Thursday, March 17, 2011

I like it in the dark

This article was first published on 01/03/11 in Vida magazine

Early on a recent Sunday morning, I was drearily heading home on a crowded night bus, glad to have found a seat amongst the many late-night revellers packed around me, who chatted, snacked, stared or merely closed their eyes and tried to hold their balance. My trusty iPod was keeping me company, with relaxing music providing an interesting soundtrack for the unkempt scene I was taking in. Half-way home, the guy sitting next to me whipped out his phone, plugged in his headphones, and to my surprise started watching a film. I say film because I distinctly caught sight of the 20th Century Fox searchlights swirling about, so this was no random YouTube clip or something his friends had emailed him. It might have been a high-end TV episode, but the explosions and traffic debris I saw out of the corner of my eye a few minutes later confirmed my early suspicion.

Once the bus had spewn me onto the pavement and I was plodding home, I kept thinking about the man calmly watching a feature film amidst the bright neon and constant movement of the night bus. Would the huge team of people who poured months of their lives into that film have been shocked to see him treating their art so lightly? Or would they have been honoured that he was so eager to see it, or even that he was seeing it at all? Does it matter, after all, how we watch movies? Am I an obsessed freak for being reluctant to start a film unless I know I can watch the entire thing uninterrupted?

Some like it small

It’s no revelation that the way we watch film nowadays is changing drastically. A couple of generations ago, your options were - in the cinema, a good year or so later on video, or a good two years later on Italian TV, peppered with endless adverts and dubbed rather hideously. Nowadays, the gap between cinema and DVD is constantly shortening, and digital versions are often available online, whether legally or not, before that. Once films reach TV, the language, timing and viewing options are mostly under our control too.

The size and location of the screen is changing too. What used to be cinema screen vs. home TV screen has now spread out to include laptop screens, phone screens, tablets and so, as well as moving location onto trains, planes, buses and practically anywhere you can sit down and click play. We can watch films whilst ironing, on the treadmill or even in a corner of our monitor whilst writing an assignment. But by making the viewing of films and TV series so easy and accessible, and by using it as commonly as reading a book for filling up our free or waiting time, are we losing out on the film’s immersive experience?

Some like it solo

With respect to most other art forms, cinema and TV differ in that they use all of our senses in concert, and in fact cinema can be said to draw on all other art forms.

Music, however complex or brilliant, can be fully appreciated whilst staring out the window or gazing at the ceiling. You could even be out running, although occasional distractions might make you miss a beat or two. This is why live musicians often add spectacle, imagery or stage antics to add a visual element to their concerts. Reading and enjoying a good book can often be done despite being in a noisy environment, although some quiet music at home might be preferable. The visual arts, even at the their most high-brow end, are often appreciated and fawned over whilst listening to whatever muzak the art gallery is pumping out through the soffit speakers. When only one sense is needed for scrutiny, the others can temporarily be allowed to wander.

But in most films, all the arts are used together and packed onto your screen. The writing is key, and whether the story is good or not often makes or breaks the film, just like most books. Quotable dialogue also stands out, and is an essential part of a movie’s durability in today’s social networking culture. The visual arts are also easy to pick out - they grace the sets, the costumes, the makeup and of course the special effects. Great films with great cinematography could probably be freeze-framed at any point to provide an image that would sit comfortably within any photography collection. And the music, of course, is another key element. Whether it’s a full-blown orchestra making a flying dragon seem ten times more epic, or a disco track from the 70s making a duel in the snow seem almost balletic, there’s no denying that watching a film with the sound turned off is like eating fine food with a blocked nose.

Some like it in cinemas

So with so many elements of a film to take in, it’s no surprise that ever since the good old Lumière brothers publicized moving pictures, cinemas have involved darkened auditoriums, large screens to give ample space to the detail involved, and a general consensus that, apart from laughs or shrieks when appropriate, people will keep mum. Some say that that’s why popcorn became so popular as a cinema snack - you can munch away without making much noise, as opposed to crisps, for example.

And I believe it’s easy to see why. Despite my very frequent DVD viewings, I still make it a point to go and see highly-anticipated films at the cinema. It’s not simply a patience issue - not being able to wait until it’s released on DVD. It’s because for me, truly great films look so much better when they’re preceded by trailers, in the dark, taking up your whole field of vision, and at volume levels that would normally have your neighbours complain. Phones go off, bladders are emptied beforehand, food and drink supplies are at hand, and for two hours, the film is king.

Some like it in groups

Also essential to the cinema experience is the pack behaviour of the audience. Whenever someone asks me what the funniest films I ever saw were, I always think of three. American Pie, the South Park movie, and Borat. Crass, rude, loud, but all unbelievably funny. But also, and I don’t think this is a coincidence, all films that I watched in a cinema with friends. Laughing, crying and screaming at what’s on screen is so much easier and emotional when you’re surrounded by others who are doing likewise. It’s not that we need assertion that the joke we just heard is indeed funny. It’s just that some experiences are better shared. It’s why we recommend great songs to friends, or drag them to restaurants we love - sharing makes the experience better.

On further thought I can think of many other hilarious films I have watched - such as recent re-viewings of Annie Hall or When Harry Met Sally, or the recent and rather different Superbad. But despite possibly containing just as many well-written laughs, they were unfortunately films I watched alone on a small screen, with my occasional laugh-out-louds echoing in my room. It just wasn’t the same as being in Malta’s largest cinema and glimpsing a sea of people bent over with laughter, or glancing aside at the contorted faces of your friends, blurred by the tears of laughter welling in your eyes. Remembering individual jokes or lines as you head home is often just as much fun as the film itself.

The same goes for scary movies. The Ring in a packed cinema - one of the most terrifying film experiences I can remember. The Shining at home on my computer screen - a relative let-down. Yet a large part of me knows that had I been in a cinema (or born, for that matter) back in 1980 when the latter was released, I would probably be mentioning it in conversation as one of the most unsettling films I ever watched. On a less scary note, I was recently very fortunate to be treated to a sumptuous viewing of the The King’s Speech in a very old London cinema, with artsy decor, plush sofas for seats, foot rests, champagne and less than a hundred viewers who obviously wanted to watch the film in the best possible setting. It was perfect. I’m sure the film looks great in any setting, but would I have loved it so much on a noisy transatlantic flight?

Some, alas, don’t seem to like it

The privacy argument often comes to mind. When watching a film in the cocoon of your bedroom, you run the show. Cinema experiences, however great on a good day, can just as easily be ruined by inconsiderate neighbours. As early as 1993 I distinctly remember fuming through all of Free Willy as a guy behind me carefully translated every line into Maltese for his son. I never thought I could feel such hate, yet unfortunately at the time I was too shy to give him a piece of my mind. I remember a veritable concerto of ringing tones during my first viewing of The Two Towers (which was thankfully absent during the other three viewings). The dim-witted lady behind me, trying to explain the plot of Titanic to herself as it went along, is another film outing I’d rather forget.

I’ve lived with people who press play on the DVD player, then rush off to make tea. “Don’t worry, start it without me”, they shout from the kitchen. But why? Why disrupt the first, often crucial five minutes of a film? Can’t we wait until everyone’s ready and then watch it together? Interruptions are a fact of life, unfortunately, but can’t we press pause while someone answers the phone? Why wave everyone on, and miss potential crucial scenes that were obviously left in the film for a reason?

Some like it too much?

Half-way through writing this article, I took a small break and headed for the kitchen to make an omelette. I found my flatmate watching 300 on his 11-inch notebook, whilst cooking rice, curry and hard-boiled eggs, and with the noisy extractor fan on full-blast. At one point he spent a good three minutes at the kitchen sink carefully peeling the hot eggs, as the Spartans unleashed hell on the kitchen table. He then finally sat down to eat, without ever stopping or rewinding the film. I commented on how we watch films compared to earlier cinema days, and his answer was simple and immediate - back then, a few films were released every month; nowadays, we are bombarded with numerous releases every week.

So are we sacrificing quality for quantity in the viewing experience? Do we feel obliged to watch everything the studios churn out? Personally, I’ve noticed that I only watch a small percentage of new releases every given year, but those few will always have my undivided attention. And few settings better provide that undivided attention than a considerate audience in a cinema auditorium. Which is why I’m convinced that no matter how cheap home-cinema systems become, or how many households digital downloads reach, cinemas, in some form or another, are here to stay.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Screen Themes - Indy Music

This week the focus is on John Williams' celebrated scores for the Indiana Jones films. Without his theme, Indy would just be another guy in a hat.