Thursday, June 24, 2010

To Watch in a Theater or To Watch at Home (is that really the question?

The grand (and idealistic) idea of watching movies in a crowded theater being the proper (and some say only!) way to watch movies can seem a bit antiquated by some (the younger blogger/twitter crowd who have grown up on You Tube and Hulu) and a bit right-on-the-proverbial-(fucking!)-nose for others (the so-called old guard who chained themselves to the cinematheque doors back in May of '68 - at least metaphorically-speaking).  I personally consider myself a product of the generation inbetween these two (seemingly) warring factions. 


Born in 1967 (the Summer of Love as it were), I grew up watching movies on TV.  Sure I would go to the theater (it is quite the strange juxtaposition of having Benji and The Towering Inferno as the first two films I remember seeing in a theater proper!) but the movies that made me love the cinema were those I first saw on my little 12" TV in my childhood bedroom late at night (when I was supposed to be fast asleep dreaming of sugar plum fairies and warding off those dreaded bed bug bites!).  Films like King Kong, The African Queen, The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, The Philadelphia Story, To Have and Have Not.  These are the films that led to my love of classic cinema.  My love of the golden age of Hollywood and eventually my love of an expanded world cinema.

It wasn't in the theaters where this love was born, but on a tiny TV in a wide-eyed child's bedroom (ignore the hyperbole).  It wasn't until I became a (so-called) grown-up that the cinema houses became a haven.  Films as diverse as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Amadeus, A Passage to India, Sophie's Choice, Brazil and Ran (the very first foreign-language film I ever saw on the big screen).  Along with my duties as a film critic and (sometimes) film historian, I now run a three-screen arthouse cinema in Harrisburg Pa, with my lovely wife (sorry GK for usurping your loving spousal pet name) so even though the small screen gave me my first tastes of cinematic love, it is now the large screen that carries me along.

The reason I even bring this whole thing up is a post I recently read on Jim Emerson's wonderful Scanners blog, entitled "Cinema Isn't Dead, It's Just Different" (perhaps I was hooked by Jim including a pic of Godard that I personally use as my Facebook profile pic on a semi-regular basis - but it is a must read anyway!).  Many older critics (that damned old guard!) tend to grandstand that cinema is dead and it has the younger set to blame.  Granted the idea of instant gratification in critical duties (re: anyone can write anything on anybody - whether they have a talent for such a thing or not) is taken to the proverbial nth level these days and there are many (too many I suppose one could easily say) voices that know absolutely nothing about cinema or its history spouting off all over the web.  I suppose because many of these voices are the so-called younger set (though many are not) it is because of this that the old guard grumps and groans about cinema (and film criticism) being dead.  Their easy wail is that the internet has killed it!  Of course there are many "critics" out there with ties to "hard copy" jobs (those with gigs in the ever-dying paper world) who know less than nothing about cinema, and yet they keep flailing about with the respect often given out freely to anyone who is not "just an online critic".  Their names need not be named here, but we all know who they are.  Of course being one of these very same "just an online critic" (though I do have a regular film column in a local alt monthly) I must take offense at such generalizations.  But I am getting (sort of) off topic.

The whole debate (if one can even call it that - though I just did, so there!) has merits on both sides.  On one (Emerson's - among many others - side) there is the fact that because of today's technology there are so many more classic films available to watch that it is indeed a cinephile's boon.  On the other hand, to see something shimmering up there in glorious 35mm is a sight to behold indeed.  As I said, I fall inbetween the two warring factions so I suppose I can see both sides for what they are worth.  Though my cinephilia was born on that tiny bedroom TV (there is still a certain nostalgic romanticism to recalling seeing King Kong or Frankenstein on that tiny TV on the Late Late Show - even if modern technologies have made it null and void), and many of my favourite films I have never seen on anything bigger than my own grown-up big screen TV, I cannot deny the giddy rapture of watching these great films in 35mm on the theater's own big screens.

Just last year,  on one my many trips to NYC to catch some movies (as I am prone to do as often as I can) I had the opportunity to see The Red Shoes (one of the greatest films of all time I declare unabashedly!) at Film Forum.  Rushing in (much like those kids at the beginning of that very same movie) and taking my place front row, center, it was almost a religious experience.  No, I take that back - it WAS a religious experience!  Other favourites I have been lucky enough to see on the big screen include The Bicycle Thieves (at Lincoln Plaza Cinema during the same trip), La Dolce Vita (also at Film Forum a few years back), Casablanca (at Hershey Theater here at home - a wonderously restored art deco movie palace), Singin' in the Rain, Some Like It Hot and Vertigo on it's revival a decade or so ago.  There is nothing that can top these experiences, but (outside of a perfect world) this is not a practice to be had with every movie one sees - especially considering this cinephile sees at least 300+ films per year (with a goal of 500+ per year that I shamedly have yet to meet). 

I suppose my tendencies do lean toward the movie theater experience over home viewing (no matter how big and luxurious one's home system may be) though one cannot help but be put off by the rudeness of all those talkers, texters and tweeters strewn about the typical multiplex (then again, many of the films playing there end up unwatchable anyway!).  This 35mm theater screening (sans, the annoyances) is the ideal, but one must still take into account the amazingly vast availability of film on DVD/Blu-Ray that was never near as prevalent as back in those supposed halcyon days of lore.  And one must also take into account that many (nay, most) of the films one cannot easily see in a movie house, so home viewing is their only option.  My lovely wife and I often put one of our DVD's up on the big screen in our little theater after hours for our own viewing, so we do have a better opportunity to see these classics in a cinema (even if it is not 35mm), but others do not, so the DVD/Blu-Ray boon is, well, it's a boon.  Perhaps my ideal is to be front row center at Film Forum watching Moira Shearer twirl about - surrounded by like-minded cinephiles (NOT at the multiplex!!) or after hours at my cinema with my wife and a few close friends.  Then again, I watch movies (like a rabbit does other things) at home in the dark - and without interruptions (I so hate that!).  I suppose, no matter a young buck or an old head, there is something for everyone.  Like Emerson said, cinema isn't dead, it's just different.

5 comments:

Mike Lippert said...

A lot to think about in this post. Where is your theater. I've been to Harrisburg several times and quite enjoy it. Your last paragraph reminds me of an article from the NY Times not so long ago about how even though we go to the theater, we're still, most of the time, just watching a projection of a DVD.

The part about this piece that strikes me is something that I've been struggling with recently and something that has propelled me to change my blog into something more meaningful and thoughtful than just posting random stuff like news and trailers like I did when I started it. The issue of course is that a lot of film blogs offer either no intellectual worth or just follow a standardized formula that 100 others do, making them more or less redundant. It always reminds me of that line from Hearts of Darkness where Coppola says that one day film technology will be so advanced that any 13 year old girl can make a movie in her basement, and I always think yes, but why do we want that? Same with blogs, now anyway can have an opinion and even though we get great new voices with great new ideas, we have to wade through a ton of garbage in order to find them.

Of course, as you point out, there are some pretty bad newspaper critics as well but the thing about them is, they have a job, they publish their work and they get paid all the same whether you like them/agree with them or not. Bloggers need to build a community in order to get their voices heard and that often means supporting blogs that aren't even worth your time of day. Glad to see you're not one of them.

Michaƫl Parent said...

Excellent editorial Kevyn! I am from that generation of Home viewers (born in 1983) junkies and I, like you, saw (thanks to public television in Quebec) many classics during summer evenings and nights in the dark of my basement. It fed my growing cinephilia even before I knew the meaning of that word...

But, I think a film is like a record it should be watched and listened the way it was conceived: on a big screen in a theater and for a record on vinyl...

I remember seing Chaplin's The Great Dictator in my favourite Art house and I think it was one of the best cinematic experiences I've ever had. To see a film made nearly 70 years ago the exact same way the people at the time discovered it was like going back in time! And yes I agree, almost a religious experience!

So to answer the question (if there is really one answer to that question) theater is the best way to see a film but for classic cinema I prefer to watch it at home when it's not available at the theater. At home is better than not seing the film at all...

Kevyn Knox said...

Thanx for the kudos.

Our theater is Midtown Cinema on Reily Street.

Though viewing is preferable in a cinema (and preferably one w/o the obnoxia of the suburban multiplexes!) many films can only be seen at home. It is a great time that we can have so many movies available to us.

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