When I was kid, second-run and third-run movies at neighborhood theaters always showed double-bills—the first and main movie was usually a grade “A” movie and the second a “B” movie. They ran continuously from the time the theatre opened to the end of the day. In between the films, they showed coming attractions and studio-produced newsreels. Sometimes they showed 10-minute shorts and if you were lucky, a cartoon or two. The lights never went on and you could stay for as long as you liked. Cleaning the theaters was a chore left till the end of the day or the morning of the following day.
André Breton, a movie aficionado, would go the movies and sometimes walked out 20 minutes later. It was a way of stimulating his imagination. He wasn’t interested in the plot or the characters but watching a half hour or so of a film you knew nothing about permitted you to invent the story which the fragment that you saw inspired. The little morsel permitted you to dream up your own plot and motivations rather than having to watch the whole movie, which robbed you of the opportunity to make your own film.
That all changed in 1960 when Hitchcock released Psycho. The ads all screamed. “You must see this film from the beginning. Do not reveal the ending!´ “No one BUT NO ONE will be admitted to the theater after the start of each performance.” It changed the way American audiences would watch films. The theaters emptied out when the movie ended, and if you wanted to see the movie you had to consult the newspapers or call the theaters for showing times. You no longer could dip in or out of the movies at will. It was all Hitchcock’s fault! You were a prisoner to the tyranny of the starting times, the tyranny of movie theaters. I don’t know if this was a plus or a minus for the exhibitors.
With the invention of the VHS, the patterns of watching movies changed people’s movie-going habits tremendously, once again. You could start a movie, you could stop a movie, you could rewind and watch a scene over again. And again, if you chose to, you could answer the phone and put the movie on pause. You could go to the kitchen and have a snack. You could go to the bathroom and not fret about what you missed—because you weren’t missing anything. You were in control of the movie, not the other way around. DVDs enhanced that relationship with much better quality.
Then, of course, came blu-rays. At the beginning, very few titles were available. A friend, at the beginning of the blu-ray era, asked me if I were going to buy a blu-ray player. At the time, they were putting out only very popular major studio movies. I told him I would get a blu-ray player only when they put out Slightly Scarlet (1956). Well, I don’t know if they did or didn’t but I bought a blu-ray player shortly after that. In fact I bought my blu-ray player on the same day that Prince William and Kate Middleton got married, not that that was of great interest to me but all the monitors in the store had the wedding on their screens. So it fixes my purchase in a very specific time frame, I bought a large screen blu-ray player. I wanted to buy one with an even bigger screen size but my partner put his foot down. He didn’t want a huge screen taking over the living room. Now I have many blu-rays of the films I love. And now they’re putting out movies even more obscure than Slightly Scarlet.
Fairly recently the Cinémathèque Francaise had a partial retrospective of Joan Crawford’s films. I’m not especially a Joan Crawford fan but there are a couple of movies of hers that I think are really great—mostly from the mid-to-late 40s. I went to see Possessed (1947) and guess what—the blu-ray that I have, seemed to be of much better quality and it was more fun to watch in the comfort of my home. I discovered I don’t need people all around me and a large movie screen to provide the movie-going experience. I’ve seen enough movies in my life to be able to adjust the smaller screen version to what was originally intended. I suspect I’m not alone in this.
I used to have a company called Couch Potato Productions. Well, I suppose I am one myself—a couch potato. And, furthermore, despite many cinephile’s complaints about films projected in DCP rather than in their original 35mm formats, I’ll take the DCP version anytime, anyplace, anywhere. It eliminates distracting frame damage, blotches and dirt ground into the film and end-of-reel snow storm of scratches, especially in older films that are projected not with new prints but with prints that have survived the passage of time.
Even though they seem to be making more and more blu-rays that cater to audiences like me (hard to get, hard to see films that have fallen through the cracks of history), the audience for them seems to be somewhat limited and we’re promised that soon they will go the route of VHSs and vinyl. I have no doubt that this is true. This is what capitalism does best. It makes products that are intended to become obsolete so that you have to buy the next version that was designed to replace it.
Now everyone can stream films at will on their iPhones and computers and feel they’re not missing all that much. Scale, size, image-quality, not to mention audience-participation are dreams of the past. So, Hollywood studios have upped the ante. Movies with huge full frame CGI effects for the WOW! reaction, movies that clearly lose a lot of information when not seen on a big screen. But I don’t think that anyone really cares anymore. Even they, the anonymous moviegoers, have seen enough movies in their lives to compensate for the difference between what is on the screen and what the images should look like. Or maybe they just don’t care. We know from survey after survey, that movies don’t have the same magic for people who are in their 20s and 30s that they still have for people a few decades older. Furthermore, there are much more audio/video stimuli to distract them—and movies are relegated to an also-ran status. Who ever imagined it would end like this?
Getting back to the tyranny of the starting times—there are movies that I absolutely won’t go to see if they’re three hours or more. It breaks up the day and/or ruins the day in a manner that I won’t permit. I saw Sátántangó (1994) at a press screening when it was shown at the New York Film Festival at 9 o’clock in the morning. I remember falling asleep at some point and remember that more clearly than I remember the film, although I distinctly remembered the girl thrashing around with and torturing her cat. It showed theatrically in Paris a few years ago but I refused to give up my day in order to re-see the seven hour film. More recently, it was shown in three different sections. I went to see the first two episodes on different days. They showed each separate part at the same time every day. When the only time to screen Part Three which was three hours long, starting at 8:40 in the evening, I didn’t really feel like going. I congratulate the distributor for finding a new way to make more money with the same film, although I’m willing to bet that there were fewer people attending the third part than there were for the first two parts. I kept postponing my trip to the theater and then the corona virus lock down started. So, that took care of that! Please don’t invite me to the re-release and 4K versions of Berlin Alexanderplatz (13 hours) or Out 1—Noli Me Tangere (12 hours).
Talking about the corona virus and the lockdown, I’m going to have to admit something a little shameful about myself and I hope you won’t mention to other people. When my partner and I sit down for dinner every evening, we watch a half an hour or sometimes 40 minutes of a movie. If a movie is really compelling, we’ll watch an hour. With all the DVDs and blu-rays I have, there’s always something. Plus recent films that I’ve taped from television. And now there’s something new with cable TV, at least, here in France. Every channel, if you have a cable subscription, has a replay section which puts some of their films available for viewing anytime—in addition to the programmed broadcast times. Since there are about 12 channels dedicated to showing uninterrupted movies that are shown in addition to their regularly scheduled programming, you can be guaranteed that there will always be something of interest to watch. Now that we are in lockdown, we watch a whole movie all the way through—Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Bell, Book and Candle (1958), Moonfleet (1955), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), in the last two weeks or so. If the lockdown continues forever (it shows every sign of that or being back for a return engagement sometime in the near future), there’ll still be plenty to watch. I do all the programming.
Speaking of which, if the lockdown continues much longer, theater chains are going to go out of business and small independent theaters certainly will not survive. How many months of rent can you pay when you’re not earning anything? And, if and when they re-open, who is going to be willing to go to the cinema when you might be sitting in front of or behind someone who is infected but doesn’t know it? Is watching In a Lonely Place (1950) for the umpteenth time worth that risk? Well, maybe it is, but I doubt it. I think others will, too. Russian roulette at the cinema! And, of course, the longer the pandemic continues there will definitely be a product shortage because making the movies themselves involves too much close contact between people.
The result of the corona virus, if you keep up to date with the news (it is expected that 60 to 70% of the world’s population will have been infected) will change life as we know it—for films, theater, sports, concerts, museums (probably all cultural events) any situation that requires attendance of large numbers of people. At this point, there is not the slightest doubt in the world that life after the corona virus will be vastly more different than it was before the corona virus. And we can’t even imagine what it will be like. Hundreds of thousands of people dead. A world-wide depression the likes of which we’ve never seen before. It won’t seem like the right time to spend money to produce a 4K version of, say, Slightly Scarlet. Or even think about it. Face to face with the calamity that is already here, it seems like there are more important things to think about and that need to be done.
Everyone has been talking about the Death of Cinema for years now. But who ever imagined it would end like this? Ending with a whimper, not a bang. Remember every crime movie you ever saw, the person who had the most to gain from the death of one of the characters was always the first one suspected of having committed the crime. And later we find out that even though there was a motive, there was no proof. Meanwhile, forget all those half-baked conspiracy theories. No, Bill Gates did not concoct the virus. Neither did George Soros. So, it seems to me that the corona virus did not come from a lab in China or even the “wet” market in Wuhan but was developed by Netflix and Amazon. It seems to me that they will profit the most and therefore should be the most suspect. But to set the record straight, no one could have imagined a scenario like the one that is quickly unfolding and taking everything in the world down with it. Well, it’s a very lousy and bad science-fiction-y way for movies to end (and a lot of other things, too), which even when all is said and done, had a wonderful and rich lifespan. We will miss them tremendously…