A reader writes:
I’ve been mulling over your extensive posts about the cinematic experience. Two things struck me in recent days: your post of someone’s memories of the spectacle of live musical performance, and the post of someone’s complaints about how Hollywood success is measured, in which he/she comments that “movies are not communal experience.”
I’ve been a bit distressed about your opinions, not because I think you are wrong, but because I think you’re forgetting something. Yes, it is wasted energy crying about the shifts in technology and the marketplace. Yes, we should get over our nostalgia. Yes, it is possible to have great home
experiences of films.
But #1, the nature of films is changing as they are made for the home market—and this includes the blockbusters. Without captive audiences in a darkened theater, they are paced differently. Without giant screens, overly-filtered light begins to pass for cinematography, subtle camerawork and editing become less apparent and thus less likely to occur. Acting evolves in different directions to take account of the more intimate relationship between screen and audience. The advent of improved video (DVD for the moment) means that increasingly films are preserved digitally for the marketplace, not on film (more expensive). In other words, the character of the films themselves is different on television sets than they are in theaters, and this changes the very nature of how they are produced—which is one reason why you don’t remember a lot of tv movies as classics.
#2, going to cinema IS a communal experience. I don’t know what is wrong with your other correspondent, but if he/she missed all the people sitting around the theater, I’d assume blindness is the problem. Films made for the movie theater are made for collective audiences. They are screen tested with full audiences to understand how they will be received. Comedies in particular, but tear-jerkers too, have depended for their evolution not just on mass taste, but the presence of multiple tastes during viewing. Watching movies on tv is very different, and the venue absolutely affects the character of the productions, particularly over time. While many more people may watch, there is no sense to the maker of the film that he is creating an overwhelming experience for a discrete group of people.
#3, old movies on tv are reproductions. They were shot on film, not video or digital, and the translation is most often inadequate and always simply different. No flicker, no reflection of pure light into the retina, but an entirely different form of visual experience with completely different physiological and psychological implications. As Norma Desmond said, the pictures ARE getting smaller. Recordings are not the same as live performance in music, and video copies are not the same thing as original three-strip Technicolor. Period. It does make a difference, or you wouldn’t go to museums to see the posters in the shop. The reason why your correspondent who remembered his 3rd-tier orchestra in Belarus had such an extraordinary experience was because it was possible. He was listening to an original.
To sum up, movies are different on tv. Not worse, necessarily, but different. And something is absolutely lost in the transition, and to pretend otherwise is a crime against culture as surely as being a Luddite is. There is something tragic about the slow decline of an extraordinary cultural experience, cinema-going, which resulted (at its best) in art from the dross of commercialism. Would IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and CASABLANCA and CITIZEN KANE be what they are without the filmmakers’ sense of the shared aspirations and values of their collective audience? Would Hitchcock’s films be as frightening as they are without his careful consideration of how he could drive people crazy with tension in a crowded room, without his certainty that multiple shrieks would amplify fear? For god’s sake, what about the feeling you get when an entire room full of people laughs with you at a joke that one and all get?
Cinema is our great accidental art form. It is both private and collective, both interior and public, and yet its contexts have always been driven by the marketplace, wherever we live. We will all have to get used to the changes, yes. But I can’t accept that all disappearing sensations, particularly those that come from art, should simply be let go with a brisk wave and tip of the hat.
I don’t disagree with a word of this letter–which, perhaps not surprisingly, came from a museum curator. And I’m especially struck by the beauty of the last paragraph, which is very much the sort of thing that would occur to a museum curator. I will miss all those things. I don’t want them to go away. I want to be able to see the great movies of the past in theaters, surrounded by enthralled audiences…and I expect the day is coming when I’ll have to go to museums to do that. In which case we should all be grateful to museums for preserving the “disappearing sensation” of watching movies in the dark, surrounded by a roomful of people who came to partake of that miraculous communal experience.
What I also appreciate about this letter is that it completely disentangles my expectations from my desires. One of the things I try to do on this blog is predict some of the ways in which art will be affected by technological changes–but those predictions aren’t necessarily endorsements. They are attempts at understanding.
I’ve quoted it before, but I want to mention again a remark made by Marshall McLuhan in 1966: “I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined to understand what’s happening, because I don’t choose just to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me.” I’m not quite that much of a neophobe, but I think I know how McLuhan felt, and what he meant. Much of the time, I wish the world could be exactly the way it was when I was young. Alas, it can’t even be the way it was this morning. I suppose the day will come when I decide to give up on the present and live in the past. Until then, I, too, am determined to understand what’s happening–and maybe even try to help shape it.