Have you ever felt like a maniac? Because that’s how I felt earlier when I Googled “How to use an Italian press” – the only type of coffee press my grandmother owns – to make coffee at 9:30 p.m. to continue watching more movies. (Just watched: miami vice For the umpteenth time, the devil is a woman for the first time – wowza.) I’m about to send myself back to New York, where I’ll be stuck watching movies on a TV much smaller than my grandmother’s. I’m not really stressed about it, though, because – confession time – I love watching movies at home. I much prefer it. Don’t worry, I still went to see Rome in a theatre. More on that in a second.
I’m a critic with access to screenings, but like everyone else, I still see movies in theaters at my own expense (and for a while there, thanks to MoviePass), partly because I think seeing films with everyone, and not distancing myself from the culture of cinema is part of the job. And, yeah, because I’m a geek. Like other moviegoers in cities and towns with active arthouse theaters, campus screenings, or vibrant local film festivals, I’m a fiend for great print, especially from a movie that is not readily available for streaming online, but even for movies that are. I jumped at the chance to see a personal imprint of Michael Mann Heat in Brooklyn a few summers ago. Why? I own Heat on Blu-ray and iTunes and watch it all the time (twice in 2018 only!). But I went to see him because of the people. I wanted to feed on the energy of the hundred other Mann stans who, like me, could have seen Heat anytime, anywhere, but chose to be just there, shoulder to shoulder. I wanted what advocates of theatrical performance keep calling “the collective experience,” which is real, and it’s chemical, and it’s very human.
A good sound system helps too, and a craftsman like Michael Mann undoubtedly has that in mind. Alfonso Cuarón is another of these craftsmen. So why don’t I care if people saw Rome in a theatre? Again, at the risk of sounding like a maniac, I had to think long and hard about my own ambivalence on this subject. One immediately obvious reason is the cynical: Netflix barely gives his first respected Oscar scheme a proper theatrical release, and is primarily concerned with sounding serious to the right voters. It’s not out of concern for the filmmakers. It’s not out of a commitment to getting the best possible version of the movie in front of the most people; if so, we might have a chance to buy Rome on Blu-ray, which is certified superior to even the best streaming experience. Netflix is throwing us all a bone, shamelessly supplying targeted markets with overhauled, expensive sound systems for voters, critics, and other people who “matter,” which shuts most people out.
What sometimes slips under my skin about “You must see Rome in a theatrical discourse” is that it reveals a serious lack of confidence in the power of film beyond its medium. It seems completely ahistorical – partly because it seems to treat film culture as if it were strictly film culture –Go, large screens and sound systems and perfectly captivated attention. As if we didn’t all know better! As if private home viewing, TV edits with bad aspect ratios and too many commercial breaks, low-res torrents, VHS, bootlegs, loud coughs, crying babies, candy unwrappers and l Boredom isn’t all so fundamental to the story of how we’ve all, always, watched movies.
I saw for the first time 2001: A Space Odyssey on VHS. I saw it again, a decade later, after torrenting a copy to my computer; and again, many times, on a good television, via iTunes and Blu-ray. By the time I saw it on 70mm, with my eardrums practically bleeding, it was my 10and time to see it. I saw him with my phone in my hand; I saw it with a drunken stoner providing unwelcome live commentary throughout; I saw him in an almost religious theater in his silence. The overall greatness of the film was apparent each time: if anything, each method clarified something new about the film. I could watch the movie on mute on a crowded train, and it would still be true.
What I hear the Rome The speech says that Cuarón’s film benefits from seeing it in ideal conditions. The same goes for all movies, probably. But we have never, as a society, watched movies in what we now consider “perfect conditions”. And yet, the greatness of the great movies has somehow persisted. And the movies, on the whole, have survived because of that, not despite it. I think back to the movie-watching scenes in Fellini’s films, with people almost constantly getting up in their seats, or arriving late, leaving early, logging on, throwing popcorn. These are the experiences that Fellini reconstructs in his films with love and devotion. They were the ones who made him fall in love with movies, even though they weren’t the ideal conditions for watching those movies.
Or what about my own childhood, seeing movies to mostly black, lower-middle-class (read: chatty, participatory, even rowdy) audiences? In case it’s not clear: I believe there’s a class discussion to be had here, less in the way we had it online (i.e., arguing that the demanding people see Rome in theaters is inherently classist) than by emphasizing that the ideal theatrical experience is, itself, a class fantasy, and that we falsely tout it as an aesthetic necessity. It’s not evil or evil, and neither are the people who support it. But it’s certainly socially and historically specific, and critics should really think about that.
It is better that the films are not sanctified. And theaters should not be treated as museums of the singular, ideal, and increasingly boutique cinematic experience. Earlier this year, Dianne Wiest traveled to Madison Square Park to perform Beckett– dressed like a rock. Classical music proliferates in metro stations as much as in concert halls. They are forms of “high art” that have learned to thrive far beyond their aesthetically ideal settings. Why are we so protective of moviesof all things? I want the movies to live as a whole, screwed up and delivered through whatever new technologies we can find to watch them, just as mobile and light and available to us as books and music continue to be. I say this as someone who brought a CD case full of Blu-rays with me for the holidays, which is a funny mix of mobility and, as far as I’m beholden to physical media, the Ancient. The last 10 years have shown us that something as aesthetically monolithic as a Hollywood epic can be seen on something as small as a phone, or even crafted on one! I want us to see the value of it.
Even though – here’s the kicker – I don’t quite see the value of Rome himself. Often beautiful, incredibly accomplished, very sincere, but I felt like Cuarón had recreated Mexico in the 70s so fully that even his childhood understanding of his maid’s personal life had been replicated there, which resulted in a characterization that was bookish and juvenile, rather than alert. and alive. Can it hold up in all viewing conditions? Like someone who frequently pulls out her phone to see Sandra Bullock being catapulted into space in Cuarón previous movie, Gravity– a “see it at the cinema” film if there is one – I can’t say that I’m particularly anxious. Outside of the theatre, you’ll miss the finer aspects of Romethe sound design of, without a doubt. You will miss the sense of scale. But scale and lush sound aren’t all that RomeBeautiful design communicates – and if they do, the movie has bigger problems, in my opinion, than how you look at it.
I’m wary of rejecting Rome– which, to Dana’s question, is a lesson I learned from asking too many friends what they thought of Barry Jenkins If Beale Street Could Talk and hear them say what I said about Rome: “It left me cold.” It’s a hard reaction for me to understand, honestly, to a film that cuts to the heart, not just of James Baldwin’s wonderful novel and the social and historical anxieties it so beautifully details, but of American melodrama. On the other hand: The best melodramas are not always appreciated by critics in their time. This is a lesson I learned from the work of Douglas Sirk. And Beale Street begins as Sirk’s films often did – with a slow, beautiful descent through the trees into a colorful, tactile social world, encouraged by a swell of ravishing music. This film is, in every respect, as much a technical feat as Rome, if not, more. How can I get more people to check it out? How about this for an opening line: “You should see it in a theater.”
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