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Against the Future of Film-Viewing: There is No Such Thing as Small Movies

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik May 30, 2013 at 12:59PM

Thanks to Web.Archive.org's Wayback Machine, here is an article that never goes out of style, as indie filmmakers continue to seek online and other digital distribution avenues to release their movies: "Against the Future of Cinema: There is No Such Thing as Small Movies," originally published in 2008 at FilmCatcher.com.
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Thanks to Web.Archive.org's Wayback Machine, I was able to find some old articles, which I plan to re-post throughout the next few weeks, that I thought had disappeared along with the shuttering of various web-outlets over the years. I was always sad to see such sites as FilmCatcher, Tomorrow Unlimited and The Daily Reel close down and its content vanish. But thanks to the wonders of digital archiving, I'm happy to report all my hard-work is not lost. First up, a piece that never goes out of style, as indie filmmakers continue to seek online and other digital distribution avenues to release their movies: "Against the Future of Cinema: There is No Such Thing as Small Movies," originally published in 2008 at FilmCatcher.com.

Against the Future of Cinema: There is No Such Thing as Small Movies

Keane
Lodge Kerrigan's "Keane" may be available on VOD, but it'd still pack a punch on the big screen.

Film industry insiders say the future of cinema is now: iPhones, Apple TV, video-on-demand. More people have seen eccentric YouTube celebrity Chris Cocker's "Leave Britney Alone" video than went to see the Coen Brothers' recent Oscar winner "No Country for Old Men" (18,434,049 views at last count).

They say that audiences want their films more immediately; they say, why trek out to the theater if you can watch a new flick on television in the comfort of home? They say that people are seeing more independent and foreign-language movies, thanks to Netflix and video-on-demand. They say consumers will watch movies more and more using sites like this, downloading films to our desktops and watching them on everything from our cellphones to our bathroom mirrors.

For all the wonders that this future brings us, consider the consequences: The enveloping, all-encompassing awe of watching great movies on a large screen will fade away. At this year's Oscars, which felt more like a memorial for the obsolescence of cinema than an awards celebration, host Jon Stewart conveyed this inevitable fate with a joke about watching "Lawrence of Arabia" on an iPhone.

Will epics die? Of course not. Hollywood's tentpole juggernauts will continue to play like roller coaster rides in IMAXes across the land. But as is already happening, artfully composed American alternative visions and world cinema masterpieces will be increasingly relegated to the small (or medium-sized plasma) screen. The irony is that the TV set, or the iPhone or the computer screen, are the very places not to see these films.

Let us redefine a particular term: the small movie. Small movies, apparently, are what people are content to see on small screens. Independent films and documentaries, for example, could be called "small," relative to "big" Hollywood movies such as "300" or "Transformers." The blockbusters' budgets are certainly bigger. So are their explosions.

But 'big' is a gigantic fallacy, a promotional tool that has nothing to do with the films themselves. In fact, I'd bet that "Transformers" plays just fine on a small screen. Gus van Sant's "Paranoid Park" does not—or, at least, not as well as if its hypnotic visuals were projected in a darkened theater. Sure, everyone likes to experience the booming sounds and spectacle of a Hollywood fantasia, but headlong pacing and shallow characterizations do not require expansive theater space to contemplate. Perhaps subtlety deserves the largest venue there is, whereas the short-attention-span cinema of Jerry Bruckheimer can survive just fine on a cellphone.

In particular, certain kinds of art films – patiently plotted, beautifully composed, as demanding as they are rewarding (think of the Asian masterworks of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jia Zhang-ke or Tsai Ming-liang) – suffer when reduced to the size of a breadbox; and the smaller the screen, the more difficult is it to discern their mastery of the form. (Home entertainment systems, as good as they may be, also do nothing to remove those domestic distractions, from phone calls to snack breaks, which remove us from the mysterious grip that these films can hold.)

Consider a couple recent critics' favorites, which might be called "small," such as Kelly Reichardt's "Old Joy" or Lodge Kerrigan's "Keane" (which were seen by a small fraction of moviegoers). There are no sweeping vistas in either of these films; they are intimate character studies, probing, in the former, the languish of once idealistic 30-somethings, and, in the latter, the psychological breakdown of a father. During the quiet climax of "Old Joy," as the two male protagonists lie down silently in the bubbling waters of a hot spring, the chasm between them and the past they seek to recover is made all the more palpable inside a wide auditorium. Would the subtle tinkling sounds of water and lush Pacific Northwest greenery evoke the same profound sense of loss on a small TV screen? I doubt it.

When Damian Lewis' distraught father breaks into an anguished rendition of the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," while searching for his disappeared daughter in "Keane," Kerrigan's relentless handheld camera and Lewis' blistering pain comes through in a more visceral way on a 24-foot by 16-foot screen, with speakers blaring. Shaky cameras on TV's "Law & Order" are a simple convention; on the big screen, the psychologically probing cinematography of Kerrigan, or the Dardenne brothers' "Rosetta," to which it was compared, brings out the chaos of their characters' inner turmoil, allowing the audience to tangibly feel the bumpy ride.

To loosely paraphrase a famous quote about actors, there are no small movies; there are only small screens. The intimate environs of your living room are not sufficient for films that excavate human intimacy; on the contrary, intimacy is more profoundly felt in a large theater, where viewers can absorb the actors' every glance and grimace. "We can wait for that on DVD," say filmgoers. No, not really. Waiting to see a film in your living room is hurting that film, insulting it; it's like saying to a good friend, "You're not good enough to meet me for dinner; how about we just catch up on the phone, or via computer screen, instead?"

Of course, there are plenty of films that should be relegated to such a space. Just not the good ones. If the future means downloading movies from my computer and watching them at home, please take me back to the '50s and '60s, when discerning audiences appreciated both the epic scale of "Lawrence of Arabia" at their local movie theater and, just as, or even more importantly, the poignancy of Francois Truffaut's heartbreaking widescreen debut "The 400 Blows." When that film freezes on the lost and confused face of Antoine Doinel (played by then 14-year-old newcomer Jean-Pierre Leaud), it has the power to shake your soul: But on a television, iPod or computer screen, this defining coming-of-age moment captured on celluloid may simply look like a kid running on the beach.

What will happen to the "The 400 Blows" of tomorrow? In some ways, they're already out there (see any mumblecore flicks lately?) and they don't look anything like the cinema of yore. Low-grade, personal, and shot on video, and in some ways particularly fitting for viewing on your laptop, these movies suggest that some independent filmmaking could already be changing in its very fabric and frame to align with new movie-watching habits. If the trend becomes more endemic, will a truly cinematic widescreen experience disappear from alternative film culture? And will aesthetically and intellectually challenging films circulate only among the most rarified art-house-goers, scholars and niche film blogs, and no longer percolate out to the wider culture for discussion?

No matter how many people tell me that they're perfectly content to watch movies at home, on their laptop or their large TV screen, or even their iPod, they're making a stark choice: couch-potato convenience over cinematic transcendence.

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