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.

Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Mike, I agree with everything you just said (particularly that last line).

    I was fortunate to be in San Francisco earlier this year concurrent with their NoirCity Film Festival. I was able to go one night, which happened to be “Bad Girls Night.” I saw two movies on the big screen in the gorgeous Castro Theater, with upwards of 1000 people (or more) in attendance. It was one of the most fun experiences seeing a movie I’ve had, and the prints of the films I saw were beautiful projected on the massive screen. I bought the DVDs of those films as soon as they were released (quite recently) and have watched them again. While they are still fun, it just isn’t the same.

    I do enjoy sitting down with my wife for movie night at home, but it doesn’t compare to a good trip to the theater. Not even close.

  2. Good post. I saw Billy Wilder’s THE APATRMENT at the cinema years ago and it was magnificent . I’d seen it lots and lots before and it was one of my fave films but the cinema, the NFT in London, improved on greatness.

  3. Depends on the movie. Mots of those you described are intended to be imposing, but many current films are made in the knowledge that teenagers will watch them on their damn iPhones. I have a fairly small living room, but a 50-inch HDTV I bought solely for movies and sports. The wall behind the TV is painted very dark blue, we have a 5.1 stereo, the popcorn is always fresh, and I don’t have to worry about a kid screaming because his asshole father brought a two-year-old into an R-rated movie.

    Lawrence of Arabia, Saving Private Ryan, The Bridge Over the Rover Kwai? Definitely better on the big screen, but, then, big screens ain’t what they used to be, either, since the twenty-plex came in.

  4. Mike Dennis

    Chris–I read some writeups on NoirCity Festival and it sounded terrific. I wish I could’ve been there to see some of those great (and not so great) movies on the big screen.

    Paul–You’re right. THE APARTMENT is one of those films that will do okay on TV, but is much more effecive in the theater.

    Dana–Like you say, it depends on the movie. It doesn’t have to be a slam-bang explosion-fest in order to meet my criteria. CASINO, which is not exactly wall-to-wall action loses a whole lot of punch on DVD. AMERICAN BEAUTY, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, and HOUSE OF GAMES are all basically non-action movies on small sets whose power still drops off considerably on TV.

  5. Patti Abbott

    All movies are better seen in a theater IMHO. And some can only be seen in a theater. I wouldn’t even watch AVATAR for instance at home. The story is not good enough to stand alone–it need the rest of it.

  6. Joyce Ann

    I saw an older movie about the Titanic on my Black and White portable as a child. I think it was British. Toward the end, an unsuspecting child leaves a lifeboat to be with his father as the boat’s orchestra played hymns on deck and it, hopelessly, goes down. For years I thought about how a boat like that creates a whirlpool and sucks in everything for yards around it down into the cold dark sea along with the ship. It was horrifying for me.

    I cannot locate it on Imdb, so if anyone knows the title please let me know. It was so incredibly sad, I cried all night in despair. So, I had no interest in seeing the Leonardo Di Caprio version–I knew how it would end, until my daughter decided she wanted her Prom Dress to be like the one Kate Winslet wore before having her portrait drawn. So, stoically I ran the video and could stop it to examine the gown. The James Cameron version brought us to the conclusion a little easier. But, I never wanted to spend as much as it costs to watch such pain at the theater.

    However, Ingrid Bergman’s face is beautiful when we watch Casa Blanca on TV, but not nearly as beautiful as it is on the big, wide, movie screen. The car chase in Bullitt cannot possibly be experienced the same on T.V. as it was in the theater the first time. The explosion as Forrest Gump carries Lt. Dan from the jungle is best on the big screen. The eroticism in the spinning kisses at the end of the chess game in the McQueen/Dunaway version of The Thomas Crown Affair cannot be experienced on T.V., and I am not even sure the kiss in the rain in the cemetery in The Quiet Man is as moving on television. . . .so many other examples–Jurrasic Park?. We try to see all movies of interest in the theater first.

    But going to the movies these days can be very unpleasant. People are incredibly rude. They talk and moronically cheer and applaud (no one can hear you!) I have problems with that atmosphere anymore.

    And, Mike has, obviously, never actually taken “kids” to a movie, or he would have used a different title for this post. When mine were little, we would get there early with our popcorn and drinks, get seated and calm, and, inevitably, some tall guy would come in late and sit in front of one of the children who could then no longer see the screen–So, it was over on Mommy and Daddy’s lap for the next 2 hours.

    Videos/DVD changed all that. We were able to see so many more movies after the kids were in bed without finding a babysitter. And my children became very sophisticated about film. My son was watching Aliens on his Daddy’s lap when he was about 3 or 4. He would pick-up his Daddy’s hands and use them to cover his eyes (I don’t know why he couldn’t use his own hands–only Daddy’s were going to protect him, evidently) when something unpleasant was about to happen. I asked how he knew to do that? He told me “the music tells me.”

    In elementary school, in his gifted and talented class he made a video called “Plan X from Outer Space” which was a spoof of Ed Wood’s (I think) film Plan IX from Outer Space. His was a study in bad Special Effects (like shower curtains on a space ship as doors). It starred the entire family, and I took it to one of those Personalized video stores and had credits, music and sound effects added. (I watched Dracula on TV all my life and had no idea who was Ed Woods.) In college he even took a class in German film (YUK). I am certain watching Mel Gibson’s version of Hamlet on HBO instilled his great interest in Shakespeare and acting.

    And videos you can watch over and over, as my husband did with the Michael Mann version of Manhunter (I cannot remember that ever being in the theater). It seemed to help relieve his stress. When my father was going through a protracted serious illness, I would watch The Fugitive over and over. The blatant metaphors for “flight” and “blood hounds” amused me and a couple of scenes as he is walking along the river back toward Chicago are really soothing. During a really tough financial time, I watched The Edge over and over and Anthony Hopkins killing the Bear symbolized our struggle against these difficulties, which we also eventually “killed” or overcame.

    So, videos, and watching movies on TV not only made movies available to so many more of us, but expanded our insight into the history and artful qualities in good films. They also give us a common cultural frame of reference (We have some Mennonite friends who have no idea who are Frankenstein or the Bride of Frankenstein and certainly don’t know how to associate “Putting on the Ritz” with top hat and tails or understand the incongruity of that scene in Young Frankenstein)–they have never watched television or movies.

    Movies consistently comfort by representing the recognizable formulas concerning plot, story, and character–just as do detective novels or any novels–of the Western world. I am very happy they invented the VCR. It made so many more movies available to me. I don’t need to see them in the theater. But, I have an expansive imagination.

  7. I agree that some noir survives the transition to the small screen better than the movies where size really matters, such as “Titanic”. Films like John Ford’s “The Searchers” or Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” just don’t thrive when they’re shrunk to what sometimes feels like the side of a lunchbox. But noir is very selective in its lighting — a few bright spots with the rest of the screen sometimes much darker, and they’re claustrophobic to begin with. I loved “Gun Crazy” and “Out of the Past” on DVD, and also Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear.” I’d have rather seen them in a theater, but it wasn’t possible, and at least I didn’t continually feel as though I was watching a horse race through a crack in the fence.

    Here’s what I don’t get — people watching movies on an iPod. Maybe “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” but not much else.

  8. Mike Dennis

    Joyce Ann-
    You have a very good point about taking kids to the movies. Not having done that myself, I perhaps overlooked the hassle involved.
    Watching movies on an iPod? You can have it. Well, not you, actually, because you don’t like it either, but if it grows in popularity, you’re going to see even more sizing down of movies to accommodate those little things.

    Also, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and THE SEARCHERS are great examples of outstanding films that lose nearly everything in a well-lit living room with people talking and the phone ringing.

  9. Joyce Ann

    Question: Does anyone know if Dirty Dancing (the reincarnation of a barely pubescent fantasy about summer vacation for many American woman now my age) was ever released in the theaters? It was the first video to sell over a million copies. And I watched it frequently during “nap times.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *