Friday, May 25, 2012

Why the Movie Theater is Better than Home Video

Ever since the beginning of home video in the '80's the movie theater experience has been chipped away at.  Movies are having shorter and shorter theatrical runs and, in many cases going straight to video.  With improved home entertainment systems, many people are opting to watch movies at home.  A television is not a mere miniature movie screen and the living room is not a mere miniature theater.  These are very different experiences and the movie theater is something very special and superior.  The movie theater is a space with a specific purpose, something we are losing in today's society.  It is dark, usually quiet and void of the myriad distractions found in one's home.  The giant screen encompasses one's entire vision and focus.  Movies are made to be seen in the theater, especially old ones that came out before television even existed.  The movie theater, up until very recently, has avoided television-style commercials.  Also, television has been rendered monotonous through incessant viewing in a way that film hasn't for most people.  This trend towards television will have some upsides on the other hand.

A movie theater is a specific space made for a specific function, to watch movies.  It is there purely for the moviegoing experience.  The living room is a multi-purpose room where a television is often one entertainment among many.  Society is sadly losing its sense of decorum and specific space.  Mobile media devices and the prevalence of screens are turning every space into television space.  Endless self-indulgence places personal desires of the moment over decorum.  Every space is whatever the individual wants it to be and thus no space is special.  Movie theaters, at their most ideal, are reminiscent of the decorum and specificity of a church.  When I go to Church, I am there for prayer or liturgy, not, for example, to play soccer.  Going to a movie theater is about a specific experience and not just inputting the data of the movie.

Another key to the movie theater experience is the lack of distraction.  The room is dark.  In my personal experience, it is usually silent or very quiet, although I acknowledge that many people have complained of the opposite.  As I've already noted, you've come there to watch a movie and nothing else so you can give your attention over to the experience you payed good money for.  The screen is so large, it encompasses nearly the entirety of one's vision.  The size demands our attention.  It places an importance on the proceedings.  Hopefully the setting is also relatively mundane and unadorned outside of the screen itself.  A ratty theater is as good as a nice one as long as the movie's good and the seats are reasonably comfortable.  I myself enjoy stadium seating but I can live without it.

Another great quality of the movie theater is, or at least was, the lack of commercials.  Unless the Super Bowl is on, no one really likes commercials.  They are a necessary evil of cheap television service.  The television studios and stations have to pay the bills.  I usually mute them myself.  At the movie theater, this is unnecessary.  Good money has been paid to avoid the television experience.  Trailers before the movie are a different animal for a number of reasons.  Firstly, it is already conventional to show trailers before a movie so the audience is accustomed to it.  Secondly, if someone is already at the movies, it seems logical that they are interested in movies and might wish to see other attractions.  Lastly, this is the movie theater essentially advertising itself because getting people through the doors to see a movie and buy concessions used to be the only way they could make money. 

It's important to remember that television and home video are new phenomena.  Television did not get traction until the 1950's.  All movies before the rise of television and many after were made specifically for the movie theater.  In fact, in defense against the rise of television, movies became even more uniquely "cinematic."  A movie screen is not just a large television.  It is a different experience and a different set of formal aesthetics that don't always translate well.  In watching Lawrence of Arabia on a small television, I was struck by the wide shots and how they were not anticipating the viewing of the movie on a small television.  Laurence looked like a gnat by the time the initial effect was magnified by a small television.  One could argue that we are now in an inverse of the previous situation, that now movies are made for television and not the theater.  While this is to some extent true, many modern movies are still played in the theater which also exists, unlike television did.  If a movie plays at all in a movie theater, it was made for the theater to some extent, whereas if a movie was made before television was popular, it was most likely in no way trying to foreshadow television.  It is tough to argue today how much an individual movie is influenced by film versus television aesthetics.

The last important distinction is that television has been rendered monotonous by incessant viewing.  I, like virtually all Americans, have watched too much television in my lifetime.  The television is always there in the living room, waiting to be turned on at all hours of the day when one is momentarily bored.  The modern living room is usually built around it.  Some reports have said that the average American spends over four hours a day watching television.  Most people don't spend nearly that much time at the movie theater.  I remember a day where I lethargically sat in front of the television nearly all day, and at the end of the day, went to a movie despite feeling like I had already had too much screen time that day.  The movie broke through my lethargy and was a genuinely enjoyable experience, entirely different from the monotonous television viewing of the day.

The trend toward television is not entirely bad, though.  Many multiplexes have moved towards using at least some of their screens for middlebrow and highbrow offerings.  The more the industry moves towards television, the more mainstream audiences will go with it and the more movie theaters will have to cater to cinephiles who still appreciate the experience they offer.  In my experience, the best movies tend to last longer at a theater rather than having a huge opening week and quickly disappearing.

The movie theater experience is not a giant living room with a giant television.  It is something special that will hopefully be preserved and appreciated for years to come.

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