Thursday, June 02, 2011

In defense of the theatrical experience - I DO get it

One of my favorite movie critics, James Berardinelli, has written a column decrying the state of the theatrical moviegoing experience. It's no small wonder, he says, that people increasingly watch movies at home because the theaters have become a cesspool of talking/texting teens, lousy movies and lousier projection.

As he usually does, Berardinelli makes a lot of good points. But I'm going to stop singing his praises and start rebutting him. Because from where I sit in the movie theater, I smell a lot of BS in what he writes.

Such as:

Movie houses used to have three big factors in their favor: screen size, superior sound, and the "shared" experience of enjoying something with a couple hundred strangers. Over the years, screens have gotten smaller - fake IMAX screens, widely touted as state-of-the-art, are smaller than the "regular" screens in the old 2000-seat houses. At the same time, home theater screens have gotten much bigger. Now, it's not a question of seeing something on a 70-foot theater screen instead of an 18" TV. It's a choice between going out and seeing a movie on a 20-30 foot screen or staying home and seeing it at 5-10 feet. 
I don't know how big Berardinelli's TV is, but in my experience, even the smallest movie screen, in a theater akin to a broom closet,  is still bigger than your average flat-screen  HDTV. Luckily, broom closet theaters are not that numerous, especially not in the megaplex.

It's also true that today's IMAX doesn't measure up to yesterday's big movie house.  Even though it is 10 years gone, I still greatly miss the big Dayton Mall 1 screen that was at least 50 feet long and seated well over 1,000 people. But you know what? Theaters like that are fewer and farther between than a moment of quiet in a Michael Bay movie. I wish they were still around, but they're not. The IMAX screens in megaplexes certainly aren't as big as genuine IMAX, but they're still bigger than the other movie screens in the megaplex. You have to take what you're stuck with. And what we're stuck with isn't so bad, size-wise. As Sheryl Crow once sang, "It's not having what you want, it's wanting what you've got."

He continues:

When one considers that the brightness and color are typically better calibrated and regulated in a home setup than in a multiplex, it becomes difficult to champion the movie theater visual aspect. Likewise, home video sound systems have become so sophisticated that they typically equal, and sometimes exceed, their theatrical counterparts.

Sometimes, yes, but NOT usually. Not where I see movies. I have a 42-inch flat screen with a digital surround sound system, including a subwoofer. It looks and sounds pretty damn good.  But given the choice, if I could see the same movie at home or in a theater, and A/V quality is the only consideration, I'll still take the theater.

Berardinelli says:

So the only thing left in a theater's favor is the "shared experience." When one considers how rude and inconsiderate many patrons are, it's game, set, and match for staying home. And I haven't even discussed things like convenience and refreshment quality/price.

There is no question that moviegoers are much ruder than they used to be. They certainly have more toys with which to be rude. And the food prices make me wish there were a loan office next to the bags of popcorn and boxes of Dots. What they ask you to pay is outrageous.

So you know what? I don't pay it.

I know most people consider popcorn an essential part of the moviegoing experience. Not me. I'm there to see the movie, I ain't there to eat. That's what restaurants are for. Granted, I take movies more seriously than most people do.  But it amazes me how many people willingly fork over $10 or more for heated corn kernels with artificial butter-flavored grease. That's like saying "$10 for a $1 worth of popcorn? That's a lot, but I'll support your insane prices by forking over my hard-earned money."

Me? I forgo that whole thing. I refuse to support that kind of gouging. I see more than 100 movies a year in the theater. I can count on one hand the number of times I've gotten concessions at a major chain in the last 10 years. And I don't miss 'em one damn bit. I've been able to afford more movies that way.

As for the texters/talkers, yes, they can be awful. But I've rarely had a major problem with them, and there are two reasons for that.

First, the texters/talkers are most numerous during the evening shows. That's why I almost never go to evening shows, especially on the weekends. I typically go to early matinĂ©es, when the people who would text and talk are recovering from their hangovers.

Second, even if the texters and talkers ARE there, I can usually ignore them because of where I sit in the theater. In a theater with stadium seating, I usually sit about the fourth or fifth row back. That's a tip I picked up in film class: Sit close enough so that the screen comfortably occupies your entire frame of vision, and you can't easily see the side walls.  Not only does this make the movie more impactful, it makes it MUCH easier to ignore people who treat the theater as if it were their living room. Let the movie drown the idiots out.

Berardinelli also bemoans the prevalence of 3D, but I'm not going to argue with him there. The bloom is indeed off the rose. I'm not as anti-3D as, say, Roger Ebert, but I do lament the fact that the once special experience of 3D has become so commonplace - and so ordinary as a result. I'm curious to see how Scorsese handles it with Hugo Cabret. Other than that, I don't care. Perhaps 3D will fall off once Marty tries it, just like 3D fell off after Hitchcock tried it with Dial M for Murder.

But I think it's still far too early to dial E for the End of the movie theater. There's still a lot to be said for a good theatrical experience. Take The Hangover Part II, for instance. That movie isn't even that good,  but seeing it with a crowd of hundreds of laughing people made it a lot more fun than it would have been otherwise.

 If you can duplicate that experience at your house -  I want a house just like yours.

No comments: