Alone Together In the Dark, by John Ostrander
I remember the first time I saw the film Casablanca. It was at the 400 Theater in Chicago, just up Sheridan Road from Loyola University where I attended college. It was on the bill with Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam, an obvious but terrific double feature. I went stag but was lucky to get in at all; the small theater was packed.
I had missed or ignored Casablanca up until this point. I’m not sure why; I liked old serials a lot. The movie had certainly played on TV enough. I’d seen bits here and there or seen send-ups of it; callow youth that I was, I thought it wasn’t for me. Part of it was my own perverseness; my immediate reaction, on being told by everyone else that I must see this or I must hear that or I must read such and such is to say, “No, I don’t.” I get stupid stubborn about such things some times. Being told I would love the film I, of course, refused to see it. Finally, my curiosity overcame my perverseness and I sneaked off to view it without anyone else.
As I said, I went stag but I soon discovered I wasn’t alone. I was part of an audience, folks who mostly knew and loved the film. At the end of the singing of La Marseillaise, they cheered. When Captain Renault said, “Round up the usual suspects,” they cheered again. They laughed out loud at the funny lines (the movie is incredibly witty and they had actors who knew timing) and listened with rapt attention to Bogart’s speech at the end. Their delight and enthusiasm was catching on its own. And then there was the film itself.
I didn’t really know the story of Casablanca before I saw the movie and it swept me in; I experienced it as first time viewers would have back when the film first came out, not knowing the end. I was swept by the iconic images, especially those giant close-ups at the end – Paul Henreid, a heart-breakingly beautiful Ingrid Bergman, the incomparable Humphrey Bogart.
I’ve seen the movie countless times since and it may be my all time favorite film. With one exception, all those other times have been from video or DVD, at home, watching on the TV. Each viewing, however, carries with it a bit of that first viewing, that loving audience. Would I love the film as much without that first communal experience? I don’t think so. I wouldn’t have had the experience of seeing the movie the way it was meant to be seen.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m delighted that I have films on DVD. If its a choice between seeing a great movie from DVD and not seeing it at all, I’m delighted to have the opportunity to see it. There are films that, for one reason or another, I missed in their first release. I’m glad to have the experience of seeing them at all.
I know, however, that the experience of seeing them on TV is not the same as seeing them in the theater.
From my late wife, Kimberly Yale, I learned to appreciate westerns and, in particular, to appreciate John Wayne’s performance in John Ford’s The Searchers. Ford could get Wayne to play a bastard and Wayne’s character in The Searchers, Ethan Edwards, is a racist anti-hero albeit a compelling character. I’d seen the movie several times before having a chance to go to a big screen showing in NYC. Some of those going with me hadn’t seen the film; as I was to discover, neither had I. Never really seen it.
The film was in wide screen Vista-Vision and when Wayne was in close-up, his head was larger than my house. I finally “got” John Wayne. I saw him in his element – the big screen. Not the TV. I saw how hefilled that screen, not only with his appearance but his presence. How Ford’s images conjured up the era, the feel, and told his story, right through to the final statement with Wayne framed in the doorway; the door closes, cutting him off from the family inside as he has cut himself off. Powerful on the small screen; it was overwhelming on the large screen.
Yes, there are disadvantages to going out to the movies. Price of tickets is one, price of gas to get to the cineplex is another, price of popcorn and so on is yet another. The screens are sometimes too small and the seats can be too uncomfortable and the floor sticky. There are the louts who talk for whatever reason and the projectionist may be asleep or doing something else because the picture is out of focus or the houselights don’t go off and so on. And they are now showing commercials before the film. Bite me, Ad Boy.
I still prefer to see movies in the theater.
Watching the movie at home on DVD (or Blu-Ray now) is also an experience and it’s a legit one. It’s nice; you control the environment. If you need to pause the movie, you pause the movie. It is not, however, in my opinion the same experience as going to the theater and is not the one that the filmmaker primarilyintended. When you go to the movies, you’re entering the filmmaker’s world. You’re experiencing the film on their terms. There are no breaks. You are – hopefully – drawn into the experience outside of yourself, one that is – hopefully – shared by those who are in the theater with you. It’s a communal event.
I know some of the younger generation watch movies on their cel phones or iPods. First of all, I don’t get how they can even see the movie on such a small screen. It also strips the movie of what makes it unique; it just becomes another function for their device, like videos, games, texting or – possibly – phone calls. Most of all, it reduces movies to a solitary activity instead of a communal one. It’s viewer masturbation.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There are pleasures to be had on one’s own, to be sure. However, we are so fragmented as a society already that I hate seeing a communal activity become more and more a solitary one.
Look, maybe some films work just fine on the small screen. I’ve seen very personal films like The Other Side of Anger or The Opposite of Sex only on DVD and they seem to work just fine on my TV. Would I go to see them on a big screen if I had the chance? Probably – just to see if that experience changes.
I’m also real glad I saw the original Star Wars films on the large screen, or Raiders of the Lost Ark or evenField of Dreams. There’s no way seeing those only at home can match seeing the images large in a darkened theater. I’m really glad I saw Iron Man on the big screen first this summer. I know I’ll carry the impact with me when I inevitably buy the DVD at some point in the future.
Most of all, I’ll be glad I saw it with others, even strangers. Their reactions to the film, to any film, may be different than mine but, for a short period of time, we were an audience, we shared a common experience. We were all, each of us, alone in the dark but there together in that time and place, watching together, and that to me is the butter on the popcorn.
The thoughts of GrimJack / Star Wars: Legacy / Suicide Squad writer John Ostrander appear every Thursday morning on ComicMix.