I belong to the last generation to have grown up without VCRs. Born in 1956, I was raised in a small town that had one movie theater. The only “arty” films I saw in high school were 2001: A Space Odyssey and Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. The nearest public TV station was in St. Louis, just beyond the range of our rooftop antenna–this was before the invention of cable TV–so it wasn’t until I left home to go to college that I saw any old movies other than an occasional Saturday-afternoon John Wayne.
I went to a small school near Kansas City, and lived near there for several years after graduating. As a student, I had a tiny TV set in my room but was too busy to watch it more than occasionally, though I did catch three or four foreign films (among them M and Grand Illusion). My campus had no film series. At that time, Kansas City was home to a grand total of two “art houses,” one of which showed first-run foreign films and the other domestic revivals. All told, I probably saw no more than a couple of dozen old movies in Kansas City, including Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, Duck Soup, and Casablanca, none of them more than once.
If you grew up in New York or Chicago, my experience will doubtless sound alien to you, but I suspect that most Americans of my generation could tell similar stories. For us, seeing a classic film was an occasion–one not likely to be repeated anytime soon–and for that reason, we never quite absorbed the abstract notion of Film as Art. To be sure, I “knew” that film was an art form, but this “knowledge” had little or no basis in experience, and so it had no real meaning.
In 1983, I moved to a big-campus college town, Urbana, Illinois, where I got my first VCR, hooked up to a decent cable system, and started haunting the local art house and the various campus film series. That was when I started taking movies seriously. Prior to that time, they’d been little more than casual entertainment, made to be experienced once and then put aside. Thereafter, I started thinking of great films as art objects that could be revisited and restudied as often as I wanted. They soon became as important to me as books or music, and stayed that way.
Nowadays, of course, pretty much everybody takes movies seriously. It’s taken for granted, for instance, that an educated person will have seen Citizen Kane at least once. (If you doubt it, ask yourself this: how many people of your acquaintance would know what you were talking about if you mentioned “Rosebud” in a casual conversation?) Film is now a central part of the middle-class cultural landscape–but that wouldn’t have happened without the invention of cable TV and the VCR.
This is why I have no trouble imagining life without movie theaters. Having spent nearly two decades living in New York City, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to watch classic films in a theater, but there are still any number of important films I’ve only seen on TV. I know it’s not the same thing–I well remember how stunned I was the first time I saw Kane on a large screen–but the fact remains that most people see most movies at home, which is infinitely better than not seeing them at all.
Nor do I expect this situation to change much. For better and worse, film has become a species of home entertainment. Of all the seismic shifts in American art and culture that have taken place since my childhood, that one may ultimately come to be seen as the most fateful of all.