like a time travel loop caused by aliens, the one, actual big buy of any given property is the orange. We are predisposed to buy it based on what we've bought before, but it still has to engage us on its own terms. It still has to convince us.
Take Twilight, for example. What's the buy? Well, we have the macro-buys of vampires and werewolves. The micro-buys of the performances and the effects. But it's the relationship between Edward and Bella that is the real reason for the thing to exist. And, more specifically, it's Bella herself. With that in mind, I argue that the buy of Twilight—and of the franchise as a whole—is the desirableness of Bella Swan. If the audience buys that Edward and Jacob and everyone else throughout the films desires Bella—whether sexually or politically or otherwise—then the films work. (And part of the brilliance why the films work so well for its target audience is that Bella is so blankly an audience surrogate that audience is forced to bring so much of themselves to that question. And don't we all want and hope to be so desireable?) For me, well, I don't buy it. And beyond all else, it's because of Bella Swan.
Now, the film About Time asks its audience to buy something similar. I imagine one might argue that it's not the relationship between Tim and Mary that's the buy, but instead the fact that Tim can travel backward in time. But I'd argue that while that may be the buy during the preview when you're running down your checklist, like in our scenario above, in the context of the film it's much more crucial to buy Tim and Mary's relationship rather than the time travel itself. To support this I'll point you to Tasha Robinson's piece about About Time where it is not the time travel that she brings to question, but instead Tim and Mary's relationship. I don't share Tasha's reservations, or, in other words, I bought it, but it's those very reservations that illuminate the buy itself. If you're ever searching for it to no avail, the critical response is wonderful at helping pinpoint the buy of a given film. Or, at least at lighting the signal fire nearby.
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Above, when I said, Above, when I said one, I meant it, well, maybe I didn't so much. Have you ever watched a movie and begun to feel overwhelmed? This is what happens when a film asks its audience to buy too many things, too close together when it should be utilizing its second buy. Like in Hancock when we're asked to not only buy that superheroes exist, but are drunken buffoons, but are actually Gods or angels or something and that when in close proximity they begin to lose their powers all while also asked to buy that Hancock and Mary are fated or destined to be together even though they've been so utterly cold toward one another the entire time… No wonder the film received such a negative response and left its audience so utterly baffled by its third act.
Third act? Yeah, well, that's what I meant above when I said, uh-- See, the third act is—or, at least, should be—home to the second buy in a film. It can be called a reversal or a reveal or a twist, but at its core, it's a buy. And just as with the first buy, what incites our engagement with a story, this second buy is what can either leave a film resonating inside us far beyond the theater or cause the film to evaporate from our minds as the lights fade on.
Take Iron Man 3. Whether or not you buy the bait and switch of the Mandarin and the identity of the greater villain will predict your either positive or negative reaction to the film as a whole. How about The Sixth Sense? Do you buy that he's been dead the whole time? Even if you bought that Cole can talk to dead people, if you don't buy this twist, you might feel cheated or betrayed or left confused. And if you do, well, this second buy can lead to an openness to reflection and engagement and a richer reading of the text than before. Where the first buy is important to one's experience within the film, the second is most important to an audience's experience without it.
So, the next time a film just doesn't work and you find yourself saying I just didn't buy it, ask yourself what it was. Because it is the only thing that matters. If you buy that, of course.