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?


Scott Nye said...

I wouldn't trade seeing a midnight showing of There Will Be Blood weeks in advance of its release with a packed crowd for anything. They weren't totally on the same wavelength as me (I managed to hold it together for the "brother from another mother" line), but it ended up treating it for what it was - a landmark event. And it was at Cinema 21, one of the nation's greatest theaters; seeing at a multiplex weeks later seemed to sort of cheapen the thing.

That same year, No Country for Old Men gave me my first taste of the sensation of complete stillness in an auditorium. I would have sworn no one even breathed. Let me tell you, that heightened the tension a thousand times more than ever watching it at home.

I know Dargis' points are sometimes on the nostalgic side, but as someone who has waited in the cold and rain for a huge, important film (that was certainly the case with There Will Be Blood), and who has packed into a full theater for a rare screening of The Mother and the Whore, I absolutely think there is something special to going through that. Those experiences elevate the films to what they should be - can't-miss events, not something that can be caught "whenever."

Julie said...

Everyone has a handful of experiences like yours, but that's kind of my point - it's only a handful. To say that that magic is always fundamentally present, for any screening you attend of any film, is just untrue.

Dr Blood said...

I haven't been to the cinema since "The Strangers". A group of kids who left in front of me said to each other, "I wish I'd watched Indiana Jones instead now." and I felt the same way. The cinema is too expensive to be able to waste money on bad films even when the audience behave themselves. Now I just wait until Netflix has the DVD and watch as many streaming movies as is humanly possible while I wait for it to arrive.

Rich said...

Julie, I've been writing about this same situation on my blog over the past few weeks, but I admit I haven't given this side of it as much thought as perhaps I should have. You bring up some good points.

I choose to write about the experience of seeing a movie, not just the movie itself, so for me, whether I see a movie alone or with others, whatever I go through while seeing it is of relevance when I write about it. I've seen plenty of movies alone, but given a choice, I'd rather watch them with other people, especially with friends, for all the reasons Scott brought up.

Regarding the industry at large, however, I wrote a post recently about several things theaters could do to enhance the moviegoing experience that wouldn't cost that much:


and today I wrote about one theater that actively works to do just that:


I think if the theaters want to keep their audiences, it's up to them to take steps to make the trip to the movies worth going to again, and they don't have to go to great lengths, either.

joem18b said...

nice post.

but forget about movies! i've stopped eating with anybody else. why should i? the wife and kids are boisterous. there are food fights. often the kids wish that they had had something else. now, i take my meals under my bed. it's nice and quiet, except for the cats.

Chris said...

Good idea for an article, some interesting points

The funny thing when I go the the cinema to watch big budget special effects stuff, because the 3D in Avatar is better on a big screen, then I am esstentilly rewarding the big studios and not supporting the indie films in theaters, which is odd being a lover of smaller indie films on TV/DVD.

DGB said...

I think people, by nature, are social so I can't see the theater experience ever truly vanishing.

I love the communal aspect, especially for comedy or action. And when theaters like the Arclight have bars in 'em, it's more incentive to meet up with friends and grab a drink before or after the movie, enhancing the social experience.