It’s The Pictures That Got Small

April 11th, 2011 § 0 comments

Having written only last week about the elements that I believe will sustain theatre over the long haul, I was intrigued to open yesterday’s New York Times and find that film critic Manohla Darghis was lamenting the loss of communal attendance at movies. The coming-together of audience is an intrinsic part of theatre, now and forever, but is no longer an essential part of seeing movies precisely because movies can be replicated and shown on an ever-expanding variety of platforms, which increasingly insure that you can watch whatever you want whenever you want, without leaving the comfort of your sofa.

I happen to remain dedicated to seeing movies in movie theatres, however challenging and dispiriting that can be in so many venues. Well, I hear you say, you’re conditioned to going to theatres to see theatre, so you like the same experience for movies.

Actually, no.

Except when I’m seeing a comedy, when I do enjoy being a part of group merriment, I am not seeking a communal experience at the movies. In fact, I’m delighted when I manage to catch an under-attended showing: I can throw my coat on an extra seat, chomp on Raisinets to my heart’s content and my arteries’ dismay, and be blissfully unbothered by someone behind me kicking my seat every time they cross or uncross their legs. It doesn’t even matter when I’m at the movies with someone else, since I am always so intent on a film that I will accept no conversation around me or including me for the duration of the film.

I know that regardless of others surrounding me or a vast sea of empty seats, the movie will be unchanged, since the audience acts upon a projected image no differently than it does upon the printed page. That is to say, not at all. What surprised me about Darghis’ paean to the lost movie audience (and she seemed so bereft I feel I should invite her to the theatre so she can experience a live audience once again) was that it failed to hit upon the single element that makes movies in a theatre such a distinctive experience that cannot achieve equivalence at home, their unique selling proposition, if you will. That element is scale.

Movies are a visual medium and the best of them were and are conceived, shot and meant to be shown on a large canvas, figuratively and literally. I’m not talking about 60”-diagonal-plasma-wow-those-insects-look-cool large, I mean stand-in-line-at-New-York’s-Ziegfeld-for-hours-to-see-StarWars large. Theatre can offer any story with grand imagination and scope, but only the movies can magnify the players, so that a twitch of an eyebrow can be seen in the very last row of any theatre, so that an embrace is viewed from a distance so close it’s almost as if you’re in it, so that human fury can seem the size of battling redwoods.

Let me seemingly digress for a moment. My college roommate Steve, who used to travel on a lot on business, saw a number of movies on airplanes over the years, and came to develop what we call The Inverse Proportion Theory of movie quality. The theorem, which is pretty infallible, is this: A great movie is great on a movie theatre screen, and a bad movie on the same screen is quite bad. But if you change the scale, watching those movies instead, say, on your home TV, or even further reduced on an airplane or your iPod, a funny thing happens. The good movie loses its impact, while the bad movie suddenly becomes, though not good, passable. Think about it: Lawrence of Arabia on a three-inch screen has sequences that would be interminable or impenetrable writ small, and the same goes for 2001: A Space Odyssey, while Happy Madison on the same screen isn’t quite as grating or overbearing as any Adam Sandler film can be at greater than life size. I developed a corollary movie rating system, which folds in the cost-value equation: See in a theatre; in-theatre at the bargain matinee; second-run theatre (where those still exist); rental (now obsolete); cable or Netflix; cable or Netflix if you’re sick; better to sleep.

I wrote last week that theatre’s key point of distinction from the other narrative dramatic forms is that it is performed live; in the case of movies, the distinguishing feature is that they can be so big. Audience presence is not in a defining attribute of film, and the diminution of its in-theatre audience is shared with so many formerly public activities as to be endemic to society; the prevalence of “Bowling Alone” came about even before we could bowl with a Wii, as the personal schedule took precedence over the desire to congregate and share most experiences. But since there is no live theatre when you have an empty venue, the stage has been forced to adopt a contrarian, Luddite and life-saving stance against the prevailing sentiment.

Had it not been for Ms. Darghis’ essay, it had been my intent to avoid any manner of follow-up to last week’s blog, which incited a variety of interesting comment, both pro and con (among them from Chris WilkinsonRob Weinert-Kendt; and 99 Seats). And my point here is not to rehash my prior message, but to brashly offer my prescription for the motion picture industry and particularly their exhibitors, even as the studios themselves seem so resigned to the loss of theatre revenue that they keep shortening the window between theatrical release and home viewing availability.

For god’s sake, embrace size and scale. I don’t mean that you should make big, loud movies; I mean that if the movies are conceived and executed in a way that demands they been seen on screens no home theatre can approximate, then people will go to see them in the theatres, where visionary films have triumphed even with the advent of radio, TV and home video, if only you’ll let them. They’re more than commodities to be exploited on multiple platforms, they’re creative enterprises in a commercial setting, and the movie theatre is filmdom’s Broadway, with the added benefit of existing in markets large and small. Home video, regardless of BluRay, SurroundSound, and streaming on demand, is still the bus and truck version of the real thing.

I love the movies in a different way than I love theatre, but dare I say it, I love them each in their own way equally. When I see a play that has rapid-fire, short scenes with a literal and linear construction, I wonder why it wasn’t a movie; when I see a great film like The Hurt Locker I know it could have never been realized as well on stage.

But just as I feared that theatre was shrinking even more and forcing its creative artists to write to fit a more constrained model, I am flabbergasted that movies may be doing the same, accepting that the paradigm has changed, instead of fighting to sustain its most distinctive features. Don’t let movies get smaller, folks. There’s no need. We’ve already got that. It’s called television.

And if someone wants to sit by me at the movie theatre, I’ll move my coat.


This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.

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