Thursday, January 05, 2006

Screens: Small, Medium, Big - Size Matters!

I was going to save this topic for a day when I felt I had amassed tons of sources and thought of lots of infinitely brilliant things to say about this topic, but since it already came up in the recent comments on my SW3 post. I suppose we ought to discuss it now.

My dream, since I was a little girl drawing floorplans of my fantasy home in crayon, has been to have a real movie theater in my home. My dream came true last year. My husband's parents gave us a beautiful, widescreen, HD television set, which we promptly returned and exchanged for a projector, an 84" screen, and a surround-sound system. We rearranged our couches so that we have 3 - 4 rows of seating in front of our big screen. And I am now without that ugly black box (a.k.a. the TV set) at one end of my room. (I have traded it for unsightly wiring going all over the room - DVD & surround sound receiver to projector & speakers - but in theory, that is only temporarily visible. We're supposed to disguise it at some point.) Ok, so it's not a real theater. It doesn't have a box office, or a concession stand. It doesn't have red velvet drapes, or stadium seating. It doesn't have state-of-the-art equipment. But to me, it is the real deal. (And we will be putting in brown velvet curtains.) But what is the difference between our theater (which I love to refer to as the "Hurley-David Cineplex") and the "real" cineplexes we pay to get into? What am I missing? What am I gaining? And does the size really matter?

On some level, we all know screen-size matters. When we talk about movie recommendations, we often discuss if movies are "something I should see on the big screen," or "something I can wait for on video." But why? A lot of people will point to the difference in image quality. Obviously, the equipment and media they use at the movie theater is (usually) far superior to that of our own at home (though that gap is being bridged a bit - more on that later.) What you see up on the big screen is not only a larger image - all the better to see the detail with, my dear - but also higher resolution (if it's digital, if it's film, then you have the benefit of film quality over video - of course that quality gap is becoming smaller thanks to HD, but since no DVDs are available with HD yet, film still has a huge edge. There is also the aesthetic argument for film over video, but we can save that one for another day.) So people often say that movies with grand, sweeping vistas, or lots of exciting special effects deserve to be seen on the big screen, such as epics and high-budget science fiction/action, but that movies that deal more with life on a smaller scale, i.e. dramas and romantic comedies, are just the same whether on big screen or small. And small-screen viewing is cheaper. So why not stick with small if we can? There seems to be this notion that high-budget, action-oriented films are more visceral and visual, and therefore more deserving of the large screen, whereas the others are really just about the "stories." I would argue that film, in general, is a predominantly visual medium and that, regardless of budget or genre, bigger is nearly always better because it is always going to be more visceral, more intense, even more emotional on a larger screen.

First, let's tackle the visual question. Are some movies less visual? I say no! Yes, of course, some linger more on the postcard views than others, but are postcard views the only views worth admiring? Course not! Think about the visual beauty of the floating plastic bag in American Beauty. No one would probably ever send a postcard home of a discarded plastic bag. Yet who can deny the beauty of it? It dances on the breeze in a kind of ethereal and ephemeral ballet. Is that not visual? Ok, you say, that one is a visual movie, but what about others? I challenge you to find a Director of Photography (Cinematographer) who has ever worked on a movie and has not done his/her best to give you art in his/her every shot. Tell me he/she didn't play with light and shadow in the romantic comedy. Tell me they didn't look through that lens and experience a little quickening of the blood when they saw an inspired image coming through. The medium is, in fact, inherently visual. Without the image, it is nothing. It began as image without sound. Our love of cinema is even deeply rooted in the pleasure of looking (Scopophilia - the love of looking - & Voyeurism - the pleasure of seeing what we aren't normally permitted to see.) We gain some kind of pleasure from the simple act of watching a film, even if it is vapid crap that we abhor, we keep going back in droves to see, to see more of it. In fact, isn't the allure of IMAX simply the increase of visual pleasure? Because the only difference between IMAX and regular film is increased image quality, and therefore the ability to project it onto larger screens.

What are some of the reasons we seek out the big screen? Well, we have already mentioned the image quality and size. Of course, there is also the quality and intensity of sound. What else? The theaters offer newer movies, which is sometimes a huge draw - especially when you don't want to have to wait 6 months after everyone else to see the latest Harry Potter. There is also the pleasure you get just from "going out," and if you don't want to spend a small fortune on your evening out, the movies is usually the best way. On the same token, the theater is one of the few places that teenagers are allowed to go in the evenings. I mean, it's either movies, bowling, or putt putt for most teens. There is also the experience of a public "event." I.e. sitting with a large audience (this is both a pro and a con, but let's take the pro for now) and not only sharing the experience, but also feeding off the energy of the crowd around you. If you don't know the joys of sitting with an audience, go to a really scary movie, and feel the cold tension in the silence of the people around you and notice how it affects you when someone screams. Or go to a midnight showing of a beloved movie or series of movies, and cheer with the audience as the credits begin! Note the difference between watching a comedy at home, and at the theater. When others laugh around you, you are more likely to laugh too. But those reasons are more because it is a public event than because of anything inherent to the size of the screen. And the increase of quality is important but incidental. You can have a high-resolution small image, right?

There is another reason that you may not be consciously aware of: movies at the theater give you a bigger experience. That is to say that, as a result of its size, it overwhelms us. It inspires tremendous awe in us, and we gape at it as small children do at a television set, completely absorbed. It is so large, it's harder to see where it ends and we begin. We lose ourselves completely in the experience; we truly escape. And in our absorbtion, in our inability to distance ourselves, and as a result of the magnifying power of the large screen, emotions (of all kinds) are intensified and we become more emotionally involved.

So why ever choose the small screen? Well aside from the fact that it is cheaper, more convenient, and allows you to pause & rewind so you lose nothing by taking a trip to the loo, there are a couple of things. First, DVDs are now offering more material to give you a fuller experience of your film. You get to study the director & his intentions, acquire insights into the process of making the film, and understand symbolism and things you missed thanks to the audio commentary and other special features. Some DVDs allow you to change camera angles (usually only on special features) and take the editing into your own hands. What does this mean for cinema? It's more interactive, more engaging, and we are creating a generation of more educated viewers, which I think will do wonders for the medium. Again, exciting and interesting as this tangent may be, what does it have to do with the way the size of the screen affects us?

Well, believe it or not, you can gain something for some films by seeing them on the small screen: distance. For some people this means being able to see horror films & thrillers, which at the theaters would absolutely consume them in fear. For some it means being able to think more critically while watching, instead of forgetting one's self altogether. For some it means being able to understand or even tolerate fast editing, which can feel like an assault when on the big screen. Take Moulin Rouge, for instance. Many people either hated or loved the movie in the theater. But there was a middle ground found for some on the small screen. I personally suspect that is because of distance. I remember hearing that Ebert (I think it was Ebert) hated Moulin Rouge on the first viewing but quite liked it on the second. I wonder what size screen he saw it on the second viewing, huh? The hubby and I liked it on the big screen, he a little less than I. But I must confess that the erratic qualities of the film stressed me out when I watched it the first time. When we viewed it again later on the small screen, we both fell totally in love with the film, and watched it over and over. Yes, I know, I am contradicting myself here. But like I said, "bigger is nearly always better." I have to show you what the "nearly" is too, right?

There is something between large and small now. It doesn't have to be the extremes of looking at the grand canyon, versus a crack in a rock. We are now at the dawn of medium-screen viewing. Screens that still give a larger than life effect, but just not movie-theater large. Like our 84" screen! And let me tell you. Suddenly, watching all my old favorites again. I have (as I mentioned in the SW3 comment) found myself literally weeping at scenes that I have been desensitized to for years! I have watched Gigi regularly since I was a pre-teen. Somehow, though this hasn't happened since my first viewing, when I saw it again on our "medium" screen the other day, I cried again at the end! And I am so grateful that I waited till we got our current system before I rented Winged Migration or I wouldn't have fallen in love with the imagery as I did. And watching those "little" romantic comedies now? They really get to me. At least more than on a TV. And as for the shot under discussion in the SW3 comments. I truly believe that if I had seen it on a smaller screen, I wouldn't have had my "magic moment" and what a crime that would have been.

What does the medium screen mean for cinema? Lines are being blurred all over the place. Not only are audiences becoming closer to professionals (it is now easier to make films and learn about films than ever thanks to DVDs, the internet, and camcorders), but lines are being blurred between the cinema experience and the home experience. The only thing that is missing at home with the medium-screen, surround sound, row-seated theater is the "public event" experience, and I can't imagine giving that up. I love my midnight, opening night, screenings. It seems like the theater may become a locale for special events screenings in the future, and the rest of our movie-viewing may be done at home. Who knows?

Incidentally, the internet & video iPod have also added the "Extremely Small Screen," which I am sure will have all kinds of effects on the film world. I just haven't a clue what I think about them yet. Well, other than it allows people more access to the short form and to the "folk" film artist. And I do believe we will be seeing lots of those soon.

Back to the full blog...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

you are crazy.
thank you, drive through.


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