The Sum and Substance of a Movie

September 20, 2010
A thought by James Berardinelli

Why do we watch movies? Seems like a simple question, right? But is it really? And have the reasons for viewing motion pictures changed over the years? Does a 13-year old kid in 2010 go to a theater with the same expectations as his father 25 years ago, his grandfather 55 years ago, or his great-grandfather 80 years ago?

Certainly, the technology has changed. The oldest surviving movies are as primitive as one can imagine: soundless and in black-and-white with little understanding of the importance of camera placement or shot selection. Today, "film" is in many cases a misnomer, since digital is fast becoming the medium of choice. It won't be long before everything is encoded 0s and 1s. The analog age is vanishing in the rearview mirror. Hard drives have replaced bookshelves.

In the beginning, movies were curiosities, more gimmicky than today's 3D. A century ago, I'm sure there were critics who expressed with certitude that cinema would never beget art. Gradually, movies evolved from sideline entertainment to the main show - a destination for couples on a night out or for kids on a Saturday afternoon. Stories replaced random images, multiple reels allowed an expansion of length, sound added a new dimension, and the bigger-than-life amalgamation of narrative, visual, and audio became the most popular form of escapism since the novel.

That's what it comes down to: entertainment and escapism. A minority of films strive to be considered "art" and an even smaller number achieve that distinction. Most motion pictures are derived and produced with a single goal: engaging as large a slice of the population as possible. Yes, making money is the bottom line, but the way to make money is to attract huge audiences, and that means creating something that finds favor with all demographics.

Over the years, the place of the movie in the entertainment hierarchy has changed. At one point, when its only competition was radio and live stage shows, it was King. People saw a lot of movies even in the midst of the Great Depression, when money was scarce. Hollywood never suffered; audiences were so starved for a way to escape the grim reality outside the theater that hard-earned dollars would be spent on admissions rather than on other things. It's no surprise that most movies made in the early 1930s were strongly divorced from reality. Years later, the introduction of television challenged the prominence of the motion picture, so the cinema evolved by making screens bigger, stretching the aspect ratio, and ramping up the number of color productions. Still, the average number of movies seen by an individual dropped dramatically from the 1940s to the 1960s.

The advent of "home video," a term that didn't enter the vernacular until the early 1980s when the first video rental stores opened, changed everything. The secondary market meant that theatrical trips were no longer necessary for those who disliked the crowds, the stench of faux butter, and the feel of sticky floors. Sure, movies had been available on TV for years, but HBO ran only a small selection and the networks stopped the action every 15-20 minutes for commercials. Now, with videotape, it was possible to program one's own evening, to pause a movie for a bathroom break, and to see something less than a year after its theatrical debut.

As home video became more alluring, theaters became less appealing. Multiplexes replaced single-screen venues. Video and audio quality were often compromised for a variety of reasons, most of them economic. Ushers disappeared and, with their departure, audiences became more unruly. The concept of "courtesy" disintegrated. Even before cell phones became an issue, there were problems with people talking and babies crying. Faced with such challenges, it's no wonder that a segment of the population gave up altogether on trips to theaters. But they still watched movies, albeit in the comfort of their own homes.

In the early days of TV, 17" was a big screen. The first TV I owned was an 11" black-and-white model with rabbit ears. That was my "college set" and I used it from the second semester of my freshman year until I was in graduate school. My first color set was about 18" - that was my primary TV from 1990 until about 1996, when I started desiring bigger screens to watch movies at home. 18" was okay for VHS, but laser discs demanded something weightier, so I purchased a 32" Sony, a behemoth I still own (but rarely use). That satisfied me for a while and, considering the restrictions of the town house in which I lived, it was realistically the largest screen I could accommodate.

When I moved into a house with a nice, big basement in 2000, I immediately purchased a 65" RPTV. State-of-the-art at the time with a beautiful picture. The first time I watched it with the 5.1 surround connected, I felt almost as if I was in a theater - except there were no other patrons around me to impede the purity of the experience. During the '00s, I fantasized about upgrading to a front projector (mounted on the ceiling) with a 120" pull-down screen, but I never got around to it. When I moved into my current house, I downsized my TV to a slimmer, sleeker 52" LCD with all the trimmings, and that's where I am today. The room is simply too small to support anything larger, which is a shame. Since I don't plan to move any time soon, the 120" screen will remain beyond my grasp.

Strangely, as home screens have been getting bigger, they have simultaneously been getting smaller. Back in the '80s, I remember seeing a Watchman and thinking how cool it might be to have one of those gadgets to watch TV anywhere, even if the screen was only about 3". They didn't sell because no one wanted a picture that small. That's the reason why TVs with screens <12" were dirt cheap. The little b&w set I brought to college cost me about $70, which amounted to a few weeks of mowing lawns. The "sweet spot" for TVs in that era was in the 18-27" range. My parents' family room TV was a 27" console (one of those TVs built into a cabinet so it resembled a piece of furniture - if you're old enough, you remember them).

With the advent of portable DVD players, small was big. The stand-alone units, which combined a DVD player with a built-in screen provided a 5" to 8" picture. I owned one back in the early 2000s and used it frequently in airports and on airplanes when I flew to Chicago to visit Sheryl. Beyond that, however, its usage was questionable. They were extremely popular for a while until the price of laptops began to tumble and people could use those as DVD players.

For some, however, 5" was too big; they valued portability above all. So movies became available for the PSP. Although sale of PSP titles wasn't a rousing success, it made people aware that there was a market for movie-watching on small screens. Now, those with a Netflix account can stream complete productions (anything in their streaming library) to an iPhone. (Better be in a WiFi hot spot, though, or you'll spend more time buffering than watching.) Movies on an iPhone? Are you kidding?

Personally, I can't fathom watching an entire two-hour movie on a 3.5" screen. That size is barely adequate for browsing websites and reading e-mail, but watching a motion picture? The iPhone's bigger cousin, the iPad, is a better option, but even then... When it comes to watching a screener for reviewing purposes, I never go smaller than 42" and, even then, I sometimes feel like I'm cheating. There are those who will argue that a motion picture should never be viewed on anything less than a big screen in a theater. I'm not of that opinion, but 3.5" is too small... in most cases. (I occasionally use the iPhone for a quick-and-dirty re-watching of certain scenes. For limited uses like that, it is an excellent tool.)

Ultimately, however, the size of any home video screen is related to what an individual expects from a motion picture. And that gets us back to where we started. Why do we watch movies? If they're little more than disposable entertainment, a story told in images and sound rather than words, then a small screen, as long as it's large enough to figure out what's going on, is adequate. The explosions won't look as impressive and won't shake the room, but does that matter? On the other hand, for an immersive experience, even the biggest home theater setup may be lacking. For a mind-blowing ride, some movies cry out for the immensity of true IMAX - skyscraper screens with explosive sound systems. But do we really want cinema to stray into the realm of an amusement park ride? (Throw in 3-D and you're one step closer. All you need is shaking seats to complete the illusion.)

The real problem is that we don't know what we want any more. Whatever it is, however, we don't seem to be getting it. After an incredible 2009, theaters are no longer setting attendance records. Audiences are souring on 3-D (in part because of the surcharge). Home video sales have flatlined, with TV series box sets outselling movies by a wide margin. Blu-Ray has failed to fatten the coffers to the degree that was originally hoped and predicted. Art houses are finding it difficult to program more than a handful of screens and multiplexes are discovering that not every weekend will result in sell-outs.

In an ideal world, movie theaters would be shining palaces offering perfect audio and video in a friendly, courteous environment. The reality is that most theaters are penny-wise and pound-foolish, and if you go to four consecutive multiplex screenings without at least one major negative incident (either with projection quality or rudeness by other patrons), consider yourself lucky. These are the sorts of things that diminish the value of large screens and a shared experience. Nothing can beat seeing a great movie in a well-run theater, but nothing can be worse than seeing a bad movie with discourteous film-goers where the picture is out of frame or out of focus. You may never want to go back.

In the near future, I see movies subdividing. Those that are more narrative driven will be made increasingly available during their first run for home viewing (Magnolia is already doing this). Blockbusters will be tarted up in an attempt to replicate an amusement park ride. Eventually, the movie theater will be the purview of the spectacle while anything smaller (and, dare I say, more substantive) will be made with an eye toward home theaters big and small. Celluloid will vanish, replaced in toto by digital with all of its pluses and minuses. I can't say whether these things are good or bad, but they are certainly different and will lead us to think about the concept of a "movie" as something other than what it is today.