On the ritual of moviegoing

July 9, 2015

We’ve been going to the movies a lot lately, and not just for professional purposes. Our summer hasn’t exactly turned brutal yet, but it’s still hot enough on a weekend afternoon to discourage a lot of activity. So we make it down the hill to catch films I’d otherwise wait to see on DVD.


Were I based in a larger market, I’d probably see most major pictures before they’re released in theaters. In places like St. Louis, Dallas and Philadelphia, they hold regular preview screenings for critics. Though we have a handful of people who regularly write about film based in central Arkansas, we don’t have regular screenings. (Most of the time when I review a movie, it’s because Sony Pictures Classics or IFC loaned me a DVD copy or provided me an Internet link. Larger studios, in part because of piracy issues but mainly because they’re represented by out-of-state publicists who have no real interest in our market, don’t usually provide these. This is why we make use of freelancers based in other cities for a lot of our movie coverage: Dan Lybarger in Kansas City, Mo., Piers Marchant in Philadelphia and Stephen Jones in New York.)

So I don’t generally get a chance to see a big summer movie like Inside Out or Mad Max: Fury Road until it opens. I’d gotten into the habit of waiting for these films to hit home video before catching up on them. Because it’s not like I don’t have anything to watch — there’s always a stack of discs sitting near the TV that I need to plow through. In recent years, I’d often go to the movies when I was out of town on vacation or assignment, but I hardly ever went out to a regular showing of a movie at home.

But a little more than a year ago, our neighborhood theater, Riverdale 10, reopened. And over the past few months, we’ve developed a habit of dropping in to catch a weekend afternoon showing. Over the Fourth of July holiday, we caught two films there, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl on Friday and I’ll See You in My Dreams on Sunday. In recent weeks we’ve watched Far From the Madding Crowd, Inside Out and Spy there. I imagine we’ll see something there this weekend — Karen hasn’t seen Love & Mercy and I wouldn’t mind seeing it again on a big screen. Maybe we’ll pick up Minions. Or Magic Mike XXL.

Anyway, I sometimes need to be reminded that there’s a qualitative difference of experience between watching a movie in a darkened hall in the midst of strangers and watching one on a laptop. While our home system is pretty good, there’s a ritualistic component of moviegoing that you can’t replicate at home. There’s a half-viewed Blu-ray of Ex Machina sitting in my DVD player tray right now, which I might or might not finish. Not because I didn’t “like” the movie (I did) but because something (like a desire for sleep) intervened, and I had the option of stopping the film. I can pick it up later, or never.

I have no doubt that I would feel differently about that film had I seen it in the cinema. Aside from the technical differences in the cinema experience as opposed to home viewing, I would have been much more invested in the movie. I wouldn’t have had the distractions of my (wonderful, enchanting) dogs. My phone would have been silenced. I wouldn’t have been able to Google “Alicia Vikander” on my iPad as I watched. My attention would have been more squarely focused on the movie.

They say that people younger than I tend to be more platform neutral, that they don’t draw such clear distinctions between a movie they watch on their phone or iPad than one they watch in a theater. I’m not sure that’s true — as someone who watches a lot of movies on an iPad and a laptop, I’ve no doubt that I’m trading quality of experience for convenience. Were I a film director with sufficient clout, I’d do my best to make sure that no one reviews my movie off a Vimeo link or a disc. I’d insist that critics see my movie in a theater, the way I intended it to be shown.

(Obviously some directors have a strong preference for theatrical screenings: More than once, I’ve had a publicist ask me not to mention to a filmmaker that I’d watched the movie we were about to discuss on my computer.)

Now, I love home video. We watch a lot of movies at home and I have a substantial DVD library (that I understand is all but obsolete). I like taking my iPad to the gym and watching Chappie while on a treadmill. (That’s where I’ll probably finish up Ex Machina.) I think that our newspaper ought to pay more attention to the different ways people consume movies these days and be less attached to the traditional model of running movie reviews on the day the films open.

But going out to the movies is fun. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a ritual that ought to be reserved for big spectacles such as Jurassic World or Terminator Genisys — and I’m not the only one who feels that way. Last Sunday, the 2 p.m. screening of I’ll See You in My Dreams was about three-quarters full.

While we’re hearing a lot about the end of Hollywood these days (and the industry has lost a lot of creative vigor as it has moved from an incubator of original stories to an industry reliant on pre-sold properties such as sequels and reboots), the truth is, most of our local theaters seem to be doing all right. When I drive past my local theater, its parking lot looks healthy. Sure, theater owners have to cater to the elevated expectations of their customers, they have to provide the right amenities, but it’s a still a viable business. People will still go to movies.

At least some of us do.

Not for the popcorn, the digital 3-D or the super deluxe seats, although that’s all nice. We go for the opportunity to forget ourselves, to be, for a couple of hours, caught up in an illusion larger than our lives.




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