Movie Viewing Has Been Tragically Comodified
Published: Sunday, October 14, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
A few weeks ago, I went with a group of friends to see The Master at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. While our opinion on the movie itself was somewhat divided—I think it began as masterpiece quality but stumbled in its second half, while many of my friends simply thought the whole thing was a sloppy mess—we could surely agree that the presentation of the film was revelatory. The Coolidge Corner has long been one of my favorite spots in Boston, with its art deco style, diverse selection of films and programs, and its local ambiance. What made the screening of The Master so special was that the Coolidge screened it on 70mm film: the expensive, high-resolution film format that director Paul Thomas Anderson used to shoot the movie. The Coolidge was one of only a handful of theaters across the country to show the movie this way, so we got to see the movie as its director intended, with every extreme close-up or expansive wide shot presented in crisp and stunning detail.
The experience got me thinking about the way we consume movies today, and the huge variety of formats we have at our disposal. A few decades ago, the only movies available were whatever happened to be playing in town, whether it was a new release or occasional revivals and re-releases of classic films. Home video changed that dramatically, and in recent years the story has only become more complex: DVD, Blu-ray, instant streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, and digital releases through the iTunes store are just a few common ways of accessing movies. In theaters, the situation is sometimes even more complicated. If you plan on seeing the first part of The Hobbit this December, you’ll have the option of seeing the 2-D version, the RealD 3-D version found in most multiplexes, or the more rare IMAX 3-D version. And if Peter Jackson has his way, some theaters will be equipped to show the movie at 48 frames per second, the higher frame rate that he’s trying to force the industry to adopt. This will create two more versions of The Hobbit for viewers to choose, since the 48 fps version will presumably be available in both 2-D and 3-D.
What does all this add up to? It seems to me that all these gimmicks, especially 3-D, are ways of pulling people away from their tablets and Netflix accounts and Blu-rays and into theaters. Yet almost no one I know likes 3-D. It frequently results in darker images and headaches, and for a format that’s supposed to be about increased spatial depth it more often feels like a pop-up book shoving things in your face. It’s really no wonder that people aren’t willing to pay extra for the experience. This is not to mention the other, more general woes of modern multiplexes, from the obnoxious ads (when did movies become TV?), to the absurdly overpriced snacks, to the audiences who too often lack any kind of etiquette—like the 15-year-old girls behind me during The Perks of Being a Wallflower who felt compelled to voice their every thought for the entire audience. It’s enough to make me sympathize with those who always prefer to watch a movie from the comfort of home.
At the same time, though, people like going to movie theater—they always have, and they always will. Nothing can replace the communal experience of gathering in the dark to gaze upon a big screen, and Lawrence of Arabia on an iPad is not Lawrence of Arabia.
So what should the future of movie-going be like? Call me crazy, but I think the future lies in the past. I don’t think the way forward lies in standardizing everything to be 3-D and IMAX. It lies in the simple pleasures of a place like the Coolidge, which provides good films, projected well in an appealing setting, or the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, with its eclectic programming of repertory series, special premieres and cult classics. Or the lesser-known Harvard Film Archive, which screens rare gems, classics, and cutting-edge contemporary films and often hosts directors to introduce their films in person. All of these places share a commitment to showing films the way they were meant to be seen, and they cultivate audiences who feel the same way. It’s that simple—no 3-D, no IMAX, just a theater run by people who are clearly passionate about cinema, and an audience willing to go along with the journey in the dark.