In a popular YouTube video, acclaimed filmmaker David Lynch (“Mulholland Dr.”) says, “If you’re playing the movie on your telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you’ve experienced it, but you’ll be cheated. It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real.”
Lynch, along with his vehement hatred of cell phones with video capabilities, clearly has strong opinions on how we experience cinema. It’s an issue that seems particularly relevant nowadays. Advances in technology provide new, ever-easier ways to watch movies. Video-on-demand services like Netflix and iTunes allow us to watch whatever we want, at any time, on anything with a screen. Meanwhile, Blu-ray and high-definition televisions have made home viewing look better than ever. But are any of these substitutes for the theater experience so revered by the likes of Lynch?
Historically, films were always seen in a movie theater. From the birth of cinema to roughly the 1950s, the only way to see a movie was to go to a theater. Then, with the rise of network television in the early ’50s, one could see movies at home, but only movies the networks would show. Starting around 1980, home viewing became popular, first with LaserDiscs, then VHS, DVDs and finally Blu-ray.
Today, non-theater viewing has become the norm. Though it’s true that when certain visually spectacular movies come out, you might hear that you “have to see it in theaters,” it is assumed that viewers will see the majority of their film repertoire on Blu-ray or on the Internet.
Traditionalists maintain that all films must be seen in a theater. Since that’s the venue for which they were designed, in order to actually experience the film, it must be seen on a large screen with surround sound and an audience. Cinema is a communal experience, they claim. If you don’t see the film in a theater, you haven’t really seen the film.
But the increasing portability and privacy of movie watching suggest that consumers are of a different opinion. If you can read a novel on the subway, why can’t you watch a film on your cell phone on the subway?
On this question, I would side with David Lynch. It’s impossible to experience a film on your cell phone, or from a low-res bootleg on the Internet, or any other viewing method that dilutes the medium.
However, the movie theater is not the only legitimate venue from which to experience a film. In fact, your experience can be enhanced when you see a film at home. With the advent of commentary and special features, viewers can now interact with a film in a way that wasn’t possible before.
The paradigm of home viewing is the Criterion Collection, a company that releases what it considers classics on DVD and Blu-ray. Criterion essentially invented director commentary and special features, besides presenting great films often with picture quality improved from the original. These supplements allow for an individual’s total immersion into a film, something theater viewing — in all its cinematic glory — can’t do.
And home video is the only way to see many classic movies today. The days of the ’70s art houses are over. Apart from a monthly midnight showing of a cult film at the State Theater, or the odd art house revival theater, great, old movies are impossible to see on the big screen. Companies like the Criterion Collection are the only platform for such releases.
Though the Internet mostly provides the quick and dirty way to see a movie, it isn’t solely a vehicle for the lowbrow. There are now “online cinematheques” popping up on the Internet. One of these is MUBI, a sort of Netflix for art films, which also programs film festivals online. The website allows you to stream great movies online that you can’t see in theaters.
Websites like MUBI prove that the Internet is not just a medium by which to watch low-quality films quickly, but that it can be useful in the advancement of cinema as art. It uses the Internet’s immediacy and mobility while maintaining the quality of the films’ artistry. The Internet, it seems, is becoming the art house of our generation.
While there is no substitute for seeing film in a theater full of people, the movie theater is not the only platform to experience a great film. While you may miss the thrill of laughing as a large group, or the completely immersive experience of the big screen, there are other ways to experience a film — ways that are becoming better and more accessible all the time.