I’m getting lazy. There was a time when I’d go to 6 or more movies a week, easily, week in week out—sometimes going to double bills almost every night for weeks in a row. And that was normal, not during film festivals, when I’d take vacation time or cut school so that I could watch 3 or 4 movies a day. Now, whole weeks go by when I might see just one movie.
Part of it is getting older and having more responsibilities and commitments. But more than that, I think, it reflects profound changes in the way we watch movies, and in the availability of movies.
Those weeks when I’d go to see double bills night after night were back in the day, before Hulu and Netflix, before DVDs and pirate downloads. It wasn’t quite before VHS/video tapes or cable, but they weren’t ubiquitous back then—I certainly didn’t have either. Watching movies meant going out to a movie theater and watching a screen.
But there were plenty of those. The megaplexes where most people watch movies these days were just beginning to emerge, and most movie theaters were still single screen operations, or theaters that had chopped themselves up to provide two or three screens. And there were a lot of them. And because there were so many small theaters, it was much more likely that a movie was playing near your house. So it was easier then to get to a theater to watch a movie than it is now.
But even with more theaters around, and closer to your home, movies were not as available as they are now. If a Bogie double bill was playing at the UC Theater you went, even if it meant canceling other plans or pretending to be sick. Whatever it took—because who knew when you’d have a chance to see those movies again. It might be a year or more before that double bill screened anywhere near you again.
These days, you know you can see those movies any time. Even if your local video rental place has gone out of business—as most sadly have—they show regularly on TCM and may be available “on demand” on your cable system. And pretty much any Bogart film you might want is available on Netflix.
So that sense of urgency is gone. There were two Kurosawa festivals in the area recently, but I only went to a couple of the movies. Sure, I’d seen them all before, and on real screens at that. But also I knew that I could just borrow a pristine Criterion Collection DVD transfer from my local video store (the indispensable Le Video) or the library. Or even watch them via Hulu, which early this year acquired the streaming rights to all the Criterion Collection films. I didn’t feel like I had to seize that opportunity to see those Kurosawa films the way I once would have.
And the quality of the video options is mostly very good now. Back then, watching an old, worn VHS tape on a small color TV was a very far cry indeed from seeing the movie at a theater—not an acceptable substitute for most of us. And if a theater was showing a new print or a particularly good print of a film, that was another one of those “not to be missed” occasions—a chance to see the whole movie, often, without any of the splices or scratches that had marred and reduced it in previous viewings. But with increasingly excellent transfers to video, with DVDs and now Blu-ray, and large hi-def TVs becoming increasingly common, the quality of the home viewing experience is pretty good, pretty darn good. It’s still not anything like watching a movie in a theater, I would argue, for all sorts of reasons—the immersive quality of a truly big screen, the communal quality of an audience, the dedicated nature of the experience. But it is good enough that there isn’t that same sense of the value of getting out to the movies.
The net result, for me at least, of the ease of seeing almost any movie I want, whenever I want to, is that—ironically—I watch fewer movies. Fewer I think than I would if the experience of seeing that movie still had that special, singular quality, that sense of occasion—that one chance this year, say, to see the original King Kong, or a pristine print of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine. I can see them anytime, but there’s no hurry, and then so often I don’t quite get around to it.
Similarly, the ready availability of the wealth of world cinema has changed film connoisseurship. In the early 1980s, to say one had seen most of Bergman or Fellini, or of Howard Hawks or Fred Astaire, implied real work—years of dedicated pursuit of the few opportunities to see these films as they passed through town or, rarely, showed up on TV. Videos started to change that, but even then in many areas, with many stars, directors and genres, there were substantial gaps in what was available on tape.
That’s pretty much all gone now. The only dedication involved in becoming intimately and extensively familiar with the work of Bergman is to spend a week watching his films on your TV or computer. There are some areas that require something a bit more like the former effort of connoisseurship: Netflix and Hulu only have a few movies by the Italian horror maestro Mario Bava, but you don’t have to look too much further afield to find them. Even twelve years ago, my friend Jim and I travelled to another country just to see a double bill of Bava films. Admittedly we only drove a couple of hours, from Ann Arbor across into Windsor, Canada and back, but still… Now those movies we travelled to another country to see could be gotten on the internet—a dozen Bava movies are available for download from The Pirate Bay.
Perhaps this all sounds a bit like an old curmudgeon complaining about the good old days, a lost golden age—or even the bad old days. You know, that stereotype of “when I was a kid we had to walk two miles through the snow…” When I was a kid we had to drive to another country… And maybe I am just feeling a bit sour. It’s certainly a good thing that anyone who wants can watch basically any film by Bergman or Kurosawa. If you fall in love with Fred Astaire, you don’t have to wait months to see another of his films—you can do it right away.
But is that entirely a good thing? Does it reduce the specialness, being able to spend a weekend and watch all those Fred Astaire musicals in one go? There’s no sense of achievement involved, really, but more than that there isn’t the same emotional investment. I think that perhaps there isn’t the same love, that the relationship one has with the films doesn’t get the same chance to develop.
And that’s not just from being able to sate our desires so quickly and easily. The act of watching a movie in a theater, with an audience, has a special quality to it. Even a fairly modest screen dominates your vision, takes it over, in a way that a large TV at home doesn’t quite. In the theater, you can give yourself to the movie, to the experience of watching. The phone will not ring. You can’t pause it to get a snack or a drink or use the toilet, so you dismiss all those things and stay rooted, rapt, in your seat. Alone in a way, even if you’ve come with someone, but also aware of being part of something large, the audience, having a collective experience. At it’s best, when it all comes together, there’s something almost worshipful about it.