January 12, 2007

The Fall of the Movie Theatre

This is a fascinating article from the New Yorker about the way that the economics of film making is effecting the artistic form of the film- the way that say the evolution from photography to digital photography changes the way that we see contrast and see the images on a screen, the way that viewing a film upon a DVD-player changes the relationship between the viewer and the film, the way that the intensity of the experience of a masterpiece like Taxi Driver is perhaps diminished by a less intimate experience of it. Lots of what David Denby writes in the article is I think very true- Hollywood's obsession with the blockbuster aimed at the opening week market doesn't neccessarily make sense, the theory of the long tail for example has barely been exploited by film distributers who could get regular small audiences for Casablanca instead of screening the latest studio flop. He also writes well about Fox Searchlight and other speciality divisions of the film companies which today produce some of the most intelligent and adult films- and some of the most profitable films.

There is one point on which I wish to push his analysis further and that is something that may be very singular to me. To be an interesting film, a film must capture you, must take you into its coils and have you live vicariously through its characters- have your mind work upon it alone and focus upon every nuance of lighting, acting or script. Great films like the Seventh Seal or Casablanca or Citizen Kane wrap you in their arms and envelop your tastes so as to make you concentrate fully on them and derive an incredibly concentrated experience from them. There is a heady emotionalism to the way that Denby writes about films and he is right and he derives that from the physical form by which the film is delivered.

Perhaps this is generational- but for me most of the most profound films I have seen I have never seen on a cinema screen. The last film at the cinema I saw to really give me that concentrated experience was Capote, the execution scene in particular of which gave me a truly cinematic experience. But I think that it is possible to concentrate so as to get that flavour from a smaller televisual or even computer screen (I'm not so sure about the Ipod). Personally the most important thing that changes though about a television or a computer screen from a cinema is not the thing that goes on in my mind, but the degree of concentration I require to get to a cinematic experience- the television film needs to be better than a cinematic film to get me within its coils.

There is though a further point. We don't treat watching a film on television or on Computer screen in the same way as we regard watching a film at the cinema. A great film needs to be appreciated not in gobbets of concentration but in one whole swallow. You can't consume it otherwise, the moment is easily lost and easily broken. The amazing thing about watching films in a cinema is that the lights are dimmed, the phones are off, the people don't usually talk (Streatham Odeon on a bad Saturday is an exception) and you can focus upon what is happening on the screen. Television with its advert breaks, with its interruptability presents you with a different mode of experience- it breaks down the director's vision into little gobbets- somebody coughs in the Marseillaise, somebody interrupts Lauren Bacall asking Humphrey Bogart how to whistle, a phone rings and nobody can find their mobile, the clutter of every day life invades the experience and destroys it. Watching a film on television can ruin a film because a film is a vision of reality- it can't be just taken bitesize.

This is I realise an incredibly pretentious and incredibly personal essay- there are afterall many ways of enjoying cinema and sometimes you watch a film to laugh at its jokes and not to appreciate its intensity- but the great films do convey that kind of intensity. The canon if there is such a thing are films which really invade the mind- disturb like Goodfellas or delight like Philadelphia Story, they require time to be set aside. In many ways therefore if you are watching a film to understand it and absorb it, that is as far away from the televisual medium as you are going to get. Television is a medium of instant gratification, wonder- save for some infrequent programs like Planet Earth- is not something it supplies. More often its gossipy, newsy, bite size and disectable- precisely the kind of things a great film is not.

I wonder therefore whether when Denby delivers an ode to the Movie Theatre he is really speculating about sizes of screen or about the mental habits of watching. I can't remember where but someone once argued that movie theatres were the cathedrals of modern existance- where in storyline labelled sermons, the priests of our time delivered their message (an image which say when one considers Bergman is not exactly inapposite) to the populace. There is a distinct difference between the cathedral and the casually treated household deities, between the Trinity and the hobgoblin, between cinema and television. I wonder whether what he is doing is marking out the world of artistically conceived film as something different from the world of television and of ephemera- whether he is asking us for the concentration and for the appreciation that this form of art requires- the kind of liberty to let our senses go and forget the discussions, the tones of phones, the small phrases of tidiness and discretion that constitute lives chattering over symphonies.

The Movie Theatre represents in this case, not merely a size of a screen, but an opportunity to sit still and listen and watch as darkness envelops the eye and focuses it upon the screen, as silence envelops the ear and focuses it on a discordent tune of script and music and therefore let the senses serve the mind in teasing out the implication, the thread that the director left to understand his art.

Incidentally for some more coherent cinematic goodness- the latest carnival has just been put up and is really good.


Anonymous said...

I think that the conditions at the cinema, the darkness, the sound quality, the size of the screen vastly improve the chances of a film really involving you, wrapping you up in its coils as you say. However, the flip side of this is that when it doesn't the disappointment is greatly enhanced. When you are not involved in the film you are watching the feeling of being in the cinema looking around to see what sweets people are eating while there is lots of noise and it is too dark to see peoples faces clearly is most disheartening.

Average films can seem better at the cinema but fail when shown in different situations when engaging the audience is harder. A really great film is a really great film wherever you watch it. The film and not the viewing experience is what grabs you. Although I think even Dr. Strangelove would do well to appear good on an ipod!

Gracchi said...

In general I agree with you- I do think a great film is one that draws you in. Lets just say the atmosphere helps or hinders sometimes- so that a dark cinema can help whereas a loud noisy commuter bus with an ipod might fail. I think you are right I went a little over the top possibly- language overwhelming thought thanks for the correction.

james higham said...

I'm a great kino-theatre fancier. There is the cafe too, the popcorn, the aisles, the snogging, the whole scene is nice.

Gracchi said...

Yeah all of that's good. Cheers James- I'd forgotten the ancilliary benefits.

Anonymous said...

Gracchi, I (anonymous above) really wasn't critising you. In fact I was completely agreeing and kind of repeating a part of your argument in my words. I certainly didn't and wouldn't suggest that you went over the top. I was just adding that the conditions the cinema create increase, not only the chance of enjoyment, but also the expections. So when these are not fullfilled there is inevitable disappointment. More so than watching a average/bad film on another medium.

Gracchi said...

Sorry Anonymous- I sometimes have difficulty seeing things in proportion and was feeling down yesterday.

I think the overall point though is right even in my comment I suppose I was trying to moderate it- your point about the scalar nature of it is correct and it isn't absolute.

Thanks for taking the time to come back and say that though- we haven't got the word for a good user of nettiquete- but thanks for the kindness.

CityUnslicker said...

ah the cinema. I used to love going. wait until you have kids, it becomes the lost country!

Political Umpire said...

I think it depends to an extent on the nature of the film. It used to be that ‘action’ films always looked better on the big screen, and that’s still pretty much the case despite the advances in quality of home cinema (after all, the best home cinema system would be something in the order of £100k’s worth of Krell equipment, which most of us including me sadly don’t have, whereas a major London cinema would be sporting in the region of £3m worth of sound gear together with a specifically designed auditorium). I don’t believe that one can fully appreciate 2001: Space Odyssey without having seen it on the big screen. But you don’t need much more than an ipod to appreciate the dancing of Astaire and Rodgers, for example, nor to be moved by many a romantic or dramatic classic.

There is also the point that devoid of the bang and crash of the big screen, the limitations of some films get brought home. I have to say I found Lord of the Rings to be rather lame, boring efforts with a lot of mediocre acting on the small screen, though I enjoyed them well enough at the cinema.

I agree in general with the point regarding concentration, and the behaviour of audiences. The NFT always had perfectly behaved audiences every time I went but then again the quality of its equipment was badly dated (in comparison with other London venues). Then again, some films are hard to watch without interruption. The Thin Red Line, one of my favourites ever, is one such flick. A coffee break isn’t a bad thing when you’re watching the DvD.

Greater length enables some things to be done on the small screen that cannot on the large. The Singing Detective, for example, with the complexity and length of the plot simply couldn’t have been done on the big screen. And yes I know there was a film length version of it, but I have always refused to see it and always will.

BTW drafted a comment on your sporting post which got so long I turned it into a separate blog entry.

Sam said...

Thanks for the link. Interesting article and thoughts on it.

I went to the Croydon Vue to watch Borat. I understand what the article says about cinema purgatory. Filthy venue with I-make-minimum-wage style service. £7.40 a ticket, plus those absurdly large snacks and expensive, belted with ads with no chance for escape. All for a loose collection of poo jokes.

I paid about the same for two, including trains, to see The Canterbury Tales in the West End.

The cinema, like the theater, is about the experience. However, I feel that the experience has been cashed in too many times. There is little left for us.