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Lisa Schwarzbaum on the Good and the Bad of How We Watch Movies Now

May 15, 2014

In the beginning, we went to the movies. We went to multiplexes. We went to art houses. We went to weird neighborhood duo-plexes where the sound bled through the walls, but we kept going anyway, because the tickets were cheap.

And it was good.

Now the movies come to us. Over the years, maybe we found a favorite video store. (Be kind, rewind.) Then we collected DVDs. We subscribed to Netflix, we programmed our TiVOs, we scheduled our DVRs, we learned what streaming meant, we streamed. Maybe we threw out our VHS tapes, too. (Did you? I did. I'd feel worse about missing my well-loved tape of Eyes Without a Face if I still had something on which to play videos, but I junked that technology with the arrival of my Blu-ray player.)

These days we watch movies on giant screens in our own home theaters. And we also watch them on the go: on laptops, tablets, and smartphones, in planes, trains, and automobiles. Wherever we are, there is a way to way to see a movie when we want it, how we want it.

And it is … a new kind of good. Certainly it's a new kind of different: often wonderful, sometimes disorienting, occasionally horrifying. (Did you really watch Lord of the Rings on a smartphone?) But we are not here to talk about how you like to watch your movies. (Seriously, Rings on a smartphone? Are you nuts?) We are here on this site because we love movies. And built into a love of movies is a love for the way a movie uses time to tell a story.

Image builds on image, sound on sound, scene on scene. Over the course of 90 minutes or five hours or anywhere in between, the accumulated power of those sights and sounds moves us to a psychic space outside ourselves. We are immersed, swept away in a whoosh not so very different from when the first audiences gasped at the first moving image more than 100 years ago, certain that the train on the railroad tracks was charging straight at them.

Yes, the irony is duly noted, that we're declaring this love at the start of the noisy, CGI-driven, action-loony summer season designated for Transformers: Age of Extinction, Guardians of the Galaxy, Hercules, a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and The Expendables 3. (All that, and a new Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore comedy, too.)

The counter-intuitiveness of professing this affection when television drama is at such a peak of creativity, energy, and audience engagement these days has been taken into consideration. Championing movies isn't as fashionable at the moment as binge-watching Orange Is the New Black or recapping Game of Thrones. And honestly, immersed as one may be in Spider-Man 2, there's less to chew on and chat about afterward than in 30 minutes of The Mindy Project or Silicon Valley.

But movies are where big ideas can be given big space, whether those ideas are about slavery, as tackled in 12 Years a Slave, or a unique stripe of American greed, fetishized in The Wolf of Wall Street. Movies invite those who make them to think big, not just in Godzilla-scaled size, but in nuance — the richness of the relationship played out in Richard Linklater's Before Midnight/Sunrise/Sunset, series, say, vs. the half-hour aperçus in an episode of Mike & Molly or even Girls. Movies don't favor the snappy recapper; they reward those who understand that sometimes the big picture of what's going on in our world can be embedded in the struggle of closeted mutants in X-Men, or the exploits of Captain America, who spends much of the film questioning the government's drone-like tactics.

The experience of concentrating attention on a screen for an extended period of time results in an emotional experience unlike that in any other medium. A neurologist can probably explain the thing in terms of synapses and receptors; I can't. But I do know that my senses rearrange themselves differently to watch something on TV — when I'm prepared for half-hour and hour-long blocks, interrupted by advertising or not — in comparison to when I settle in for a movie. I know that in my two decades as a movie critic, I have always felt … different when I emerge from a movie to which I have been paying close attention, and that the feeling is a different kind of different from how it feels when paying attention to any other form of culture, both haute and pop.

The moviegoing experience is exhilarating, and also sometimes draining. Leaving Gravity, I was floating, agog. Leaving Bridesmaids (was it really three years ago?), I was giddy. Leaving Amour, about an old couple facing the end of their days, well, I couldn't leave my seat for a good long while, hushed with grateful sadness. All those years as a critic when I saw four and five movies a day at film festivals: How did I do that?! (Well, sometimes, I hallucinated. I dare other professional critics to deny the same disorder.) After most movies, short of a Seth Rogen comedy, I can barely talk, let alone opine, while I reassemble myself.

We don't necessarily watch in enveloping darkness anymore, and at home we don't even necessarily watch in uninterrupted stretches without pausing for a hundred different important or dumb reasons. Bloody hell, we don't even necessarily watch at home without having a second screen up somewhere, on which we are tending to email, or checking our Twitter feed, or playing solitaire. But this much is eternal: To want to watch a movie means to want to be transported. Whether it's to Gotham City or Gosford Park, we have got the cinema itch.

This brings up one more wonderful, sometimes disorienting, occasionally horrifying aspect of movies as we experience them today. We want to talk about them with each other. A lot. Not that everyone didn't always: Half the fun of the old-fashioned movie theater experience was sitting in the dark together, sharing laughs or tears or gasps as the picture unspooled, and sharing conversation afterwards when the lights came up. Twenty years later, I can still remember the whizzy joy of a theater full of viewers screeching with anxiety during Speed(!), then instantaneously laughing aloud at our shared, pleasurable agita. Less than half a year later, I can still remember the conflicted WTF arguments that broke out on the street after a screening of The Wolf of Wall Street.

Certainly, part of the fun of film festivals, for working critics as well as regular ticket-buyers, is to gather in clusters after a screening, bubbling with unfiltered reactive emotions. That Lars von Trier movie was brilliant! No, it was a mess! (See above re: my typical post-screening stupor, to understand why I didn't do well in those festival coffee klatches.)

Now we talk differently. Some of that change in conversation results from fewer viewers watching their movies in theaters in the first place. Some of it is because, with the ubiquity of personal electronic devices that accompany patrons into those theaters and the evolving standards of acceptable behavior while sharing a public screening experience, the movie-theater experience itself has changed. (Have I put that delicately and neutrally enough for you? Then get this: If you are anywhere around me in a screening room and I hear you yakking or turning on your electronic screen, I will shush you and hound you into silence and darkness like a Fury.)

Some of that change in conversation is because post-screening texting and tweeting is such fun. Want to read yourself down a rabbit hole? Follow the online arguments that went on about American Hustle, and whether it was about something — or nothing. An added benefit of passionate debate online: It allows those who tire of the obsessive banter to click ESC when enough is enough. Online, no one can hear you scream. Even in ALL-CAPS.

For these reasons, and so many more — the rise of film cultism, fanboy enthusiasms, website specialization, industry scholarship among lay readers, citizen-critics — talking about film has never felt so urgent. A passion for movies may not lend itself to the kind of recap culture that currently energizes online conversation among TV viewers — years go by between movies by Paul Thomas Anderson or about X-Men, not days — but today's online resources provide opportunities for equally exciting exchanges of analyses and observations, expressions of love and hate, presentations of theories, dares, and arguments. This space, right here, is one of them.