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

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire April 2, 2014 at 3:51PM

There's too much talk about what we demand from movies, and not enough about what they demand from us.
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Slave

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?

This article is related to: 12 Years a Slave, The Good Wife


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