Thursday

The Theatrical Experience pt 2

Scott from Three Fingers Hold the Pen commented on my post about experiencing movies on the Big screen. Here's what he had to say:

Well,duh!
Been preaching this for years.
These things are MEANT to be seen big.
I caught the Director's cut of Das Boot in LA that same year while working for Disney. Un-believable.
How did they get those dolly shots of the guys running down the length of the sub?
Went to every screening I could manage.
Saw Ben Hur one night at the Egyptian. Twenty Thousand Leagues at the El Capitan.
Actual Technicolor prints!
Lawrence of Arabia at the Cinerama Dome.
But the best was 25 years ago - a superb print of Midsummer Night's Dream, the old 39 version from Warner Bros, in one of the great grand old movie palaces...suddenly understood what it must have been like to go to the movies back then and why it was such a big deal and why The Movies became the Thing we revere today.
It is interesting how apple etc. can make a big sell out of movies that are meant to be seen big, on tiny screens( ipod, iphone, etc.) What is the attraction of Youtube? We (or rather those who don't know better) are being sold a bill of goods!


The problem with television and more so with video on Ipod and youtube is that we've altered the visual style of filmmaking to accommodate the smaller screen. If you look at the change in films in the last thirty years you'll notice that we've gotten closer and closer to the face. Scenes are designed more and more where we cut between closeups. Establishing shots have been truncated and the camera has studied the actors faces at close range. The size of the television and the advent of home video made filmmakers reconsider their visual style so it would have impact on the smaller, lower resolution screen. The internet compounds this with low resolution images that are often less than four inches wide.

What this amounts to is removing cinematic storytelling and makes us rely even more on talking heads. A contrasting example of this is the popular 1988 action classic 'Die Hard'. Pay attention to the lack of closeups in the film - it was designed for the theatre. The majority of the close ups in the film are from stomach to head where now we see the top of shoulders to the top of the head or closer. This is also due to the modern editing equipment where editors got used to looking at the images on small broadcast monitors which fool you into feeling that there isn't enough detail. With digital editing, you are much less inclined to take your workprint and project it in a theatre. Walter Murch understood this and he would place a size comparison by his monitor so he would always be aware of the theatrical exhibition.

High definition television has been a terrific invention and is starting to reverse some of these visual trends. With its much higher resolution it has allowed television filmmakers to think more cinematically. Just look at many of these new shows that look and feel much more like movies than traditional television - '24', 'Lost', 'Breaking Bad', 'Deadwood', etc. Even situation comedies like 'Malcolm in the Middle' got rid of the staged, three camera setup and replaced it with a single camera, four wall design.

Still, theatrical exhibition is the most powerful way to see a motion picture. It's too bad that the theatre exhibitors and studios are so paranoid about losing the market they are pushing carnival tricks like 3D movies. The filmmakers need to worry less about these quaint technical solutions and focus more on getting back to more cinemactic visual design - to experiment more and most of all, tell great stories.

5 comments:

J Casual said...

It should be noted that the AMC chain has ordered 100 Imax screens. More and more films are released in the Imax format-not shot that way but that's for another day-as well. With the growing availability of digital projection -see Thursday's ROB-and filmmakers like Cameron promising never to release a non 3D film again, the aesthetic for the big picture and the theatrical experience is returning.

But no more Beowulf please.

Robbo said...

We would also do well to remember that the cinematic experience is a mere 100 years old (113 actually, but let's not get picky) and yet we see it as being an iviolate part of human existence, necessary to our ability to function and behave as sentient beings on this planet.

When films first emerged as popular culture they were frowned upon for the very reasons they are revered today - as Gloria Swanson intoned in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard": "All those people out there in the dark."

It was socially unacceptable at the turn of the century for men and women, strangers, to congregate together, anonymously, in darkened rooms. All manner of disreputable behaviours could (and probably did) occur. I fondly remember the back row of the old New Yorker cinema for this very reason. Just as comic books were reviled in their day - and now referred to as "graphic novels" - and as video games are currently being demonized - we seek to retin the known while challenging and fearing the new.

I'm not saying small screens are better or worse. They just are. It's another step in the evlution of how human beings are perceiving and expressing the world they live in.

A long time ago, when reading was still a relatively new past-time for the hoi polloi, the rallying cry of "What's wrong with Johnny?" had little to do with comics or games or sneaking into drakened rooms with strangers to watch flickering pictures on the wall. Poor kids, they just don't get it do they - spending all their time sitting under a tree - reading. What good is that going to do them?

Things change.

The past 100 (113) years have lost a lot of their lustre and glamour as the experience of "cinema" have become increasingly commoditized and cheapened. But when we look back - hopefully without nostalgia for that is a blurry lens indeed - we can still clearly see what a wonder the full theatrical experience of a film had been - and can still be.

It just won't be the main attraction anymore.

I suspect, in some manner, film will find its place within our culture the same way as opera has. It is still here, very much alive and compelling, but just not the centre ring of the entertainment circus we choose to distract ourselves with.

The changes we are seeing will not go away - like a receding tide. These waves of change are eroding the shores of a once powerful cultural industry and the audience for them is changing right along with the emerging technologies which continue to disrupt how we see ourselves, how we speak to ourselves and - ultimately, most importantly, how we tell the stories of ourselves to each other.

Lament and long for the old - but don't expect the new to bow with respect and back out of the room.

Ain't gonna happen.

scott said...

Hey, thanks for the spotlight!
Did you catch Jon Stewart on the Oscars last night: "Oh, those are camels..."

Sean Menzies said...

Mark,
Love the post. It is absolutely essential to watch movies on the big screen where they were meant to be projected. They were framed for it, photographed for it, mixed for it and written for it.

Caught King Kong '33 at the Egyptian a little over a year ago and the experience was thrilling to say the least. I'd never seen it projected before and the audience was packed. During the battle with the T-Rex, actually an Allosaurus, Max Steiner's granddaddy of all film scores finally stops and Spivak's sound design takes over. This was four years into the sound era and at one point, when the Allosaurus backs up and hisses, this fourteen year old girl sitting behind us said to herself, "That is so fucking COOL!" Afterwards, Bob Burns brought his only surviving steel skeletal armature used in the film and we all got to actually touch it.

To see all those middle aged men, of all races and sizes, reduced to ten year old boys by the presence of this steel armature, was wonderful. It was an evening I'll never forget.

So, yes, movies should be seen big. I utterly agree. It's our modern mythology, our cave paintings, only they have 5.1 surround.

Cheers,
Sean
myspace.com/sean1966ad

Mark said...

Thanks for the comment Sean. Beyond the experiential aspect of theatre going there is still the continued element of social activity. It's hard to impress your date by watching videos on youtube.

Dinner and some youtube anyone?