Theater vs. Home
Here’s something that’s been on my mind lately: making an inventory of the nuances of difference between the theatrical and home video movie-watching experiences.
It is of course a happy truism that watching a movie in a theater is the inarguably ideal way to experience it. For a movie-lover, the theater is a sort of temple, and the experience touched with religiosity. You look up in hushed awe at the screen—in contrast, you look down at a TV screen, as Godard once noted—and the darkness dispatches all distraction, leaving only the light and sound emanating from the screen.
And then there’s the enveloping scale of the image, which you can regulate in relative terms by sitting closer or farther away from the screen. Cinephiles often have their favorite rows and vantage points (when I’m alone: usually fourth or fifth row center; when I’m with others: based upon a process of grumbling and negotiation). Most of all, you relinquish control over the movie by submitting to its (unbroken and continuous) terms, accepting its rules of temporality.
And yet, and yet….there’s a part of me that sees this hushed, worshipful submission to the terms dictated by the work of art as….a tad stifling. Here’s one thing I believe with all my heart: art is meant for use. For use in our daily lives, to be incorporated and integrated into the very fiber and fabric of our quotidian existence. Home viewing can allow this to happen in slightly unique and different ways from theatrical viewing.
I like the “impurity” of the home video experience—the way you can enter the work in new, unfamiliar and changeable ways, interactively, both as a whole and in fragments, disrupting unity and linearity, developing an intimacy with it, committing aspects of it to memory, and thus making use of the work and making it part of yourself in fresh ways.
I’m reminded of the memorable opening passage of Calvin Tomkins’ 1965 book, The Bride And The Bachelors: Five Masters Of The Avant-Garde:
One day in 1957, speaking as a "mere artist" before a learned seminar on contemporary aesthetics in Houston, Texas, Marcel Duchamp proposed a somewhat surprising definition of the spectator’s role in that mysterious process known as the creative act. The artist, Duchamp said, is a "mediumistic being" who does not really know what he is doing or why he is doing it. It is the spectator who, through a kind of "inner osmosis," deciphers and interprets the work’s inner qualifications, relates them to the external world, and thus completes the creative cycle. The spectator’s contribution is consequently equal in importance to the artist’s, and perhaps in the long run even greater, for, as Duchamp remarked in another context, "it is posterity that makes the masterpiece." Like so many of the ideas put forward by Duchamp, who has for years been the most enigmatic presence in contemporary art, this theory tends to make a great many artists uncomfortable. Artists, as a rule, do not like to think of themselves as mediumistic beings who blindly perform only one part of the creative act, and their attitude toward the spectator is not always one of respectful collaboration.
Much as the theatrical viewing experience richly allows this collaboration to take place, I think that home viewing, by giving the spectator a certain degree of control, can make available alternative avenues and opportunites. Even before the age of home viewing, this mode of watching films was not entirely unknown. Jonathan Rosenbaum writes in his essay on Manny Farber:
Discontinuous viewing was [Farber’s] way of watching a movie, a method he shared with Godard; if a movie he liked such as Ordet was being shown several times in the campus screening room over a given week, he’d turn up each time for a different reel or two—or maybe even for the same reels, whatever happened to be on.
Sometimes, I even imagine the possibilities of software that will allow us to make “mixtapes” of shots and sequences on DVD, assembled together in some personally designed order. Or alternatively, watch a mixtape DVD on “shuffle” to set off new resonances and make unexpected connections.
There is nothing I love more than a theatrical screening, but the fact that I live in a smaller city forces me to look extra-eagerly to exploiting the capabilities of the DVD format. Watching movies in a theater is a big deal for me. There are no repertory theaters in Buffalo, and so the theatrical experience becomes part of a larger project of careful planning, road trips, and anticipatory preparation like reading. I cherish these experiences—they are real "events"—but for me they are limited to only a couple (or at most, a few) times a month. The rest of the time, what I have available to me is DVD/video.
Now I’d like to ask you: What your ideas on the subject? Your signal theatrical experiences and memories if you want to share any? The benefits and drawbacks of how we watch movies? How do movies affect you, or stay with you, any differently in the theater than at home? Are there certain kinds of cinema better suited to theater, or to home? In what ways does home viewing compromise the work, or attenuate it? In terms of production of critical thought on movies, how do these two viewing environments differ? How is film criticism enhanced—or hampered—by widespread reliance on DVD? And any other aspects of theater vs. home that you'd like to bring up or chat about.
I’d like to send a shout-out to Jen Macmillan at Invisible Cinema and her Leonard Cohen blog-a-thon. What I’m bringing to her party is a small cooler containing mp3’s:
I like Cohen’s music a lot, but I have a special—perhaps heretical!—weakness for the period that begins in 1987, when he (1) discovered synthesizers, and (2) dropped his singing voice to the bottom of the ocean into the bass register. “Everybody Knows” is off the album I’m Your Man, and I will always remember it from the disturbing strip club scene with Mia Kirshner in schoolgirl uniform in Atom Egoyan’s Exotica. Off The Future, here is the title tune, and “Waiting For A Miracle”.
I’m a big fan of the Detroit duo Was (Not Was) who made several eclectic records in the late 80s/early 90s. Neither of them—Don or David Was—was comfortable with his own voice, so they wrote twisted ditties for famous guest vocalists to sing. (I’ll be doing a full entry of these warped match-ups soon.) On the record Are You Okay?, here’s Leonard Cohen singing (or should I say rapping?) a mighty strange tune called “Elvis’s Roll Royce”.
Jennifer Warnes made a Leonard Cohen cover record in 1986 called Famous Blue Raincoat. The best tune on it is the opener, “First We Take Manhattan”. I have fond memories of buying this on vinyl and discovering that it was the best-sounding LP I had ever heard: the immaculate recording and mastering; the clear shiny arrangements; and a delicious snare drum thwack! that leaps right off the wax. (You’ll see what I mean when you hear the tune.) The little vinyl snob in me still thinks that the LP sounds a tad better—warmer—but the CD sounds really great too. The highlight of the tune: fantastic lead guitar intro, fills and solo by a then-little-known session player, Stevie Ray Vaughan.