By Peter Gutiérrez
We watch movies the way we attend the circus or a ball game: with friends by our side, screams and laughter burbling up in our throats, and junk food well in hand.
We watch movies the way we read literary novels: in reverence and solitude, letting them work through us in the deepest ways, and often revisiting them for further contemplation.
Both statements are not simply true, but hint at why this medium is so uniquely compelling. Just try reversing those scenarios -- huddle up to read James Joyce or attend a sporting event in a spirit of quiet reflection. The performing arts come closest to replicating the movies, but when was the last time a ballet company staged a production in your living room? With movies, the only requirement is a screen, vast or tiny.
But let’s pull back for a moment. I’d contend that we sometimes treat filmmakers like deities because we sense they’re with us in the dark, all-powerful yet invisible, and so we read the signs of their handiwork into all that transpires. As David Thomson brilliantly observes in The Whole Equation, there’s always the hidden creator "whose presence is automatically indicated in the mechanism and the process" of the cinema.
"The movie you are seeing has a life of its own that will not stop until it is over. Go away -- it carries on; throw garbage at the screen and the image endures, even if scarred. It is oblivious of you -- yet it is all for you. Dreams have the same contradictory nature."
Sure, the parallel between movie-going and the dream-state is old hat. What’s intriguing about the passage, though, is its easy yet startling juxtaposition of the mob and the single spectator. After all, we don’t throw rotten tomatoes at our dreams (although one could see Michel Gondry riffing on that premise). Indeed, despite the engaging, at times gaudy, public persona of cinema, watching movies has always been a profoundly individual experience.
In addition to dreams, film theory suggests additional analogues for the -- voyeurism, for example, is rarely a group activity… unless, of course, one counts certain teensploitation films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Or, on a more elevated plane, we might revisit the earlier comparison to the spiritual -- we can attend houses of worship en masse, but our most heartfelt prayers are generated in recesses to which no other has access. Similarly, when a film works, when we’re fully sutured into the storytelling and all its identification-devices, each of us feels that it’s speaking to us alone. The rest of the audience simply evaporates… even if we know the experience somehow wouldn’t be the same without all those butts-in-seats next to us.
This dichotomy between private and public -- moviegoers are admonished not to speak aloud, and yet laughing together and talking back to the screen in a crowded auditorium is one of the movies’ undying pleasures -- has become more charged these days, its poles even more, well, polarized. Witness the recent attention given to the Alamo Drafthouse’s zero-tolerance stance toward texting.
How is this different than standard concert hall etiquette, where each cough is an intrusion? Simply put, the latter is not a breach of the collective experience. So while movie audiences are currently chuckling or squealing at various summer blockbusters, they’re still annoyed by the quieter tap-tap of fingers on a keypad. Why? For the same reason that a train traveler speaking on a mobile is far more disturbing than that person speaking even more loudly to a fellow passenger: the relationship is to someone not present, thus undermining the ambient sense of community.
And community is certainly what even the most misanthropic of us want from the movies on some level. Hence the attention that Chris Le’s recent In Defense of Seeing Movies Alone received, as its common sense thesis somehow landed as contrarian. It was neat to see so many passionate cinephiles respond by weighing in on the social vs. aesthetic dimensions of moviegoing, but dismaying that so few tried to reconcile them by suggesting that neither mode of participation is inherently more natural or meaningful. Perhaps this private vs. public dynamic inevitably seems like a conflict rather than a potentially positive dialectic because it often gets played out in noisy, headline-making ways like this spring’s fracas between theaters and VOD providers.
I’m not arguing that such clashes derive from philosophy instead of economics, but rather that they underscore the notion that there’s a hard and fast line between two fundamentally different types of moviegoers. There isn’t. No question that the “serious” film fan prefers movies on the big screen to the small, but the interplay between the two is usually pretty fluid: we initially catch a film in a theater, then deepen our relationship with it through non-theatrical viewings -- it’s what the entire home video market has always been predicated upon.
21st century technologies have merely served to exacerbate this push-and-pull of the individualized and collective experiences of film. Digital delivery and projection have helped fuel the worldwide proliferation of film fests, while everything from illegal movie-watching sites to DIY filmmakers displaying their work via YouTube encourages us to stay home.
What’s less obvious is the way that these oppositional forces are actually complementary: the more we curl up next to our smart phones and tablets whenever and wherever we want to; the more we crave the spectacle of the premiere, the excitement of that first midnight screening, the sharing of a movie’s emotional ride. Likewise, the more we appease this hunger for the messy exhilaration of film in its most public venues, the more we long for a quiet retreat into isolation and convenience.
Creators, exhibitors, distributors, and tech developers who understand that within any given individual not only do both impulses exist but also that they thrive because of each other… well, these are the industry players that will capture audiences and keep them. That’s why it was so disappointing when Netflix abruptly dismantled its beloved community features -- users wanted to be together virtually if not physically. In contrast, twenty years ago the idea that one could “attend” a fest from one’s desktop would have been laughed at, but not anymore; Tribeca’s robust online viewing component comes to mind in this respect -- as does its emphasis on involving the greater community that is New York.
In the end, then, it’s important to remember that film is all for you. And it’s all for us.
Peter Gutiérrez has blogged about media and pop culture for MIT's Project New Media Literacies and the New York Times, and writes Screen Education's "Blockbuster Central" column. Peter's book Beyond Engagement: Pop Culture Fandom in Today's Classroom is due from Corwin Press in early 2012. Twitter: @Peter_Gutierrez