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September 05, 2004

The Art of Watching (pt.1)

Before television, video stores, and internet; VHS and DVD; HDTV and Surround Sound; people saw films in the Theater. They saw films in large groups, at exact times, in big rooms, on big screens, in the dark. There were no other options. Viewing was rigid. And films reflected it.

No longer is watching a film so straightforward.

1. Where?

“Hey, listen. You wanna go see ‘Troy’ tonight?

“Nah. I heard it sucks. I’ll wait ‘til it’s out on DVD.”

It’s a common slice of conversation. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. Maybe someone’s said it to you. Maybe you’ve even said it yourself. I have. And it’s interesting.

There’s now a choice of where you’ll see a film that wasn’t available fifty years ago. You can still see something in theatres. But you can also wait a few months and rent it on cassette or disc. Or, you can wait a few months longer than that, and see it on cable. It’s up to you. You know you’ll probably see it anyway, so the real question is where.

Part of your answer most likely depends on how badly you want to see the movie in the first place. There’s a direct relationship between how good you believe a film will be, and where and when you’ll see it. If you’ve heard good opinions, like the actors, read sparkling reviews, are hooked on the premise, and enjoy the advertisements, chances are you’ll drive out to the nearest theater and pay $10 to see it the old fashioned way as soon as you can. If you know you want to see the film, but maybe the critics haven’t been kind to it, or you don’t like one of the leads, you’ll probably wait until it hits the video store and then pay $4 to see it in your home. If you hate the idea, don’t particularly enjoy the genre, and have heard some bad things from your friends, you may catch the film anyway, on television, for free, a few years after it has left theatres. And, hell, you may even like it!

So, you should see great films in the theatre, average films on DVD, and bad films on TV.

Not quite. What about that latest flick you saw on HBO? (Band of Brothers perhaps) It was pretty good, wasn’t it?

Just because it was made for television doesn’t mean it’s worse than Baby Geniuses 2: Superbabies. Then why was it on HBO and not in theatres, you ask? There are many reasons. But, to generalize and count out any financial ones, it was on TV because the material was better suited for TV. Smaller stories for smaller screens. But smaller doesn’t mean worse. Spielberg made a movie for TV called Duel that is better than some, if not most, of the movies he’s made for The Screen. In fact, Duel is still more entertaining to watch on TV than Saving Private Ryan or Jaws, both of which would trump Duel on the big screen. I’m rambling, but that’s alright.

Lawrence of Arabia, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars are all good films. They’re bombastic, extravagant, and are about big, world changing events. Viewed on TV, they lose some of their appeal. Gandalf and Darth Vader are larger-than-life characters. They should be twenty feet tall. Compressed to twenty inches, they just aren’t as impressive.

Taxi Driver and As Good As It Gets are good films, too. Do they gain anything from being on the big screen? In my opinion, not really. I even think they’re better to watch on the small screen because it’s easier to listen to the dialogue and relate to the characters. You can always go back and watch parts again, too. Plus, Melvin Udall is just as sarcastic at twenty inches as at twenty feet. And Travis Bickle is just as tragic.

That's why as a film viewer you have a choice as to where to see a film that’s more important than you think. In a simple, incorrect conclusion: Films that impress and immerse are better on the big screen. Films that articulate and connect are better on the small screen. So, in terms of being entertained and getting the most out a film, it may just be better to hold off seeing Garden State until it’s on DVD. And to see Vanity Fair in theatres instead.


Blogger Scott said...

This is a good post, however in my home there are far too many distractions for me to concentrate on articulate, introspective-type dramas. I can handle silly genre stuff (like "Jeepers Creepers II" or "The Day After Tomorrow") on DVD without too much trouble, but concentrating on anything more is a tough go. It's unfortunate because it is equally tough for me to get out to the suburban multiplexes to see movies on the big screen due to my lack of time and vehicular transportation.

10:39 pm  
Blogger Quack Corleone said...

Thanks for reading and commenting.

I find it much easier to concentrate while watching a movie on television than when in the theater, where phones are sometimes going off, people are constantly chatting, and the smells are horrid! Popcorn dripping with butter-flavoured sauce, cola, and chocolate combine into an odor that just turns my stomach. But my place is usually pretty quiet and distractions are minimal, so that really helps.

3:42 pm  
Blogger Scott said...

Don't you think that in the not-so-distant future many minor films will be released on DVD date-and-day with their theatrical openings? Or after a one month theatrical window at the most? It's inevitable in my opinion, as it would give a lot more people near-immediate access to the types of movies that don't usually open in Middle America.

4:12 pm  
Blogger Quack Corleone said...

I agree, although perhaps not on DVD but over the Internet. I’m not sure how much the creation of a DVD, with jacket and everything, costs but it would certainly be cheaper to skip that step altogether (And, in favour of both DVDs and Internet, imagine being able to shoot and edit a film digitally, and then being able to “screen” it without an expensive transfer from DV to Film!). Anyway, when those releases do coincide with Theatre releases, whatever medium they’ll be on, I think that Theatres will suffer and maybe even slowly disappear. With convenience on its side, big screens, great sound, comfortable seating, and good food, the only thing missing from the Home Theatre is the actual movie. Once that becomes available, Film will cease to be the mainly Public Experience that it has been for most of its existence, and return to being the Personal Experience that it was in the it’s very early stage when people would pay a few cents to watch a sixteen second clip in one of Edison’s machines. Unless, of course, Hollywood starts cranking out more films that just beg to be seen on the Big Screen.

I know, I’m being overly dramatic and relying on a simplistic and flawed argument. But the technology is there to be able to skip the whole Theatre thing, and I’m sure there are filmmakers who are willing and able to do it. Plus, like you said, it allows distribution to places that don’t have a local Theatre. So it does look inevitable. And, isn’t it also kind of funny that the “Digital Revolution” that has allowed Studios to reap huge profits from CGI by allowing greater spectacles while cutting costs, may endanger the Studios themselves?

Sorry for the rant. Sometimes I get caught up.


4:46 pm  
Blogger Scott said...

I like what you wrote about film eventually going back to being a personal medium like it was before the turn of the twentieth century. Those who decry video and the home theatre experience would do well to remember that movies were originally viewed in booths by one person at a time. However, I'm not so sure about the internet as the new medium. Frankly, I don't know the first thing about downloading films and I'd wager that the majority of the movie-going public doesn't either. I guess that could change in the next decade, though.

6:30 pm  
Blogger Quack Corleone said...

I think you're right about DVDs. Internet is thinking too far ahead. And while it would be a big step to distribute Films without any sort of disc, DVDs are the today's medium of choice. It's logical to think that if more Films were to bypass the Theatre, that's what they'd be released on.

6:57 pm  
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