Friday, January 05, 2007

"New Yorker" Laments Bad Old Days Of Moviegoing

David Denby is one of the few film critics I read regularly. But his current piece in the New Yorker is an oddly out of touch lament for the joys of movie-going. What has him scared? The video iPod, for starters. Denby finds out that when he watches "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" on an iPod that it's a very unsatisfying experience. He also insists that young people are agnostic about how they watch movies; they don't care whether it's in a theater or on TV or a portable DVD player or a tiny iPod. Strangest of all, after speakingly lovingly about the joys of going to the movies, Denby writes:
At poorly run multiplexes, projector bulbs go dim, the prints develop scratches or turn yellow, the soles of your shoes stick to the floor, people jabber on cell phones, and rumbles and blasts bleed through the walls.... As these theatres age, the gold leaf doesn’t slowly peel off fluted columns. They rot, like disused industrial spaces. They have become the detritus of what seems, on a bad day, like a dying culture.
All of this is quite wrong. It's true, young people don't care HOW they get a movie. They don't care whether it's downloaded or on VOD or via a DVD or on cable or Netflix or at a movie house. But everyone cares about the pleasure of watching it. Will some 12 year old obsessively watch "Pirates of the Caribbean" for the umpteenth time on an iPod? Sure, I suppose. But that very movie is one of only THREE films in history to make more than $1 billion at the box office. Clearly, everyone and their mother went to see it properly in the theater.

For years now, people have spoken about movies they wanted to see in the theater and movies that were "rentable," ie they'd wait a few months to see them on VHS or DVD. But it's not just the desire to see a movie that makes one a must-see in the theater. Everyone -- including 12 year olds, perhaps ESPECIALLY 12 year olds -- knows that a spectacle like "Pirates" HAS to be seen for the first (and second and sometimes third) time at the local cineplex. No one thinks they can wait to see it on an iPod and think they've had the same experience. What works best on iPods are sitcoms, shorts, music videos and other bite-sized bits. Will some people watch full length movies on them? Sure. But virtually none of those will be first-time viewings. People will grab their fifth or sixth bite of a film on an iPod. And no one would be stupid enough to watch "Lawrence of Arabia" on it.

As for watching a film at home versus the theater, it's a false choice. By the time you're watching a movie on DVD at home, it's not AVAILABLE at the theater anymore. (And in the past, the only way to watch a movie at home was when you were lucky enough to catch an old flick late at night when someone decided to show it.) The choice is between watching it at home and not watching it at all -- unless you live in a major city and can wait five years or so for a revival house to show that particular film. (Hurry! Film Forum is showing Woody Allen movies right now and it will probably be 2010 before you'll have a chance to see them again on the big screen.) And while Denby is right about the magic of seeing a movie in a theater, he's wrong to lament the promise of seeing "Citizen Kane" at home. I'll take "Citizen Kane" on a widescreen, perhaps plasma or Hi-Def panel with surround sound and a remastered, exceptional DVD versus a scratchy old print in a run-down movie house any day. You CAN have great prints of old movies if you happen to live in a handful of major cities and wait long enough. But for the vast majority of Americans, there is NO revival house in their town (and never was) and the truth is that the high quality of DVDs and the home theater experience is exceptional.

Finally, his comments about miserable cineplexes sound like they were written in 1987. Denby hates the massively sized sodas at the concession stand and the 20-30 minutes of ads and trailers. So do I. (Who buys soda at the concession stand, anyway? Doesn't everyone smuggle in bottled water?) But the image of sticky floors and sound bleeding from the next screen over is woefully outdated. The truth is that most cineplexes offer by far the best movie-going experience in decades. Sure grand movie palaces were the best of all, but multiplexes with staggered showings of hot new movies every half hour mean no one has to wait in line all day a la "Star Wars" to see a movie. With a modicum of planning, anyone can see any movie they want on opening weekend. And the theater they'll see it in usually has stadium seating, actual leg room, cup holders, THX sound and excellent projections. Frankly, it's never been a better time to go to the movies in my entire life. Maybe it was better in the '40s. I wouldn't know. But don't fear the iPod. Sure, you can watch "Borat" on it and laugh. But chances are anyone doing that has already sat in a crowded movie theater twice doing the same thing, before watching it on DVD and then glancing at it again on an iPod. Going to the movies will never go out of style.

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