Friday, 7 June 2013

On big screens vs small screens

It is no secret that since the dawn of cinema there has been a widespread reluctance to give it its rightful place among the arts. Scholars, critics and even the man on the street have often treated it with some kind of disrespect, intentional or unintentional. It is considerably less so now perhaps, but it is still there. To say, as if it was an objective fact, that "the book is always better than the film." is an example of this. You often read literary critics explaining why literature is "better" than film. Some people who would not be caught dead reading a detective novel have no quarrels with watching action films and thrillers because, I suppose, films are not to be taken seriously anyway. Another more institutionalised example is that when films (long, short or experimental) are shown at museums they are often treated with a disrespect (in terms of projection for example) that would be unthinkable for other works of art, such as paintings, photographs or installations.

But what is even more disconcerting is that among people who claim to love cinema, and take films very seriously, there are numerous ways in which they belittle their own chosen art form. The perhaps most common example is that they believe that watching films at home are as good, or even better, than watching them at the cinema. This is something I just do not understand. One argument for staying at home to watch a particular film, rather than watch it at the cinema, is that it is just people talking, there are no big action scenes or outdoor scenery, so the TV screen is enough. But seeing it on a big screen, where everything and everybody is much bigger than you are, is a completely different experience. You might miss important things and lose the feelings intended by the director. I had seen Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960) at home many times before I saw it on the big screen, but it was a different film. For example the dehumanising vastness of the office in which C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) toils away does not exactly have the same impact when seen on the small screen at home. The idea that the experience at home is as good as the one in the cinema is related to the idea that the words and the story are the most important things in a film. I once read a critic who said (seriously) that Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was better seen at home on a TV than in the cinema in order to fully appreciate the dialogue scenes in the tents. In that direction clearly lies madness, and one wonders if he also prefers the Cliffs Notes version of Tolstoy's War and Peace in order to better appreciate the plot. Since films are made for the big screen (as opposed to made-for-TV-films) that is where they must be seen in order to get the full experience. If having the choice how can you possibly justify watching it in some other format than the intended one. Film is a visual experience, even if it is only close-ups of faces, and you have not experienced it the way it was intended if you have seen it only on your laptop. Are there any art lovers who says "You don't have to go to the museum, you might as well watch the painting on a postcard." or music lovers who says "Don't bother listen to that record on a hi-fi stereo, a Walkman is good enough."?

Another reason given for watching films at home is that if is not a very good film you might as well see it on TV. But that might only be a valid point if you have already seen it on the big screen and did not enjoy it, although why would want you to watch it again if you did not like it? Other reasons given are that it is cheaper (although that depends on how much you spend on your home cinema equipment), you can talk while watching it if you must, pause when going to the toilet, and you do not have to suffer the odour of popcorn. But these are not reasons that have anything to do with the art form, only your comfort. It is also more comfortable to watch a documentary of a safari in your own home than going to the Serengeti and face mosquitoes, snakes and the hot, humid air.

I am not saying that we should never watch films at home. It is often the only chance we have to see certain films and it is better to have seen it on a small screen than not at all (although in some cases I wonder...). But we should never kid ourselves into thinking that watching it at home is the same, or better, than watching it at the big screen. Any film which is any good takes advantage of the scope and space provided by the medium and we as viewers (and listeners) should do the same. If film lovers themselves do not show more respect for the art form, why should others?


  1. While I can agree with you that the _experience_ of watching a movie on a small TV-screen differs quite a lot from watching it on a big screen, I'm not sure big always wins. The thing is, big often comes with a lot of baggage. Foremost in the form of sounds and smells from other people which sometimes can be extremely distracting. In those cases it is at least a lot less frustrating to watch a movie at home where the only munching is done by myself.

  2. I actually discussed that in my post, when I wrote this: "Other reasons given are that it is cheaper (although that depends on how much you spend on your home cinema equipment), you can talk while watching it if you must, pause when going to the toilet, and you do not have to suffer the odour of popcorn. But these are not reasons that have anything to do with the art form, only your comfort."
    Yes, there are disadvantages with going to the cinema, which is often the case when doing things with others. But I'm not talking about that, I'm talking about the film. Say that the choice is between seeing the film in a cinema, alone or with a company of your choice, or at home, alone or with a company of your choice, what would you chose?

  3. Beg your pardon, sloppy reading on my account. And with that, I cannot do otherwise than wholeheartedly agree with you on the cinema vs TV issue.

  4. I largely agree with you, but the small screen has gradually been getting bigger and wider, while the big screen experience has been getting steadily more degraded. In New York, MOMA has great film programming, but it draws an audience that seems to enjoy loud arguments as much as cinema, and in one of their theaters, you can hear the subway rumbling underneath. I'm not sure that it's so easy to draw a clear line between film and TV anymore, especially now that almost all movies are shot on video. Sure, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA must be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated. What about a mumblecore film or a low-budget documentary (probably funded by TV in the first place), shot on consumer-grade video cameras?

    I don't know what the situation is in Sweden, but in the U.S., it's very difficult to see older films theatrically outside a circuit of 12-15 big cities. Thus, insisting that you haven't really seen a film if you've only seen it on video can quickly turn it into urbanite snobbery. Are cinephiles in small towns supposed to ignore the existence of Hong Sang-soo or Bela Tarr because they can't see their films on the big screen?

  5. In Sweden seeing older films on big screens is very hard, and the only place where it can be done with any regularity is in Stockholm. The same is the case with new films that are less than mainstream (unless it's a town with a good film festival, such as Gothenburg). But even in Stockholm, many films to not appear. In Europe, perhaps only London and particularly Paris will be really satisfying.

    But there is no "urbanite snobbery" involved here. I said that it's better to watch a film at home than not at all, so friends of Hong Sang-soo and Bela Tarr should watch their films at home. Only, seeing them on a big screen is still a different experience.

    Neither Hong Sang-soo or Bela Tarr have had a film on general release in Sweden yet. Is it snobbery to feel sorry about this, considering they are available on dvd?

  6. No, it's not snobbery. Weirdly, three Hong Sang-soo films opened in New York last year. All of them closed in a week. Therefore, I wound up seeing THE DAY HE ARRIVES & IN ANOTHER COUNTRY on DVD. American distributors keep releasing his films theatrically, but unfortunately,it's proven to be commercial suicide every time.

  7. Those are the two films by Hong Sang-soo I've seen, and I've managed to catch them at film festivals. (Both were great!)