Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Insert No. 1

Something I think about a lot is the difference between seeing movies in a cinema with an audience, and seeing them at home alone, or with family and/or friends. Also, I think about the difference between seeing widescreen versions of films on a television monitor, and fullscreen versions, aka pan and scan.

Sometimes, I consider the proposition that I have not seen most of the films that I have seen, because of these concerns. The issue is brought home most clearly when you see a film on a small screen that you have already seen on a large screen. One film that comes to mind is John Schlesinger's Marathon Man, which I found truly hateful on the big screen. I thought that the violence was gratuitous in the worst way -- this from someone who had not had difficulty with the violence in Sam Peckinpah's films, for example. My second viewing of Marathon Man, was on a small screen and presented no such problem. Perhaps I had absorbed the ugliness of it at that point, and that was why, but I really did feel at the time that it was to do with the scale. A more recent example was my experience of Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans, a great favorite of mine, even though it was thoroughly disparaged by many whose opinions I respect. Innovations in sound created a whole new level of intensity in relation to the amazing ferocity of Wes Studi's portrayal of Magua. This was not gratuitous. The impact of Studi's portrayal added power to the overall impact of the film, and informed the narrative in a way that greatly enhanced the levels of feeling elsewhere in the narrative, and especially in the love story. Likewise, the visceral impact of another widely disparaged film, Ridley Scott's Gladiator, added a greal deal to the power of the narrative. In both of these cases, the film I saw in the movie theater was not the film that I saw on the television monitor. I have a pretty decent TV, the best non high def TV on the market, according to consumer reports, and a big enough screen to watch letterbox versions of movies without losing the power of the image. I did find that improvements in sound helped in the case of Mohicans. But it has never been the film that I saw at the Uptown, just down the street, where they first showed Star Wars in DC, and where I first saw Gladiator. I did not see Star Wars there, and I found it less than compelling on the small screen. Yawn. Sorry.

I recently recorded Children of Men off cable and watched it again, having seen it on the big screen when it opened. Not only was it on the small screen, it was the fullscreen version, so that you didn't even get to see the whole movie, just a cropped version of it. I must say that the amazing direction and cinematography retained their impact in spite of this.

Of the films that I have written about on this blog, none were viewed on a large screen (in a cinema). All The Movies Begin material, Baraka & The Story of Jazz were all seen for the first time on a TV screen. Baraka was seen in its letterbox version and The Story of Jazz in its widescreen version. It's been said that Baraka is breathtaking on the big screen and I don't doubt it. However, I did not find it insufficiently breathtaking on the smaller screen, I found it limited in terms of imagination.

I spend a lot of time at TCM. One has more of an illusion of experiencing the real thing, watching old black and white movies there, that were made before the advent of CinemaScope and so on. I've been around long enough to remember the old movie palaces, We had one in Swansea: The Plaza. We had cinemas up the wazoo. Downtown, there was the Plaza and The Albert Hall, the two primary first-run houses. Features would run for one week and then be gone. The Carlton and the Castle both combined first-run features with either B-movies or reruns, as well as having straight reruns. The Elysium and the Rialto were both double-feature repertory houses. Their programs changed every three days. And there were a great many others in the suburbs. It was a film culture, before the impact of television set in. There were many wonderful aspects to it, but it could also be very annoying. Audiences could be irritating, and that remains true today. I am very happy with TCM.

When I first lived in DC, I had come here after living in London, a great movie city. I was used to bopping around to out-of-the-way places to catch movies. I didn't know that I wasn't supposed to go to certain areas in Washington, and there were times when I watched a film with an entirely African-American audience. That was a whole other experience. I remember seeing Jack Starrett's Race with the Devil in that way, with my then-wife Andrea. It was amazing. The level of audience participation was unusually high, and it brought an extra dimension to the experience.

I saw Carrie and Jaws in packed houses with mixed, but largely African-American audiences at more mainstream movie theaters in the city, and the adrenaline levels went through the roof. That was a lot of fun.

My main complaint these days is the lack of letterox versions of old movies, and of newer movies, too, but especially the older ones. I've recorded fullscreen versions of Raoul Walsh's The Tall Men and Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It, somewhat reluctantly, because I recall so vividly the experiences of these films at the movies; and I've decided not to record (or watch) other films because I really want the widescreen versions. That's all for now.

1 comment:

Lally said...

Mann's LAST OF THE MOHICANS is one of my favorites as well, after seeing it initially on the big screen, though some I recommended it to at the time, didn't feel the same way. I still love it, but it does seem diminished on the small screen. In the theater, I felt like I too was in the woods running with Wes and Daniel Day-Lewis through the brush between the trees etc. On the small screen I'm just sitting in my living room watching them do it.