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Is Watching Movies Too Hard, or Are Audiences Getting Soft?

by Sam Adams
April 2, 2014 3:51 PM
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At The Dissolve, Noel Murray uses recent remarks by National Association of Theater Owners president and CEO John Fithian to delve into what Pauline Kael once called "fear of movies": the prevailing sentiment among the culturally curious that they'd rather not see movies that are going to make them feel bad, and if they do, they'd rather watch them at home. That's what Fithian did with 12 Years a Slave, which he said was "too unequivocally intense to watch in a cinema."

I do wonder though about Fithian’s compromise regarding 12 Years A Slave. He acknowledges the greatness of the film, and says that everyone should see it, just maybe at home, where, to quote Kael, they can “remain in control.” And how do they do that? Just the ability to pause a movie at any time helps a viewer feel empowered, and perhaps less anxious. But I also see a lot of people using social media to help maintain that distance Kael mentions. "Livetweeting" -- or even just the occasional remark on Twitter or Facebook while watching a movie -- is a good way to hold a movie at arm's length, to make the film itself subordinate to whatever the viewer has to say about it, from moment to moment.

Murray's right that the key is less the choice of venue than the issue of control, or, as he later puts it, "surrender." I'd put it in less romantic terms: subservience. When you watch a movie -- and I mean actively watch, not just clock the requisite two hours in front of a screen -- you agree to submit to its vision. If you don't, or can't, you might as well get up and leave. That's not to say you should just like back and let it roll over you, but even if you're fighting against a film, you should do it from the inside out.

Jean-Luc Godard, among others, has argued that there's a fundamental difference between watching movies in a theater and watching them at home: “When you go to the cinema you look up, when you watch television you look down.” But nowadays, people look down at the cinema as well: either gazing from the heights of stadium seating or sneaking a peek at the cell phone in their lap. They expect total command of their environment, whether that means talking as if they're still in their living rooms or hissing at every reminder that the theater contains bodies other than their own.

Murray judiciously shies away from devolving into a "'you're watching it wrong' harangue," so allow me to say it for him: If you're not giving yourself to a movie with everything you have; if you reach for the pause button every time you see something that might scare or upset you; if you advertise your purported superiority to a film from another culture or a different era by loudly snickering every time it doesn't something heightened or unfamiliar; if you stop Schindler's List for a fucking taco break, you are, in fact Watching It Wrong. If you can't submit to a movie about the 400-year institution of slavery because you're worried it might be too upsetting, not only are you watching it wrong, but you should be hit with something large and heavy.

As theatrical exhibition is shoved into the digital age, the differences between the screens are shrinking. A 1080p television has roughly the same resolution as a 2K projector, although the levels of compression in the source are different, and most Blu-rays feature uncompressed theatrical soundtracks. (Plus at home, you know the management will respond if you complain.) But in a theater, at least in principle, you're seated among a group of people who have collectively agreed to put aside their other concerns for a period of time and devote their full attention to what's in front of them. You don't get to pause the film to throw laundry in the dryer or answer a quick email; you don't have to keep one hand on the remote in case the music gets too loud or things start exploding. You can replicate those conditions at home, of course: Draw the blinds, put your laptop to sleep, let your calls go to voicemail. But it takes a greater act of sustained will to turn your home into a cinema than to go to one. It's a little like the argument people make about "the experience" of listening to music on LPs: there's nothing preventing you from sitting down and listening to a 70 minute CD without interruption, but the cumbersome nature of a 12-inch vinyl disc forces your mind to switch gears.

As a film critic, what I mostly hear from my friends is a sense of vague regret about how rarely they see movies. But change the subject to TV, and the conversation picks up speed. There's nothing inherently wrong with this -- I could talk "The Good Wife" for hours -- but it's hard to escape that one of the reasons that TV has surpassed film in terms of cultural currency is simply because it's easier to digest. The most nail-biting episode is over in an hour, and there's a built-in escape valve at every commercial break. (Even premium-cable shows don't suffer much from interruption; excepting the occasional extended setpiece, you can pause Game of Thrones any time the story shifts locations without disrupting it unduly.) Is there a TV show "too unequivocally intense" to watch in a single sitting?

The point, to be clear, isn't that movies are better than TV -- seriously, let's not have any variation on that discussion ever again -- but that the shift towards home viewing means a move towards an on-demand paradigm. TV shows are watched when you want to watch them; miss an episode, and it'll be streaming by the time you get out of bed in the morning. Movies are moving that way as well. Increasingly, it seems, you hear people say that the only way to combat online piracy is to simultaneously release every movie in every window everywhere in the world: Give the people what they want when they want it, or they'll find another way. But art, as I've argued before, is meant to be inconvenient, not in the sense that you should have to scale a mountain or take out a new mortgage, but in the sense that you put your life, and your preconceptions, on hold and see the world through someone else's eyes. There's so much talk about what we demand from movies; what about what they demand from us?

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More: 12 Years a Slave, The Good Wife


  • Brian W. | April 3, 2014 11:12 AMReply

    "As a film critic, what I mostly hear from my friends is a sense of vague regret about how rarely they see movies. But change the subject to TV, and the conversation picks up speed... one of the reasons that TV has surpassed film in terms of cultural currency is simply because it's easier to digest."

    Yes! I've been trying to say something like this this simply for a while now. People say they don't have the time for movies, but that doesn't stop anyone from binge watching House of Cards. It has all to do with the idea of it being easier to digest and being in control of the viewing experience. People may disagree with you on your definition of art that you have to give yourself to someone else's point of view, but that feeling of control is simply human nature, and it all contributes to why I feel TV seems to matter more to people today than the movies do.

  • benxpete | April 3, 2014 9:23 AMReply

    Son of a bitch, this might be the best article I've ever read on the site. Save to favorites. Thank you, Mr. Adams.

  • MDL | April 2, 2014 10:17 PMReply

    Unfortunately few people view movies as an art form. Since they are paying money they think that means they should simply be entertained in a shallow way. The whole intellectual side that movies can offer is not considered. The same applies to reading and listening to music. Many out there intellectually never grow past the age of 16. It's there loss. However there is hope. I've seen people take chances on certain films and suddenly tap into a part of their brain they hadn't exercised since college and they look a bit refreshed. The key is too keep them curious and coming back for more.

  • Vidor | April 2, 2014 6:35 PMReply

    " If you can’t submit to a movie about the 400-year institution of slavery because you’re worried it might be too upsetting, not only are you watching it wrong, but you should be hit with something large and heavy."

    I didn't watch "12 Years a Slave" because I was worried it might be too upsetting. Or, more precisely, that it might be too depressing. Everyone is the master of how they spend any two hours and ten dollars, and I don't see the need to go to the movies to be depressed. I also don't need to go to the movies to find out that slavery was bad.

    Of course, I don't need to feel depressed at home either. Is indifference to and unwillingness to see "12 Years a Slave" permissible if one ignores it across all media?

    As for what the movies demand from us, no one cares.

  • Sergei | April 3, 2014 5:19 AM

    The point wasn't that you NEEDed to do any of these things. It's that you don't want to.

  • LeonRaymond | April 2, 2014 4:59 PMReply

    Oh it was challenge enough, When mass White folk leave the theater in droves, it's challenging, -why cause it challenges White folk to deal with stuff they had nothing to do with but must accept they are still repeating the same methods by still honoring Racism in every day they step out the house. It was challenging in the fact that White folk dearly wanted revise the historical facts even though the family of NORTHRUP still exist and they were angry enough to pen letters to theaters stating that the film should not be shown cause it upsets them. Why is it that when something ask White folks to grin and bear it they get upset but take extreme joy when we are raked over the coals and they utter not even a word when something racist happens to us on a daily basis. Oh yeah it was challenging enough simply cause it bothered you all enough to protest.

  • Refn270 | April 2, 2014 5:07 PM

    Just take it easy there big fella

  • kate | April 2, 2014 4:01 PMReply

    Totally with you on this. But I'd go further and say 12 Years wasn't challenging enough! Read my blog post about that. Ladycopywriter on blogspot dot com

  • NoniB | April 5, 2014 4:02 PM

    I didn't watch it and won't for the same reason it took me three or four 'tries' to watch all of Schindler's List, never watched Titanic, and could not watch but snippits of Roots. I can't stand seeing man's inhumanity portrayed so graphically (reaslistically) onscreen when I know, as a friend stated (Holocaust survivor), that nobody could make a movie that showed the reality of the camps. Oh yeah, add to my 'can't/won't' list anything coming out about the Indian residential schools, the little boys' choirs in churches, and human trafficing. I personally go to movies or watch TV films/videos for entertainment, sometimes for purely educational curiosity but never for adding to my existing bank of information on the horrible things humans have done and still do to others. It's too draining and I need every bit of mental and emotional energy I can muster to not allow the various expressions of hate and ignorance all around us to deplete me further. I don't have to eat garbage to appreciate a great meal of fresh foods; I surely do not need to be convinced that humans do some vividly inhuman things. If one has chosen to be racist after having the opportunity to take a higher road, a film is not going to alter that. If this film or one of the others I mentioned here does enlighten someone who previously had not been aware, that's a good thing, but most people simply choose to be what they reveal is in them on a daily basis. It's a lot bigger than a white vs. black, black vs. white, or red or yellow or pink or purple. It's human vs. un-human and inhuman.

  • Sam Adams | April 2, 2014 4:15 PM

    You are hardcore, and I respect that.

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