I am big. It's the pictures that got small.
- Norma Desmond
The Shrunken Cinema
I've updated this twice since I first wrote it. New remarks are at the bottom.
8 March 2004
It's always an interesting sign when the first thing you feel a need to do upon starting a new project is explain its title. I don't say it's a good sign or a bad sign, you understand. Just ... interesting.
Frankly, these pages of somewhat off-plumb film essays have the name "Shrunken Cinema" partially because smallcinema.com was already taken. But I'm glad it turned out that way. Upon reflection, I think a shrunken cinema is more accurate; "small cinema" is passive and leaves out the important fact of how it became small. It leaves out the blame.
I'm referring to you, sitting in your living room, watching films on your television. And I am referring to myself. I am referring to all of our peers, and the public in general. We are what shrank the movies, us and our enormous televisions and our DVD players - and more of us are contributing to that shrinkage every year. I don't plan to have grandchildren, so I will content myself with telling other people's grandchildren that, yes, I was alive and watching during the period when movies - in the sense of going-to-a-theatre-and-looking-at-a-big-screen movies - died peacefully after a long illness.
I may be premature. The theatrical moviegoing experience may not ever die completely, or it may die much later than I think it will. But it seems clear that the decline is not imaginary. When people talk about films not being what they used to be, perk your ears up and pay attention. They are not just being cranks.
Mind you, I don't always feel consumed with guilt about this. For one thing, the movie theatres are a rigged and very expensive game. I'm not entirely clear why major film companies continue to act in their own worst interests by playing the game of money the way they do it. I don't approve of the astronomical amounts some actors get paid, and I don't approve of willingness to pay it. I don't approve of movie companies then needing to take such a large chunk of the ticket revenues that the theatres starve to death. I believe the mantra of Hollywood should be "make it cheap and make it interesting."
Unfortunately, it's difficult to cheaply make the sort of films that still reliably draw the only people who can be trusted to attend theatres regularly: Teenagers. They like films with lots of noise, light, explosions, and special effects - all expensive. Sometimes I feel a responsibility to try to improve this paradigm by giving my patronage to smaller, quieter films meant for grown-ups. Other times I feel like it's far too late for that and I should just opt out of the game as often as possible and let the whole thing decline and fall without me.
I like films with lots of explosions too, and these are still the best to see in a theatre, where the whiz-bang portions can be displayed to best effect. I also like small, quiet films but - here's the problem: I like watching those at home much, much better.
I make a very strange audience. I lack patience. It's not a short attention span per se, although I'm sure I have one of those as well; it has to do primarily with the nature of the material. There are some types of characters and situations that just bore me to tears every time, no matter how well done they are, and others that are guaranteed to make me squirm in my seat and want to run screaming from the theatre.
This makes some films - the ones without explosions - a bad bet in a theatre, because if you've ponied up a second mortgage for your uncomfortable seat, you become reluctant to abandon ship. I know because I've walked out on a film in the last decade (it was Being John Malkovich, and if you're curious, I say a little more about it here), and I was amazed at the courage I had to muster to do so, even though I felt as though a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders when I finally did it.
At home, you have the freedom to get up and go pretend to get a drink during the scenes that make you uncomfortable (if you are watching with someone else); freedom to hit the fast-forward button and skip the agony entirely (if you are watching alone); and the greatest power of all, the ability to give up on a film entirely with far less loss of your time and cash. This automatically makes certain films easier to gamble on. The risk is lower. Didn't like that experimental Croatian psychodrama after all? No worries.
These freedoms are also the greatest weakness of home viewing ... because the bar is too low. It's far too easy to tune out or turn off, not just when you absolutely need to, but also during times when you should be paying more attention. It's difficult for movies to absorb us as completely in the home as in the theatre; there are other things competing for our attention. The lighting, the seating, the distance and size of the screen, everything that in a theatre screams I AM THE MOVIE. LOOK AT ME is missing in the home-viewing experience.
The point of all this is not to bury the movies, nor to praise them, but to bring to your attention (however obliquely) this crucial fact: We don't watch movies the same way at home as in theatres. We can't. Yet, even as the home experience becomes the primary means of seeing films for most of us, almost no film essayists or critics are writing from the perspective of the home viewer. These writers are, almost unanimously, purists who prefer to bury their heads in the sand and insist that if you are not seeing a film in the theatre, you are not really seeing the film.
Well, I am not a purist, and I don't believe in denial. I say you are seeing the film, so don't let those folks worry you too much about what you might be missing. However, you should also bear in mind that you, at home, are probably not seeing exactly the same film they did in the theatre.
No, I don't mean they reedited the film for home release. I'm talking about perception.
I saw a film called XXX in a theatre. I liked it at the time - surprisingly, since I had no love for the thuggish Vin Diesel. My spouse hated it, absolutely hated it. I didn't think it was Oscar material by any means, but I felt it was nicely put-together, fast-paced, reasonably compelling eye candy, which is all I expected from it.
A few months later, when it became available on DVD, I rented it and watched it one night when the spouse was out and I needed some mild entertainment. Again, expectations were low, but this time, the film failed them. The scenes which I thought were amusing were not so amusing, and the pacing wasn't as even and fast as I had recalled. It dragged. The film had reduced itself to a number of reasonably nifty set pieces/stunts, and a whole lot of nothing in between.
Some of it had changed because I was seeing it for the second time; I generally suspend disbelief so completely the first time I watch something that I don't notice the flaws ... until I go back and look again. But some of it had changed because of the home-viewing environment.
There is a good and bad side to Short Attention Span Home Theatre, and both sides are exactly the same. (Sort of Zen, isn't it?) Being able to speed past or tune out when I don't care to focus on what the film is doing may allow me to watch a film that I wouldn't dare try to sit through in the theatre; it may also make it more likely that I will notice which parts of a film don't stand up to close scrutiny; it may also induce me to lose patience quickly with a film that demands/rewards a fair amount of it.
The home theatre means that Lawrence of Arabia, a film critics love and I have always felt was tedious, is now something I can enjoy because I can skip to the good bits and dodge past the hours of lovingly photographed sand; but it also means I no longer give Cabaret the respect it deserves because I often find myself in too much of a hurry to watch it holistically and just run through the musical numbers I like. It means that a slow mood piece like Lost in Translation is now within my purview but that a slow mood piece like Citizen Kane will never have its former grandeur for me. It is a completely different game, with a different set of rules.
These essays are meant for the home viewer. Although they may talk about seeing films on the Big Screen once in a while, it is the small-screen viewing, not the big-screen one, that is the focus.
Purists will not be catered to. I don't like sacred cows and I don't have a problem with just wanting the Good Bits, especially if the spaces between the Good Bits are tedious. If you are looking for the grand, old-fashioned movie experience, you won't find it here; I don't believe in it. It's dead. It died a long while back. And it's time to move on to the way people actually watch movies nowadays.
Long live the shrunken cinema.
19 October 2010
Six years later, and I'm still willing to put money on my prophecy about movie theatres dying in my lifetime; they are already ceasing to be useful as any sort of promotional or word-of-mouth tool. These days films appear in theatres just long enough to qualify for awards, and are given two or three weekends at most to do what they will - except for occasional blockbusters - before being farmed out to the secondary market which is where the real, long-term money is.
This development has been in the process of rewriting Hollywood's financial models for close to a decade now, and those parts of the film industry which persist in being in denial about it are not doing very well at all. The viewing majority - other than the summer-teen crowd that keeps the blockbuster mentality going - would rather get a film streamed over their computers or other devices, or in the mail from Netflix. The only remaining step to be seen is how long the corpse will stay on life support.
14 June 2014
I no longer think theatres are going to die entirely, but I think the perception of the experience has changed. Going to the theatre now, among adults, is becoming a "big night out" or even "special occasion" thing - not something you do regularly. I suppose this is inevitable considering the prices, but the interesting thing is that some theatre chains are now recognizing that this luxury-item audience exists, and are actually taking steps to improve the filmgoing experience for these (usually older) audiences. A good sign, but a thriving niche market is still not the same thing as, say, the way people went to films in 1939, or even in 1979.
A trend I did not see coming when I updated this in 2010 is the death of the film critic. Perhaps it would be more correct to say "the crowdsourcing of the film critic." My expanded thoughts on that are appended to the "Film Critics" essay.
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