Friday, December 30, 2011

Watching movies at home and in the cinema

I haven't visited the cinema in a month recovering from my terrible traffic accident, but as soon as my bruised hip has healed enough to enable me to sit through more than a stretch of one hour or so I'll be able to watch movies comfortably at home again. There is a blessing in this curse. It's good to have a break from the onslaught of moving images. I have had plenty of time to study the history of visual arts, to read many kinds of books, and to listen to music.

Since childhood I have watched a lot of movies on tv, and later on vhs, dvd, and blu-ray, but cinema screening has always been for me the primary experience. Home formats are great for revisiting favourite movies or seeing movies that would be impossible to see otherwise.

Some movies don't suffer at all from the reduction to home viewing circumstances. My favourite example is Rio Bravo. I was staying at the small Shangri La Motel, Spokane, about to go to bed, when I switched the tv on. The signal was bad and the image was terrible, but instantly I recognized the opening sequence of Rio Bravo. Needless to say, I couldn't take my eyes off the tv set until the movie was over. Robin Wood once said that there is not a single beautiful image in Rio Bravo. Its beauty is totally based on the character-driven dynamics of the story. Rio Bravo is visually based on television aesthetics, and it works fine both on tv and in the cinema.

For some strange reason Fritz Lang's movies don't work at all on the small screen. I once watched Scarlet Street on vhs and decided that the movie has lost its charm. Then I saw it on the cinema screen, and it was great again. There is something in the visual electricity of Fritz Lang's mise-en-scène that demands a sense of space, a sense of volume, a sense of real architecture.

As a rule the sublime of the film art is based on the cinema viewing experience.

The screen is bigger than us. The film-makers try their best to overwhelm us. But we, the viewers, fight against this overwhelming attempt, rise up to the challenge, and experience an uplift while doing so.

This is also a secret of the excitement of horror, thriller, fantasy, science fiction, violence, war, catastrophe, etc. on screen. It is strangely exhilarating to overcome the challenges the filmmakers give us. At the same time the collective anxiety of the audience in the cinema is palpable. Maybe there are girls actually screaming, maybe the one next to you needs protection.

In contrast, hard core pornography works ideally in privacy and has found its true distribution channel and form of existence via the home formats, especially the internet. A parallel phenomenon is that exhibitions of the graphic art of Japanese shunga are not successful in art galleries because audiences get embarrassed by the presence of others and they'd rather study a book of the same images at home.

The dynamics of comedy and humour is completely different. Everybody knows that a comedy seen alone is less than half as funny as seen with a receptive audience. Yesterday on the radio there was a funny talk programme amongst the foreign correspondents of YLE the Finnish broadcasting corporation. The YLE Paris correspondent reported having visited the Paris premiere of Aki Kaurismäki's A Man without a Past and observed that Frenchmen laughed at different things than he (alone) did.

André Bazin once made a remark about the different waves of laughter in a Charles Chaplin screening. There is the immediate gratification of the obvious funny farce aspects such as pratfalls for the children (in all of us). But there are also the more subtle satirical points that require a moment of reflection.

Max Davidson's Pass the Gravy is a comedy masterpiece viewed on the brilliant Edition Filmmuseum dvd at home, but I'll never forget the escalating thunderstorm of laughter in Pordenone's Forgotten Laugher retrospective where William K. Everson's personal 16 mm print was unveiled. It was elected the funniest comedy of the retrospective.

I'm grateful that I was first exposed to the comedies of Buster Keaton in the cinema screenings of the Finnish Film Archive when Raymond Rohauer visited Finland hosted by Peter von Bagh (the films were transmitted on Finnish television, too, soon afterwards). I had never experienced such a thunder of laughter. I literally fell on the floor while seeing Sherlock, Jr. for the first time (or was it Steamboat Bill, Jr., the hat fitting scene, or both?). In Finland there is a saying that "laughter prolongs your life". After the Buster Keaton experience I have known what James Agee meant about the profound belly laughter in his classic essay on comedy's golden age. But that you can hardly achieve in a home viewing.

I was grateful for the huge quasi-complete Kinowelt-Studiocanal-Universal Laurel and Hardy dvd box sets which were released in Finland complete with their superior silent shorts. They (especially the silents) would be the movies I would take to the desert island (where I would immediately realize that they are not that funny on a desert island, without the audience!). I agree with Peter von Bagh that the Laurel and Hardy silents should be ideally screened without music because their orchestration of laughter is so brilliant that it alone creates the perfect "soundtrack" when they are screened in a cinema. Our experiences at Cinema Orion of Laurel and Hardy silents with full houses of mostly children (initially suspicious: black and white? silent??) have kept beating laughter records.

When the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Justice were abolishing film censorship in Finland, I had the privilege to participate in 1997-1998. A representative of the Ministry of Justice was keen on the idea of "media neutrality", meaning that for instance cinema screenings and television transmissions should be treated equally. Partly this is correct.

But every student of communication studies knows that "the medium is the message", that the medium changes the message.

Nowhere is this difference more blatant than in moving images.

My favourite example then used to be Titanic. In a cinema palace we get drowned with the huge ocean liner. At home, in our living room, we drown the tiny boat on the monitor with our remote control.

In the cinema, there is darkness. At home, the living room is usually well lit.

In the cinema, there is silence. At home, noise, discussion, and distraction.

In the cinema we hardly leave our seat. At home we do that repeatedly.

In the cinema we see the movie without interruption. At home, we can use the pause button at will, for example if someone calls on the telephone.

In the cinema we are among strangers. In the living room we are in the safe atmosphere of the home.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

> In the cinema, there is silence.

Ideally, yes but not very often these days. (sigh)