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

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

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

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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