Patti Abbott posed an interesting question today. She asked if it made a difference whether you watched a movie on DVD or saw it in the theater. My answer: the theater.
Movies are larger than life. They are, and always have been, made to be viewed in a theater. They were intended to be mechanically projected through light onto a giant screen in front of perhaps hundreds of people. The viewers are colonized into a large room, where they sit in darkness with total strangers, gazing at a screen several stories high. When the image appears, they almost involuntarily surrender to the wonder of Hollywood magic.
Television is smaller than life. DVDs, as presented over television, are, and always will be, made to be shown in a small room. They are intended to be electronically projected through a (relatively) small screen in front of perhaps four or five people. The viewers are colonized into a small room where they sit with the lights on among friends, gazing at a screen dozens of inches wide. When the image appears, they may talk to one another, get up to go to the kitchen, pass around refreshments, go to the bathroom, or answer the phone. The remote is never far away, and the image can be, and usually is, paused at will. The continuity effect that the director built in constructing the movie is virtually destroyed. The suspense, as enhanced by lighting, setting, and dialogue, is destroyed. Large-scale action scenes lose all magical quality.
Years ago I saw The Last Emperor in the theater. I sat there in awe of the story, the acting, the look, the detail, the whole presentation. A few months later, I saw it on TV. I was looking forward to reliving my experience I’d had in the theater. It was terrible. I turned it off after about fifteen minutes.
Say what you will about Titanic (1997), but it was a sensational movie. The haunting story, which could never have been invented, was so faithfully rendered on the screen, and of course, the effects…the ship, the clothing, the sinking, the faces of the victims…all of it touched me. Needless to say, when I saw it on TV, it played like a network movie of the week. None of it, and I mean none of it came across as the director had intended.
This is not to say that all movies fail on TV. Just most of them. Woody Allen movies would be among the exceptions. His movies are small, heavily reliant on sharp dialogue, and utterly lacking in real action. They seem a perfect fit for TV. There are others, too, but not many.
Film noir plays much better in the theater, in my opinion, although it doesn’t lose everything on TV the way that big-production movies do. Classics like Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, and Detour can still be enjoyable on TV. The big screen, however, really brings out those shadows and angular camera shots.
Not long ago, I watched The Lost Horizon (1937) on DVD. It’s a great film, but the sweep of the Shangri-la scenes and the frigid desolation of the mountain-climbing scenes were really lost. Another one was The Hurricane (1937), directed by John Ford. The mind-blowing special effects, especially for 1937, were extremely impressive. But they were greatly diminished by the smallness of television. There are a lot of older films like that, where you can only see them on DVD because they’re so old.
Nothing much you can do about movies made in 1937; DVDs are really the only way we can usually see them. But movies made in 2010 deserve your attendance at the theater, where you can see them and be overwhelmed by them as you ought to be. If you’re not overwhelmed, then it’s a bad movie and it ain’t gonna get any better by the time the DVD comes out.
Besides, popcorn doesn’t taste the same in front of a TV.