I just saw Dune in a movie theater, I also saw The Harder They Fall recently in a theater too. I like the later more than the former. But the former had more of an impact on my overall nostalgia/emotions. The film going experience with Dune made me sad to the point I almost wept.
Movie theaters are dying and it sad. REALLY sad. But honestly, sometimes they are shooting themselves in the foot (or maybe it is Hollywood hunting for more dollars every year than the last year that is doing the real damage). A half hour of ads, another half hour of 6 previews that show the entire film in five minutes…
And this is a problem because the art of cinema REQUIRES a movie house to properly experience the art of cinema- whether it is a Ford western, some Paul Thomas Anderson family drama, a Hughes teen gross out comedy, or b grade Corman schlock. The movie theater is the temple in which we honor film, properly.
Yes, it is easier and cheaper to screen at home on the flat screen or heaven for forbid your phone. Not to mention you don’t have to actually go anywhere. And if that is the only way you can see films, fine. I accept that. I do it too. But if you can go to the theater, do it.
Let me tell you a personal story in my own film history. In my teens I suddenly decided it would behoove me as a lover of creative arts to see these very lauded films I kept hearing about on Siskel & Ebert or from films buffs I worked with etc. So one day I trotted off to Blockbuster to rent Casablanca. The clerk told me I was not old enough to rent the film because it was unrated. I learned later the film was unrated because it was made before the Hayes Code. Looking back on this incident the clerk CLEARLY had never seen the film because there would have been A LOT more laughing and eye-rolling about the rule. Anyway, my self-taught film history class already hit a snafu… So I did the next best thing… I stole the damn film from Blockbuster (and then returned it later).
Nobody else in the family wanted to watch it so I was on my own. The film was meh- I understood the context of where the film came from and why, like say Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica”. I knew it was important if on legacy alone. But it did nothing for me. And this concerned me greatly because what wasn’t I getting? How could I be meh- when it seemed everyone else was madly in love with this ensconced masterwork? Was I wrong in my feelings?
No. I was young. And more importantly I was not in the right place for this drama (literally and figuratively). See, Casablanca is a drama (and film noir of sorts) except that it isn’t- OK, hold that thought as we fast forward some years later to when Casablanca is doing the anniversary tour in movie theaters. I convinced my then partner at the time to go see it with me. This was before the barrage of ads and extended previews. I’m also pretty sure for this special event they just dimmed the lights and got down to business. The theater was not packed but it was hardly empty. And when the lights went down I could feel the energy in the air change. There was the anticipation for not just a film but Casablanca. Or, maybe it was simply the anticipation of a good time.
That is plus of being in a dark room with strangers you empathize with others’ emotions and responses to what is on screen because you are all seeing the same thing, even if you interpret it differently at the end. And this brings me back to Casablanca not being a drama… only. When I watched it as a teen, I was so intent on “getting it” that I don’t think I actually watched the movie. Certainly not the way I watched something like Heat or Total Recall back then. And in a dark room with other people, about 20 minutes in, I was SHOCKED to discover Casablanca is also comedy! Real laughter was let out into the theater throughout the film, mainly after one of Rick’s cynical quips. It was a revelation not just for Casablanca but for any film I’d see since. Now I NEVER go into a film with any intention other than to just watch it and let the film inform me as opposed to going in informed and requiring certain expectations to be met.
The way an audience can inform your feelings on something and the importance of a communal experience with strangers wasn’t new to me. It just never felt so in my face before. And it certainly never made me 180 on my opinions on a film before. This is an experience where you go into a dark room with others and trust them to behave and not do you any harm or ruin your good time. It’s a societal pact that seems to be one of the few things people across all lines can agree on, (i.e. NO talking during the movie- unless it’s that bad or it’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show).
Now I ADORE Casablanca. You should definitely watch it, if you haven’t. I also highly recommend Roger Ebert’s commentary track on the film.
Next, I want to highlight another aspect of cinema that seems to be overlooked and that has helped me understand the movie palace and the importance of the big screen. See, the communal experience is just one facet of a movie theater’s importance the other facets are more subtle. And these revelations came to me over time.
Sticking with Casablanca, the film stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Hollywood royalty. Yes, celebrity has been around forever but in the “golden age” stars like Bogart, Bergman, Bacall, Elizabeth Taylor, Jimmy Stewart were not just stars they were mythological figures. And cinema from the beginning was the new mythology for our modern times. The fire we used to sit around and tell or be told stories turned into a light bulb. The new gods were now the actors or the characters they played repeating the same hero’s journeys of all the ancient texts, just with modern trappings. So when you are dealing with mythology- with a kind of mysticism BEYOND beyond in scope- a TV screen no matter how many inches won’t cut it in my opinion. And certainly a phone or the back of a seat on a plane should be a last resort. The borders of the screen limits the magic. But if it is the only option for you, do it.
I realize now the design of cinema is such that you are not supposed to look DOWN on the gods. You look up at them like we used to look to the night sky. The movie screen now being the new night sky (or even pages of a book) where we find our new stories and new deities every generation. Characters like Rick and Ilsa in Casablanbca are NEVER supposed to be smaller than you it detracts from the impact the myth is supposed to have. John Wayne or Bruce Willis or The Rock can’t be larger than life when you’re larger than their screen presence or the literal screen as you watch on a PC.
When that battleship comes in at the start of Star Wars (the 1st one) you need the impact of a movie screen to dwarf your view to properly feel the threat and danger the tiny rebel ship is in. It just keeps coming and coming and coming. Likewise, the vastness and loneliness of space (or even the desert) in film like 2001, Alien, or The Wild Bunch respectively when viewed on a small screen loses all it’s impact. I often wonder how many films I would’ve liked better had I seen them on a big screen as opposed to a Blockbuster video rental or the god-awful pan-scan interruption with ads they did for TV back in the day.
I saw The Wild Bunch on letter-boxed VHS in the early 00s. It was glorious. The guy who played Mapache also played El Guapo in The Three Amigos, which pleased me to make that connection. What a cast. But here was another film that made the rounds in art house cinemas that I went to experience on the big screen. And frankly watching that film on the TV me and my pals watched it on at the time was an insult to the movie. Talk about mythology, gods, and larger than life. Plus, some EPIC set pieces.
As much as I couldn’t handle the constant close ups of a teary-eyed Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rogue IN MY FACE for two hours, a movie theater is really the only way to properly experience that musical spectacle. Sure, we all had our version of midnight movies or creature features. These were often times the only way we saw any film that came out before we were alive. Except of course for some family classics on VHS and the holiday rehashing of It’s A Wonderful Life (another film MADE for the giant screen). But even my personal classics; Conan The Barbarian, The Blues Brothers, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Braveheart… all DEMAND the big screen in the temple of light.
I call it a temple because it is like going to a religious service. Aside from the communal part there is also a reverence you get going to a temple that you don’t really have at home. The light dims and you get quiet as you listen to a two hour or more sermon. You are certainly more invested because of the money you spent to get there and get in for starters. With the lights off you are basically commanded to stay in your seat. There is no distracting light from a laptop or bathroom down the hall. There is no dog yapping waiting to go out. No getting up to raid the fridge, no answering the phone or door. No dealing with noisy kids. No channel surfing. And CERTAINLY no pause button.
You had to pay attention or you would miss it. The temple of light demanded you pay proper respect to the gods who were performing for you up on screen. Now of course one of the great film buff joys is popping in a DVD and pausing the film to look at certain shots or replay a scene. The opening of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolfe is so good that sure, why not a double shot (pun intended). But on the big screen you are forced take in all the words at once and try and hold onto them as the night of drinking unfolds into the morning in that piece.
Sometimes you go see a movie and you happen to be the lone person in theater. You basically own the temple for 2 hours. That is a different spiritual experience. It is as if you are getting some divine secret no one else is getting. I’ve seen three films alone; North By Northwest, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, and The Relic. And having the big screen all to myself I felt I was getting a private screening and found myself looking around thinking I wish other people were here to see how GREAT this is.
But one of the greatest joys of my entire life related to the movies was working at Blackhawk Cinemas where I grew up. Seeing the before and after faces of people when they saw a film; be it a romantic comedy or the next James Bond romp was always a pleasure. They went into the magical room and while the people may have come out amped, sad, or moved, or just plain happy- EVERYONE came out transformed EVERY TIME.
As I said up top, movie multiplexes are kind of making the experience less fun; too many ads, being more in your face and noisy, and the expense and what not. It is all a downer even as they try to woo you with recliners and other added perks. It’s tough because they have to compete with streaming now. And sure, Hollywood isn’t REALLY pushing much besides action blockbusters these days to the big screen. But I say PHOOEY! Alain Delon is a GOD and while you can have the DVDs on your personal altar at home you must go to the temple to pay proper respects when viewing Le Samourai.
Also, the demise of movie houses is just one more downgrade in the culture I feel. Instead of having to watch a film with strangers and come together on something we can just stay in our little couch bubble dressed in a onesie. We are more and more spending less and less time interacting with strangers in ways that are not shouting matches about who is wrong.
And I always felt movies were the middle ground between TV and theater. Theater is more in the moment than any art ever but it is also very expensive to see regularly so cinema always felt kind of like theater for broke folks and a kind of night out TV could not provide. It is a way for us to hear new stories that relate to our lives or help us escape those lives if only for a moment.
The entertainment landscape is so huge nobody is on the same page now. Jurassic Park was an EVENT. But now people can hop, skip, and jump to whatever they want. You aren’t feeling the latest Scorcese movie, after ten minutes you can just pick a new movie. There is no longer the same commitment. There are also no longer the same universal cultural touchstones. It wasn’t that long ago that when it came to comedy and film you got Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Airplane. Now people can go any which way they want, which sounds great but I personally feel has made us more tribal.
There is something very “united” in the United State of America to me about the masses all watching the same iconic hair flip entrance by Rita Hayworth in Gilda. Or THAT SCENE in Jaws. Or, for my generation seeing, Pulp Fiction playing with timelines in such a way that Travolta’s character both dies and lives by the end of the film.
I don’t see as much film as I’d like. In part it’s because I’m so focused on music these days, in part it is the expense. But also, like mainstream music, I find most of what I see to be meh when it comes to modern mainstream films. And movie houses are not showing older films that much so I have to watch how I can when I can.
I hope to get a projector for my studio apartment so I can use this one large blank wall I have to watch movies (Shorts Cuts, Magnolia double feature anyone?). I want to do my best to see a film as intended. And who knows maybe when I get my radio station it will be on the second floor and on the first floor will be a movie house with one (maybe two) giant screens. And I will call it the Temple Of Light and people can come and watch something unique and fun every night as community as we all earn one more piece of our third eye together.