Crosstalk: Do Movies Need To Be Seen On The Big Screen?

Crosstalk: Do Movies Need To Be Seen On The Big Screen?

Scott: A year ago, a cinephile friend of ours remarked, upon hearing that Michael Haneke's Caché was shot on high-definition video: "Oh well, celluloid had a good run." It was clear to him—as it's clear to me—that film as we used to know it has changed, thanks to the prevalence of movies shot on a format that we generally associate with home viewing. I'm not convinced yet that digital cinema has reached the high photographic standards set by conventional celluloid. In fact, the onslaught of cruddy-looking DV projects has, in my view, crippled more than enhanced the American independent scene. However, there have been more reasons lately—Caché, for one, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's stunning Climates, for another—to believe that the gap is closing, and digital image is the wave of the very near future. (Considering the production, distribution, and print costs for celluloid, it's a no-brainer, really.) One of the major concerns of this development, for theater owners and film-lovers alike, is that there isn't enough distinction between the theatrical experience and the home-theater experience, especially with the rise of gigantic, high-resolution, widescreen HDTVs. When Jake Gyllenhaal was carted onstage at last year's Oscars to hail big-screen epics like Ben Hur and Lawrence Of Arabia, the industry's flopsweat over this issue was painfully apparent.

And yet I'm here to make a quixotic argument that seeing movies in a theater is still optimal, and to chide you for believing otherwise. For those who don't know, Noel lives in central Arkansas, which pretty much wipes out any possibility of him even getting a chance to see the majority of independent and foreign films in a theater. Add to that the fact that he has a wife and two young children, and that further limits what he can see, even though his wife is A.V. Club contributor Donna Bowman, who's one of the most voracious cinephiles (and bibliophiles, and tele-philes, and knitting-philes) I know. And yet, how many times, Noel, have I sent you a screener and agonized over you watching it at home? Or how about the many more times I've accused you of underrating a movie because you watched it at home with great distraction?

Before I yield the floor to you, let me first lay out in the most basic terms why seeing a movie in the theater is still vastly preferable to watching it at home: First, there's the basics of sight and sound. The quality of a movie theater may vary, but the fact remains that in general, a theater's screens are bigger, the sound is better, and the picture quality is of a much higher resolution than you could ever achieve at home. Again, I'll concede that the gap is closing a bit, but we're not nearly there yet. Second, and perhaps most important, is that in theaters, you're seeing movies in a (mostly) distraction-free environment. The lights are down, your seat is upright facing the screen, and the enormity of the screen and the sound is hopefully substantial enough to make it the most immersive possible experience. This ideal isn't always easy to achieve—some theaters are crappy, and some viewers chatter like they're in their living rooms—but it beats the myriad distractions at home, from poor lighting to ringing phones to the range of other voices (children, barking dogs, the traffic outside, etc.) that can pull you out of a movie.

So tell me, Noel, what's the argument for staying at home? Are there really any advantages, or are you really just trying to justify your current screen-deprived existence?

Noel: You can build the nicest theater in the world, but unless you can erect barricades to keep other people out, you can't really control the experience you're going to have, Scott. I think you've been spoiled by spending the better part of a decade primarily in screening rooms. "Some viewers chatter?" It's worse than that. In the real world, going out to the movies has become a frequently wretched experience, spoiled by cell phones, bored kids whose parents couldn't afford a babysitter, teenagers who theater-hop, and wise-ass college kids playing MST3K for the benefit of their drinking buddies. You complain about the distractions at home? I feel like I spend at least the first half-hour of every movie I see in a theater quietly fuming, before the audience begins to get interested in the story and the extraneous noise dies down.

Which brings up one point I'll concede to you about seeing movies in a multiplex. When a movie is really working—a comedy, especially—the audience adds to the experience. (I could argue that our differing opinions about Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest has a lot to do with the fact that I saw it with a roaring crowd, and you saw it with a bunch of stony colleagues.) And I do still like the ritual of buying my large Coke, and trying to guess what trailers I'm going to see, and all that fiddly stuff that I've been doing for decades now. But I'd just as soon do it with nobody around—and that includes other critics, who can shape the experience for each other a lot more than they pretend. (How else can you explain the way that the buzz on films we see at festivals seems to change based on which critics saw which screening, and who they sat with?)

Also, while I agree that there's nothing better than sitting in the dark and looking up at a big screen, I don't buy this idea that the technical aspects of theatrical presentation have been perfected. Even in the best stadium-seating theaters, I've seen movies projected with the wrong lens, or with the projector-bulb set too low, or with the focus and/or framing slightly off. In the kind of small-town theaters I frequent, you can add muffled sound and a weird smell to that equation. (What is that? Burned soup? Rancid oil?) State-of-the-art theaters eventually get superceded by even-more-state-of-the-art theaters, and the older models cut back on staffing and repairs.

And don't get me started on how much everything costs. I can buy a movie at Wal-Mart for what it costs to actually go to that movie—and that  isn't even taking into account concessions. I did just that with The 40-Year-Old Virgin last year, and I got to see a more "complete" version of the movie to boot, at least according to the director. (More on that later.)

So, yeah, the phone may ring, or one of my kids may wake up and need to go to the bathroom, or I may get too comfortable in my cushy recliner and start to nod off. The same thing could happen if I read a book, yet no one insists that I couldn't possibly have appreciated the book "the way it was meant to be appreciated." Yes, I know that movies are a different medium, in which time and pacing are factors. But I ask you: What am I really losing if, say, I stop a movie, go to bed, then get up and watch the rest the next day?

I challenge you: Name some movies that "just aren't the same" when watched on DVD.

Scott: You're touching a raw nerve when you talk about movie-theater distractions, Noel. I'm not sure what has changed in the culture that has made talking in movies okay. Maybe we can blame it on convergence: Now that people have home theaters, perhaps they confuse actual theaters with their living rooms. Truth be told, I had a much bigger problem when I was in Miami, Florida for graduate school than I have here in Chicago. In fact, it got so bad in Miami that my friends and I used to plot little exit strategies whenever we went to the multiplex, agreeing before the lights went down to flee to a certain spot in case things got too noisy. This may sound like weakness, but the whole "exit strategy" idea came after we discovered that "shush"-ing people wasn't doing the trick; more often than not, they'd just look at you incredulously, as if you'd taken a dump on their lap. Apparently, there are vast segments of the population that have never been told that talking during a movie is rude.

I'll admit to being sheltered to some extent, though I spend more time in googolplexes than you might imagine. The screening room, of course, is such an ideal setting that it can't be reasonably compared to the real world: The space is small, but the seats are plush (and with a gentle rocking motion, too), the screen is perfectly proportioned, and the sight and sound are spot-on every single time. But I see movies with the public all the time, and my experience is quite a bit different: Maybe once or twice a year do I have problems with chatty people sitting behind me, and even then, I tend to see movies in state-of-the-art theaters where the sound completely overwhelms the din. I guess this isn't true where you live, but in Chicago, it tends to be survival of the fittest. If you don't make the requisite improvements to your theater and give people an experience that they couldn't possibly duplicate at home, then you can expect to be out of business soon. And I'd consider that a mostly positive side effect of the home-theater boom. (I say "mostly" because independent theaters have suffered to some extent.) It forces theater chains to step up their games. That dilapidated multiplex with the back-breaking chairs and the crackling monaural sounds just isn't going to cut it anymore. And as for the price, again, you have a different experience than I do: Paying $9 in a big city to do anything is a cheap night out; paying $9 in your home town, where parking is free and the myriad all-you-can-eat buffets will fill your stomach for half that, is quite another story.

So the choice for you, Noel Murray, isn't remotely the same as mine. My choice is, "Should I see a movie at home, or should I go to the local googolplex, where there's stadium seating, a large screen with overwhelming surround sound, and prices more reasonable than any other entertainment option in the city?" Your choice is, "Should I see a movie at home, or should I go to a run-down theater with shitty sight and sound, and a bunch of cell-phone-packing teenagers blabbing in my ear?" And since you have kids, you probably have to hire a babysitter, which adds to the already exorbitant cost of going to the movies. Needless to say, my choice is substantially better than your choice. Given your options, I'd probably have to concede that staying home is the best thing to do, but not before first cursing the gods for locating a cinephile like myself in such an inhospitable locale.

But in most circumstances, I still think that seeing movies in a theater is best. For me, this has little to do with watching a movie with an audience—even an alleged crowd-pleaser like that boring old Pirates Of The Caribbean sequel. Granted, I'll never forget being part of sold-out festival screenings of Michael Haneke's Funny Games and Caché, when the collective gasp of a thousand people at certain points (and if you've seen the films, you know what points I'm talking about) sucked all the oxygen out of the room. But as a critic, I often curse those occasions in which I have to give up a night at home in order to get crammed into a promotional screening with loud-mouthed DJs tossing T-shirts into the crowd.

Primarily, I go to the theater because it's the most absorbing way to connect with the movie in question. You thinking pausing a movie is no big deal, but for me, it's like a spell is broken. And I don't really think it's all that different with books either, though you may have to put those down for practical reasons. (Even then, hasn't everyone had the experience of staying up all night to finish a book?) There are no such continuity problems at a movie theater: Once the lights go down, the movie starts and it never stops, and there's theoretically nothing else competing for your attention. Like a lot of cinephiles I know, I have a favorite spot that I seek out every time: Middle to front row, dead center of the row, at just enough distance where I can see both sides of the screen through my peripheral vision.

And, finally, to answer your question about movies that "just aren't the same on DVD," I'd give you a broad criterion: If it was shot on film, then it's better seen in a theater. Some cases are different than others—I think Lawrence Of Arabia can be prioritized over, say, Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo—but there are so many films released each year that "just aren't the same on DVD" that I don't have the bandwidth to name them all.

So answer your own rhetorical statement: Are there any movies that you feel have to be seen in a theater, or is that groove in your couch too damned comfortable to leave?


Noel: So you're making me do the work for you, eh? Well, I know of at least one critic who'd carry your "If it's shot on film, it's better seen in a theater" philosophy even further, and argue that the special quality of light passing through celluloid is part of the art form, which means that if you see a film on video, you haven't really "seen" it, any more than you can argue that seeing a reproduction of a Jackson Pollock painting is the same as viewing the drippings up close. There are also those who would argue that film puts viewers in an "alpha state," aware and engaged, while video puts us in a "beta state," slack and passive.

I'm sympathetic to both those arguments. I also think they're fundamentally elitist. Yes, there's a difference between a real live painting and a picture in a book. So does that mean I can't study art history if I'm stuck somewhere hundreds of miles from a decent museum? When it comes to cinema, I can certainly understand how a person's appreciation might be enhanced by seeing a particular film projected on a big screen. But I refuse to believe that I can't evaluate the properties of composition, camera movement, performance, and theme if I watch a movie on TV.

Now let me blow your mind: I think in significant ways, my appreciation of film has improved thanks to television. I TiVo a lot of old movies, primarily off TCM, and I've been getting the kind of film-history course—encompassing the junk as well as the classics—that no university or repertory house even tries to provide. I can sample some rarely discussed old '30s screwballer or '50s domestic melodrama, and get a better context for the likes of Bringing Up Baby or Imitation Of Life. And if the movie's lousy—and it often is—I can fast-forward, and suddenly notice all sorts of things about camera placement and movement that are harder to see in real-time. The sheer quantity of what I'm seeing—and the way I'm seeing it—has helped train my eye.

You ask me what movies I think need to be seen on a big screen? Well, you mentioned Climates earlier, which helped touch off this whole debate. You saw it at the Toronto Film Festival, with impeccable presentation, and were captivated by Nuri Bilge Ceylan's deep, almost diorama-like compositions. I got the same impression when I watched the movie on DVD—a lower-quality burned DVD, no less—though I can imagine how the image would be more stunning when cast by a beam of light. But that's just it: I can imagine. It's not too hard for me to extrapolate from the reproduction of a theatrical experience I get at home, and visualize the real theatrical experience I might be having. I've been to a movie before. I know what they're supposed to look like. If I watch it smaller and flatter, I can still see (and evaluate) what the director's trying to do.

I find all this big-screen-only purism overly fussy, frankly. Eventually, it all becomes a matter of fine distinctions. If I see, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey in a theater, but the screen is the size of a legal pad, does that count? Or does it have to be big big? At what point do I get to enter the "seen 2001" club? Cineastes speak in reverent tones about small European communities where movie-lovers watch films projected on the side of a barn, and there are hundreds of anecdotes about the movie-mad patrons of Henri Langlois' Cinematheque, which screened battered, incomplete prints of classic films in dimly lit hallways. Yet I watch a Wong Kar-Wai film on my 42" TV, and I'm apparently some kind of slacker. It's bullshit.

I also have a defense for the "pause and play" aspect of home viewing, but I'll save that for my closing statement. For now, here's an (admittedly unfair) hypothetical: Would you rather watch a movie on DVD after a good night's sleep and a decent meal, or in a theater as the fourth movie of a five-movie day, with only three hours sleep and an hours-old street-vendor hot dog in your stomach?

Or I guess what I'm really asking: Do you honestly believe that the theatrical experience has "no continuity problems," when there are so many external factors that every critic brings into every screening?

Scott: Perhaps our views aren't as far apart as I'd suspected. You write, "I can certainly see how a person's appreciation might be enhanced by seeing a particular film projected on a big screen." And that's really the crux of my argument: Seeing a film projected is a significant enhancement, just as seeing an original painting in a museum is significantly better than looking at a reproduction. (I'd say much more so in the latter case, since no reprint in a book can possibly suggest the tactile qualities of a painting. I'd seen many dorm-room posters of Van Gogh's "Starry Night," but seeing it at MOMA was a whole different story.)

Truth be told, I too owe much of my film education to video, and I think that's probably true of most cinephiles of our generation. Back in our undergraduate days at the University Of Georgia, I'd actually schedule my classes so that I'd have a solid three- or four-hour block in the afternoon to head up to the 7th floor of the UGA library and sample its vast collection of classic films on video and laserdisc. And those viewings were far from ideal: You're parked in front of a tiny monitor, given headphones of variable quality, and often watching tapes with more than a little wear and tear. On top of that, unless you were watching a laserdisc, the movies could be pan-and-scan, meaning that you really couldn't appreciate composition, lighting, or even some of the performances, because some information is missing altogether. DVD has blessedly solved these presentation problems—and I'm happy to say that it looks like the forces of good have won an improbable victory on the letterboxing issue. And obviously we can expect further improvements as video technology inches closer to replicating the big-screen experience.

All that said, I'd say that virtually every major formative/revelatory experience I've had with the movies has been in a theater, and I don't think that's just nostalgia talking. Seeing Wings Of Desire and Amarcord when I was a 16-year-old with a newly minted driver's license, getting my first taste of the Marx Brothers while projecting a Duck Soup/Horse Feathers double feature to an empty house, watching the brilliant opening sequence of Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West stretched out across a massive screen… These experiences will always stay with me, and they're owed entirely to the glories of celluloid. I wouldn't go so far as to say "If you haven't seen it projected, you haven't seen it," but I'd generally agree with this idea of film as "alpha state" and video as "beta state," because I think film induces a heightened state of emotion and expectation. It's one thing to watch Climates on DVD and "imagine" what it must be like to see it on the big screen; it's quite another not to have to imagine at all, but to feel the impact of those images (and sounds) as they wash over you. There's a difference between imagination and actual experience, and no amount of extrapolation on your part can quite fill the gap.

So would I rather watch a movie on DVD after a good night's sleep and a decent meal, or bleary-eyed after little sleep on the end of a five-film day? Sorry, I'm going to have to go with the latter. In fact, my longest days at the Toronto Film Festivals in 2004 and 2005 ended with me staggering into the theater to see two of the best movies of those respective years—Kings And Queen and Gabrielle, both photographed in Cinemascope by the great French cinematographer Eric Gautier. (I saw the latter film on DVD for its theatrical release, and it didn't have the same force.)

To a certain extent, I think you're defending your turf a little. You don't live in New York, where it's possible to enjoy a complete and endlessly satisfying film education without needing a DVD player, or even a television, for that matter. Unless the arthouse and repertory scene in central Arkansas is more vibrant than I imagine, anything that isn't brand-new and released by a major studio (or, on occasion, a studio boutique label like Fox Searchlight) has to be seen on DVD or not at all. This isn't an ideal situation, and yes, it's every bit as elitist as you suggest for big-city cineastes to snort at you for seeing these films the wrong way. Can you evaluate a film on DVD for composition, camera movement, performance, and every other element that makes a movie a movie? Of course. But I think you also have to cop to the limitations of the format, as well as the pleasures particular to seeing a film projected under good conditions.

Here, let me help you: Back when we were both in college, I remember running into you outside the campus movie theater, which was a very good place to see a movie. You told me you had a pass to see the new Martin Scorsese film Cape Fear that night, but you weren't going to go because the campus theater was showing McCabe & Mrs. Miller—then (and probably now) your favorite movie of all time. At that point in time, I'm guessing that you had never seen the film in its proper widescreen format, which meant you only knew it from a hideously cropped home-video version. Now tell me, when you saw Warren Beatty lope into town to that beautiful Leonard Cohen song, did that not send chills down your spine? Can you honestly say that you can get the same experience at home? I can't.

Noel: Funny you should bring up McCabe, because the moment you mentioned our beloved UGA library A.V. room, I remembered my first-ever viewing of McCabe in one of those tight cubicles, staring at that tiny screen while Cohen blew through the headphones. The person in the cubicle next to mine was watching Betty Blue, but even though I stole a glance every now and then—who can resist high-toned French softcore porn?—I was riveted by the Altman film. By the time I saw McCabe on the big screen, I'd seen it three times on video, twice of those on a screen about the size of my laptop. And it was, regardless, my favorite film of all time.

If someone offered me a chance to see McCabe & Mrs. Miller again right now in a theater, I'd take them up on it, but I might ask if I could see it in an empty theater, because in addition to all the audience distractions I mentioned earlier, I failed to mention perhaps the greatest distraction of all: expectation. Last year, I heard reports of people seeing Terrence Malick's The New World over and over, and trying to time their screenings for times when there'd be the fewest people in the theater, so they wouldn't have to endure walkouts, snores and—worst of all—heavy sighs from bored patrons.

I hasten to add that this year, I saw three movies in Central Arkansas theaters where I was dreading the audience response—Marie Antoinette, The Fountain, and Apocalypto—and each time, the crowd seemed to be pretty captivated, enough so that I may have felt more warmly to the movie than I might've otherwise. But I also doubt that my reaction to any of those three would've been substantially different if I'd seen them at home, with just my own reactions to worry about. (Now if I'd seen them in a theater with hostile patrons? That might've made a difference.)

Anyway, there are some movies that are improved on home viewing—long movies especially. I liked all three Lord Of The Rings better on DVD than I did in the theater, and though that had a lot to do with Peter Jackson adding more nuance to the home versions, I also know that I wouldn't have wanted to sit through those longer cuts while stranded in an ass-busting multiplex seat. I much preferred watching them in maximum living-room comfort; and I even broke each film into two pieces, which was far less exhausting.

You said earlier that when you pause a movie, "It's like a spell is broken." But you watch a lot of TV, with weeklong layoffs between episodes of The Wire and Battlestar Galactica, and yet you can still remember subplots and visual motifs. True, those shows are designed to be seen in discreet units, but increasingly, as with the aforementioned Lord Of The Rings and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, directors aren't making their final, authoritative version of their movies for theatrical exhibition, either. Movies in theaters are becoming like highlight reels for the DVDs to come.

Mainly what I'd like to choke off is the self-righteous prickliness that accompanies the whole big-screen-vs.-small-screen debate. Cineastes get overprotective about "the vision of the artist" and the solemnity of the theatrical experience. And I'm sorry, that's not the world we live in now, and arguably hasn't been the world we've lived in since the invention of television. Audiences everywhere watch movies in pieces—it's what makes them such crappy audiences when they actually go to a movie theater—and filmmakers have been conforming to this reality. Not just by retooling their films for DVD release, but by making movies that often play like a string of disconnected cool scenes. (Again I cite Pirates Of The Caribbean.)

I agree that there's an ideal for movie-watching, and that ideal is sitting in a theater with an appreciative audience and a well-lit, enormous screen. But if that ideal isn't possible, viewers adjust, and snobby cineastes shouldn't blame them for adjusting. Remember, all I said was that "appreciation might be enhanced" by a big-screen presentation. Not "created." If a movie really works, it should work whether it's seen on a TV, a laptop, or a bedsheet flapping in the breeze. You can't micromanage the experience anymore. Let go.