Thursday, January 17, 2008

There's Nothing Like a Theater

There is a very humorous video clip, posted recently on YouTube. It features director David Lynch ranting about the ills of watching movies on an iPhone. He comes completely unglued actually and curses and everything. The point he is making is anyone who watches a movie in a subpar format is delusional if he thinks he’s actually seeing the movie.

We have an unprecedented number of non-theatrical movie watching options nowadays. People will download movies (illegally) or convert them from DVDs (legally) and watch them on iPods and Zunes. People will stream movies to their computers and watch them in low resolution in tiny little windows. And, most often, people buy or rent them on DVD to view on their televisions. At the very best, that television will be really big and surrounded by a great set of six speakers.

Now, I doubt I need to convince anyone that watching movies on an iPod or streamed to a computer cheapens the movie viewing experience. In a medium so heavily weighted toward visual details lurking in every part of the frame, I can’t imagine a serious defense being waged in favor of squinting simply to determine which character is speaking. I can though imagine reasonable reasoning favoring a high quality home theater experience over a movie theater. I’ve even done it myself at times.

Going out to movies isn’t perfect. Tickets are expensive. Concessions are expensive. Babysitting is expensive. A night out at the movies can easily run over $40, and that’s without treating your date to a nice dinner. A DVD – or often two – can cost less, especially at Target. In fact, one may even have enough money left over for about a gallon of pop and a box of microwave popping corn. Toss the kids in bed, sit back on the sofa, and hit play. You can even talk all you want without dirty looks – or not have to fire dirty looks across the room if silence is your preference. Heck, you can even hit pause if you need to run to the bathroom or, as I’ve had to do many times, help your teenager with math homework.

Does that sound heavenly? It certainly has its good points. But stop to think about how it is cheapening the movie watching experience.

Most obviously, no matter how much money you pour into your TV, it isn’t going to approach the size of even a small theater screen – and no, I’m not forgetting about home video projectors. And it is amazing what happens when you view a film – you think you know well – for the first time in a theater. Details unnoticeable from across the room on a 35 inch screen suddenly stand out five feet tall. I “saw” Apocalypse Now countless times before attending a Cinema 100 screening and had never noticed the very important words “Death from Above” scrawled across the front of a helicopter. I never noticed the book titles “World Targets in Megadeaths” from Dr Strangelove or “Introducing Sociology” from Eyes Wide Shut until seeing them boldly projected on a huge screen.

Movies are a communal experience, or least they should be. I’ve never found Night of the Living Dead nearly as terrifying as I did while watching it at midnight with hundreds of other college students. Star Wars will never be as thrilling as it was when I stood in line around the block as a kid and felt the electricity in the air as over 1000 other “kids” young and old cheered the death of the death star. And I’ve never laughed half as hard at Young Frankenstein or Annie Hall as I did last year during crowded Cinema 100 screenings. Laughter has a funny way of building from one person to the next up and down the aisles of a theater.

Movies are meant to be watched start to finish, without stopping. They aren’t books. David Lynch (he’s getting pretty grumpy these days) refuses to allow chapter stops on the DVDs for his films to discourage mistreating them as books. He’s also cited the cheapening (that word again) effect of our lazy stop and start viewing habits. People will often (and I’m also to blame) start a movie one day, continue it a day or so later, and finish it when they get the chance. They may even jump back and re-watch a chapter or two – or even start over completely – because they’ve forgotten what was going on. We just have so many distractions at home. Watching a movie in a theater forces you to concentrate – if you miss something, there’s no going back – and forget about everything else. (People often talk about their love of movies as a form of escape. This is only really possible – I propose – if one first escapes from their house and goes to a theater.)

And, if you really want to get technical, chew on these facts for a moment:
DVDs never really get the colors of a movie quite right – or even close in some cases. Yasujiro Ozu’s late color films Good Morning and Floating Weeds look fine on DVD until one compares them side-by-side with the projected image from film.

Or did you know that films run at 24 frames per second while video runs at 30 frames per second here in the United States? Obviously, some form of trickery (there are a few options) has been imposed on the film, changing it in a subtle but meaningful way, making it run at a different speed.

Or did you know that, half the time one sits in a movie theater, the screen is completely dark? Two pulses of light are shown through a frame and then the screen is dark as the next frame is moved into position by the projector. This causes a flickering effect (thus the slang term “flicks”) that is cancelled out by persistence of vision. (Its subliminal effect is still felt though.) Video doesn’t flicker. It is smooth with your TV screen always emitting light. Again, the difference is subtle but meaningful.

For these reasons, filmmaker Stan Brakhage refused to allow his films to be made available on DVD until near the end of his life and only then accompanied by a disclaimer that they are merely approximations of the films. To see the films as they really are, he advised to try to find a film society screening. (Ahem, maybe Cinema 100 should show a few Brakhage films. I know I'd be there.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting to know.