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Theatrical vs. Home Movie-Viewing

by : scottwblack [ email this article to a friend ]
This is technically an off-topic post in that it's not a sorry blurb-type review, but recently I've been having philosophical reservations about posting on films that I watch on DVD and TiVo. Granted, without DVD's and Turner Classic Movies, I would be incapable of seeing lots of movies every year, but I wonder about the differences in the experience and how that difference affects my opinion of the film. I'm no Movie Hitler, but I question how much home viewings are worth, even if the home viewings come on a high definition, widescreen TV, with a superb home theatre sound system (which I do not have, by the way). What do y'all think?

Excellent question!

I was struggling with this question when I was doing my first web site. I first saw both CITIZEN KANE and THE THIRD MAN first on video; my initial impression of both was "ehhhh". When I was in college, I got to see both in the theater, and they were like completely different movies. That experience convinced me that there is a significant *aesthetic* difference between video and film, as I know it wasn't simply because one was bigger.

I decided that seeing a movie on video was, in a sense, seeing a sketch of the real thing, like seeing a reproduction of a painting in a book as opposed to seeing the true version in a museum. If I hadn't seen it in a theater, I hadn't yet really seen it.

But here's the rub: unless you're Mike D'Angelo, you're simply not going to see a lot of movies, especially classic ones, as they were intended to be seen. What to do?, I asked myself.

Short answer: Grin and bare it.

There's simply no way I was going to deny myself movies on video, and getting to theaters (and having money for them) is more often than not problematic. I just accept that what I'm seeing isn't the real thing, and move on. And when the opportunity arises to see something in a theater, I jump at it.

(My two favorite movies of all time are JAWS and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, and it was only in the last two years that I got to see them on film. For the record, ROTLD didn't seem that different--maybe a little cheaper, actually--but JAWS was like it was playing at double speed. I could finally understand why some people, during the original run, would run out into the lobby and throw up. Oh, and then there's the case of Kubrick's 2001, where I was distracted by the grain of the film after seeing it on DVD!)

Finally, another way I can look at it is that movies, whether they're on film or video, are essentially a kind of research. I hope to be a screenwriter and filmmaker, not a critic or theorist or historian, and so the aesthetic differences, while important to keep in mind, aren't that significant.

That's my $0.02.
Posted by Kent M. Beeson at May 29, 2004 06:10 PM

Wait, 2 more things:

1. "Movie Hitler"--now that's funny.

2. You have a Tivo? You bastard!
Posted by Kent M. Beeson at May 29, 2004 06:12 PM

I'm different than you, I guess, in that I have no aspirations other than to see a lot of good movies and improve my ability to write about them for fun. I can only dream of seeing The Third Man--one of my favorite movies--on film; New Orleans' sole repertory theatre started showing only first-run flicks over a decade ago. I did see Return of the Living Dead during its original run, though!

Speaking of MD'A and the Movie Hitler, I believe that it was the former who first called Fred Camper the latter in the little online discussion group that we are all in together (although I'm one of those damn lurkers that everyone despises). And, yes, with the advent of VHS and moreso DVD, really only those in NYC, LA/SF and Chicago have a chance to see lots 'o older films on the big screen. New Orleans is a particularly weak film town, but I guess that I shouldn't complain; at least there is a Landmark theatre and it is only a quick bus ride away.

Oh, and TiVo is a really fun thing to have. Relatively cheap, too. Our DirecTV with TiVo bill is only $45 a month.
Posted by Scott at May 29, 2004 06:41 PM

I believe it is irrelevant how or where you view the film in question. Films I see in theaters get the same reaction when I see them on video; when I see a classic on the big screen (in other words, "High Noon" in Manhattan), it's still brilliant. "Gerry" would bore me in the theater just as much on DVD on my friend's home theater system.

As for Mr. Camper and Mr. D'Angelo, in a way they are both 'Movie Hitlers' (?) so one calling the other names is highly ironic. Plus I think online discussion groups are basically groupthink nonsense with no direct purpose which is why I absolutely despise them (posting to random blogs is the closest I get ... and even then ... eh ...).

Off topic, but has anyone read the "Rance" blog that's making the news? It's right here for those interested; rumors as to who he is run rampant - I can't say I believe him, but as an imposter he does his research.
Posted by Matt at May 29, 2004 10:43 PM

I'm not sure what to make of Rance. After reading some of his posts, I thought that he might be Vin Diesel. Then someone mentioned that he might be Ben Affleck. Most likely, though, he's just some highly creative wannabe in a basement somewhere. Whatever the case may be, he's getting a hell of a lot of pub for someone who supposedly wants to remain anonymous.

Back on topic: Matt, are you saying that it shouldn't matter how or where a film is seen? That, if a movie is worthwhile, it should retain its power even when viewed on a puny television screen? 'Cuz, if so, that's an argument that I would buy. Also, do you see more movies on DVD than in the theatre, or is it the other way around?
Posted by Scott at May 29, 2004 11:05 PM

I do not believe it should matter where you see the film - greatness is greatness ("Schindler's List" should be no less effective on a TV set in your living room than at the Angelika, for example). The only two caveats I'd like to attach to that statement are: (1.) the viewing should be done in one sitting (except something truly unwieldy like "Shoah" or "Hitler, A Film from Germany") and (2.) the viewing should be done in silence and with total attention (no talking, no continuous pausing, very few breaks if necessary). Some friends I won't name - and they should know better - lift weights or run on the treadmill while watching films. That's okay for, oh, some action movie you're only half interested in, but not "Day of Wrath."

Since I'm not a big fan of modern movies, I watch more on VHS and DVD. Of the 400 or so movies I see a year (yipes), I catch 70-80 at the theater. If I rewatch a movie I did not like in a theater on home video, I still don't like it.

I hope these Movie Hitlers are prepared to kiss their theaters goodbye because if I'm reading between the lines correctly, home theater will BECOME the movie theater if H-wood has their way. Hell, DVDs are now coming free with pizzas. Of course, this is pure speculation on my part, but I do recall reading an article on the eventual rise of Internet pay-for-play cinema. Who knows.

Lastly, one more thing about Rance: I find it implausible for someone who essentially "won the lottery" and became an A-list actor (or even any actor of any kind that actually makes $ acting) to be willing to allow that to come crumbling down with such a touchy stunt.
Posted by Matt at May 30, 2004 03:25 PM

Regarding caveat number two: yes! My wife has a hard time adhering to those rules, though. I have to practically beg her not to take breaks or make casual conversation with me during home viewings.

I do believe that the day is soon coming when most movies will be released in theatres and on video simultaneously. It just makes too much sense. Sure, Disney pics and Star Wars-type blockbusters may continue to have some sort of window, but what reason will there be to delay the DVD releases of tiny indie films that almost no one sees in theatres anyway?

400 movies a year is nothing, by the way. Doesn't that kid baaaaaaaaaab watch that many every day? Must be nice for him to have no other obligations.
Posted by Scott at May 30, 2004 05:12 PM

Well, Matt just said pretty much everything I wanted to say. I will simply add that, as a compare/contrast type of thing, that I first viewed "Freddy Got Fingered" on a shitty low-res Internet bootleg and its demented genius still shone through. Granted, that's not exactly a visually inspired film... but I did see "The Royal Tenenbaums" in a first-run theater in NYC and it still sucked. And the first time I saw "The Apartment" was a full-frame telecast on AMC... still blew my mind.

I will admit, though, that I violate the one-sitting rule all the time. Even with something like the Zatoichi films (which are never longer than 85 minutes), I'll often nod off. This could be because I never get home earlier than 8:15 at night, though....
Posted by Steve at May 30, 2004 05:41 PM

Looks like I'm the odd man out, per usual.

In a way, I'm kind of jealous of youse, those that have never had the experience I've had. But some movies ARE significantly different when viewed as projected film, as opposed to watched on a TV. To be clear, I'm not talking about "greatness" -- "Calvin & Hobbes" would still be brilliant, even if it was reduced to microscopic size. What I'm saying is that seeing a movie in a theater can potentially change how it is recieved. I still think CITIZEN KANE is boring on TV, and I'm not sure I *need* to see JAWS again in the theater. Is it simply a matter of screen size? Is it because of the ritualistic nature of theater? Is it because of the differences between light emitted from a TV screen as opposed to light reflecting off a screen? Is it because film in a theater can't be paused or rewound? Is it because there's a frog in my pants? Some combination thereof? Who knows?

Not every movie is going to be like that, of course. I doubt that Derek Jarman's BLUE is going to be much different in a theater. BUT--I'm willing to consider the opinion of someone who's seen it both ways and says otherwise.

It's a complex topic, I think. There's all sorts of twists and variations. What about something that was intended to be seen on TV, but transferred to film? (I can't imagine watching THE KINGDOM in a theater, although, of course, people have done it.) What about the fact that, according to J-Ro, the transfer of CITIZEN KANE (again, sorry) is messed up, in that it isn't as dark as it's supposed to be? And etc.

And then there's the issue of these "rules". Frankly, I think y'all're crazy. My living room aint a theater, and I aint gonna subject it to the same kind of ritualistic codes of behavior. But, obviously, YMMV.
Posted by Kent M. Beeson at May 30, 2004 06:48 PM

You make some good points, Kent. Still, I think that within ten to twenty years the majority of movies will be watched at home and not in theatres.
Posted by Scott at May 30, 2004 07:01 PM

Oh, they probably will be. I can't and won't deny that. But it will be sad if it isn't recognized that something was lost when it happens. But it's also kinda weird -- imagine the furor if all the museums in the world closed down, and all we had were catalogues of pictures in their place. I think movies are just as important, but I doubt there'll be much outrage.

(or would there even *be* any furor in the museum example? I may be more out of touch than I realize :-0)
Posted by Kent M. Beeson at May 30, 2004 07:18 PM

I'm not saying I disagree with you, Kent -- the theatrical experience is one that's completely different from the home experience, and oft times it's a better experience. And there are those films that simply do not play well in a home environment, no matter what your setup is. (F'rinstance, I did not care for either "The Heart of the World" or "Careful" when I saw them on the Sundance Channel. But when I saw "The Saddest Music in the World" at the Landmark Sunshine last month, I had a revelation: "Oh, so THIS is what people have been seeing in Guy Maddin.")

But at the same time, I think the full weight of a film can be grasped even in a reduced format. An example: Since you keep bringing it up, I've only seen "Citizen Kane" once. On video. I've never seen it in a theater. Yet, that didn't stop me from shitting gold and doing backflips when I did see it. I think "Kane" is astonishing no matter how you see it. (Of course, I know plenty of people who'll take your side as to its boredom factor on the small screen, so maybe I'm loopy.)

Another example: I picked up the "By Brakhage" DVD set the other day. Which brings us to the film "Mothlight". Now, here is a film designed expressly to be shown on celluloid. The fact that the film is silent, the only sound intentionally being the ambient sound of the projector, is supposed to be part of the experience. And I suppose one could make a case for a reduced experience upon seeing it in a digital format (as, indeed, Bryant Frazer did to an extent in his article on the Brakhage DVD). But the film, in my eyes, was still so staggeringly great that I wept. Have I lost a piece of the film in not seeing it as it was intended? Probably. Did the extraordinary power of the film elude me? Not at all.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not discounting seeing films in a movie house. Shit, I do it as often as possible. I even go see films like "thirteen" and "Whale Rider", films I'm pretty sure I won't like, just because it's playing in my local arthouse and it's better than either traipsing over to NYC to see it or waiting until it eventually shows up on DVD. But still... I do think that the ultimate intent of a film can be gotten across no matter how you see it.

(Of course, therein lies another part of the argument -- what about films that play theatrically and then never show up in a home format? I waited two years for "Songs from the Second Floor". And what of films that get festival play and then never see the inside of a multiplex? Is my experience with "Battle Royale" diminished because I saw it on a third-generation bootleg off a foreign laserdisc?)
Posted by Steve at May 30, 2004 07:37 PM

And just for argument's sake, I saw "Alien" on fullframe video long before I saw it in a theater. I liked it about the same both times. (For the record, I think it's very good but slightly overrated.)
Posted by Steve at May 30, 2004 07:39 PM

And as an aside to Matt: "Irreversible" and "All the Real Girls" were actually MORE effective when I saw them on home video than when I saw them at the Angelika. Of course, that might be because my TV is bigger than the screen at the Angleika. And I don't have subways running by my house every ten minutes.
Posted by Steve at May 30, 2004 07:41 PM

Honestly, for me seeing movies at home is just a hell of a lot easier than going to the theatre. As a non-driver it's next to impossible to see anything that doesn't get booked at the local Landmark. And, even going to the Landmark is kind of a bitch, because the last thing I want to do on my days off is take the bus to the French Quarter and see the latest indie flavor of the month with a bunch of tourists.
Posted by Scott at May 30, 2004 07:56 PM

Geez, you people post so fast I can barely keep up! I step away for a moment, and suddenly it's like my apartment's flooded.

So, some fragments:

1. I don't believe the full weight of a movie can be grasped on video, but I do believe that the ultimate intent CAN be gotten across. Legitimate point or hair-splitting? I'm not even sure myself yet. But I think there's a difference. Short version: I agree with you, Steve.

2. OT: I'll admit I'm avoiding Brakhage because I'm afraid that Brakhage:Kent::Cassavetes:Scott. And cowardly me would rather be able to say at parties, "Oh yes, Brakhage, genius blah blah blah" without having seen anything rather than see some and have to say, "I don't get it and I don't like it."

3. Not that I ever attend any parties where I'd get to say, "Oh yes, Brakhage, genius blah blah blah". But yes, the Brakhage DVD is a big question mark/problem point in my philosophy.

4. Yes, your experience of BATTLE ROYALE is diminished, because I saw it at SIFF in 2001, nyah nyah nyah! Just kidding :-)

5. But then I can't imagine having the same experience of ALIEN in both film and video versions, so maybe I'm the loopy one.

6. That Angelika sounds like a real turd of a theater. Do people go there cuz they have to? I mean, it's NY, you'd think there'd be options.

7. Scott, you don't drive either? (shoots death metal sign) Although I may have to if we make Top 3 in Project Greenlight (Top 5 announced Tuesday!)

8. And now I must bid adieu, for, after bashing video for so long today, I have to get to the 12 DVDs waiting for me this week.
Posted by Kent M. Beeson at May 30, 2004 08:40 PM

7. I don't even have a driver's license anymore. That's what six years of living in the French Quarter will do...Good luck with your script, by the way. I still have to print the thing up and read it.
Posted by Scott at May 30, 2004 08:59 PM

The Angelika, quoth my friend Odie, is the only place where you get a free foot massage with your film (not "Pulp Fiction" foot massage ... a subway foot massage). If you've been in their dank basement, you know what I'm talking about. People go there because they have good, rare movies ("Dogville" and the Kim Ki-Duk movie and the Demme movie and ... and ...) and not for their mandatory lines and whatnot (ugh).

I never quite "bought" the Sontag theory about the closeness of strangers and collective voyeurism: I personally don't care to sit next to strangers and be trapped in a dirty seat for X hours. I can understand some films "needing" the helping hand of a "larger canvas" - Gance's "Napoleon," (sigh) Jackson's Rings trilogy - and even Brakhage's experiments. I still think Brakhage's work plays well on video (granted I've never seen his films theatrically) because they're all very personal, esp. "Window Water Baby..." and "The Act of Seeing..." and seeing them alone, in a room, on your TV is just as personal.

I think the entire debate is "unsolvable" - not that anyone's trying to solve it - and based on an individual's approach to the medium: I don't consider myself a "visual" person - I'm rarely impressed by cinematography - so, for me, the plot and performances rank significantly higher in importance. "Visual" people may have found more to like in something like "Gerry" than I, who was waiting for things like plot points and meaning. Even Beckett had dialogue.

As for Project Greenlight, I'm very much hoping Kent M. Beeson of the Western Civilization (awesome phrasing; you need business cards) will get a fighting chance. We need Argento-like movies (if I recall, you said he was an inspiration), especially since Argento himself isn't making them and his daughter is ... um ... doing what it is she ... does (I kid, I kid, she's great, hmmm [cough])
Posted by Matt at May 30, 2004 11:41 PM

So, Matt, Steve and all others you have seen it, is Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring something that needs to be seen in a theatre? It is allegedly opening June 11th here in New Orleans.
Posted by Scott at May 31, 2004 03:39 PM

Spring, Summer, Fall... is a very "visual" film - there is barely any dialogue - and I do honestly believe the effect will be diminished somewhat on DVD, no matter how good the conversion. I remember you saying something about Aguirre a few months and how you'd want to see it on the big screen; it's very Aguirre-esque ... the ideas will still be there on TV (Herzog's film is simply excellent no matter how you look at it, I think) but the 'largeness' of it won't.

Hopefully it will play this summer in New Orleans.
Posted by Matt at May 31, 2004 07:02 PM

The local weekly has an ad touting its upcoming booking at Canal Place Cinema, so I'm hopeful that it may actually appear. That reminds me that I should probably bump The Isle up in my Netflix queue...or should I?
Posted by Scott at May 31, 2004 07:13 PM

Weird weird weird you should mention "Spring, Summer, etc." (or "The Five Seasons", as I'm tempted to call it), cuz I just saw it today. I'd say go see it, not so much because it's on film but cuz it's a pretty damn good movie.

Oh, and thank you, all you well-wishers. Tomorrow, Martin gets a phone call, or he doesn't. Fingers crossed!
Posted by Kent M. Beeson at May 31, 2004 10:26 PM

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