April 7, 2011
Does the communal aspect of moviegoing really matter?
There is no doubt or disagreement that movies are best viewed on the big screen. If you present people with the option to view a film any way they choose, if all methods were equally priced and equally convenient then the theater would win out every time. Even all the kids watching movies on their iWhatsits wouldn't argue that point. Unfortunately, however, the iWhatsits - along with various other forms of digital and personal media - are killing off movie theaters, as every critic and blogger is quick to note.
But many are also quick to note (Manohla Dargis, most recently) that the death of theaters doesn't just extend to the physical structures containing large screens, but the communal viewing experience. We're watching movies sequestered away in our homes, or on tiny screens that only one person can view at a time. Many articles cite this phenomenon as the biggest casualty in the shift away from traditional moviegoing. I am alone, then, in wondering why it's such a big tragedy?
Dargis' article spells out in numerous ways how audiences are becoming fragmented, but doesn't really explain why that's a bad thing. She boasts that she spent two hours waiting in the cold to see Raging Bull with other eager beavers, but doesn't really articulate why or if that made the viewing experience better. I watched Raging Bull by myself on DVD and it was still fantastic. Ultimately, she just comes off as scared and resentful that times are changing.
The biggest argument in favor of communal viewing is shared emotions, which I don't entirely disagree with. However, there are really only some genres that benefit. Comedies obviously receive a boost when a whole crowd is laughing along, and some shrieks and gasps might enhance a horror flick. But that's about it, and even then an audience doesn't always improve the experience. I've seen comedies where the jokes weren't connecting with anyone in the audience but me, and the silence surrounding my laughter was stifling. Similarly, an excessively vocal viewer can deflate the tension in a suspenseful film.
But what about drama? Documentary? Mystery? Isn't the best you can hope for that people just shut up and you forget that they're present? The whole notion that you're, like, sharing an emotional mindspace or whatever is a bit new-agey for me. How often in a theater are you really existing in that mindspace instead of thinking "wow, that's incredibly sad" or "LOLZ" or "so it's a dream WITHIN a dream?!" The best case scenario, at least in my opinion, is that the film is absorbing enough that you forget everything else.
People can be assholes at the theater. Even in the earliest days of cinema, moviegoers had to contend with women's ornate headpieces. Those days are gone, but we still have talkers, texters, shushers, hecklers, chewers, coughers, latecomers, indiscriminate laughers, crazy homeless yellers, and crying/screaming children. And let's not forget the occasional patron who stabs people with a meat thermometer. The odds are really stacked against you when you enter a theater, and yet most people manage to behave themselves. But are they really adding anything to your experience? Would an empty matinee showing be less enjoyable than a packed evening one, even one packed with perfectly behaved viewers?
I've had many solo or intimate viewing experiences that I wouldn't trade for the world. I watched the entire five and a half hour TV version of Ingmar Bergman's contemplative Fanny and Alexander with my boyfriend in our gloriously quiet apartment. I've watched comedies with a handful of friends that share my exact comedic wavelength. I've helped my boyfriend plan around his then-roommates' schedules so we could watch certain films in a sacred zone free of interruption. I've watched some kooky and/or culty films alone or with my boyfriend, knowing full well that the mysterious spells they cast would have been violently obliterated by nonstop seizures of laughter from audience members who interpret anything slightly off as riotously funny. Some films need room to breathe, and a packed house can suffocate it.
The line is also blurry when you consider television. Another favorite topic of bloggers these days is how we're in a TV renaissance, with content like Mad Men and Breaking Bad resembling, rivalling, and often surpassing what we can see in a theater. Where's the demand for these shows to have a communal experience? Why do we need to watch all films (even subpar ones) in a theater for the full experience, but no one questions that we're watching similarly (or more) cinematic content at home on TV? Probably because, like movies in a theater, that's just how it's always been done.
I'll keep going to the theater, because I want to see films sooner and because the presentation is better than it would be at home. I don't just dismiss the whole experience in one fell swoop - none of this "stupid kids and their Inceptions and textphones and it all costs a million dollars and I'll just stay home!" nonsense. (And by the way, all those articles saying that a night at the movies for a family of four costs more than a Porsche can suck it. Go sometime other than Saturday night at 7:00pm, find a coupon, bring your own damn food, and quit whining.) But when I strike it rich, I'm building myself my own personal Arclight and shipping in new prints every day for myself and my closest friends. You should probably start sucking up to me now, just in case.
What do you think? Is the communal aspect of moviegoing important to you?