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The Wider Angle 6-19-07
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The Wider Angle: Ruminations of a hardcore cineast
 
by Celluloid Dreams correspondent Ken Karn
 

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Evolution of the Moviegoing Experience

Celluloid Dreams: celebrating the art of film and the moviegoing experience.  Our official tag line is more than just a catchy phrase.  It establishes a strong relationship between the film itself and how that film is seen by the audience.  I saw Apocalypse Now Redux at the Grand Theatre Lumiere during the Cannes Film Festival.  I also watched it, like the vast majority of moviegoers, at home on DVD.  Guess which experience was the most memorable?  For me, the moviegoing experience has always meant the theater.  All films are best seen in a large, dark room with an audience of strangers.  It was the only way, and I would never sacrifice the theatrical setting for any film I really cared about seeing...until I moved to Southport, North Carolina.

My relocation to the cinema netherworld was based on several quality of life issues, which I won’t go into here.  Let’s just say that I adore my new home despite the fact that seeing films when they first come out is difficult to impossible.  I used to go to film festivals and press screenings.  Now I’m seeing movies like most normal people see them: at home (long after the press and publicity on them has vanished) with the occasional outing to the local multiplex.  As a former entertainment journalist, this is both a shock to the system and a refreshing change of perspective.

In order to appreciate how good you have it in the Bay Area, consider that the closest theater to me is the Surf Cinema, a quad-plex where the movie with the loudest soundtrack dominates all 4 auditoriums.  Now playing is Spiderman on 2 screens, Shrek on one and Pirates of the Caribbean on the other.  The good news, for those who remember what I look like, is that they charge me the senior rate without even asking for ID.  (Saving money is always worth more than my vanity).  The next closest theaters are over 30 miles away over mostly 2 lane roads.  The only “art house” is the Cinematique in Wilmington, which shows selected indie and foreign films on Mon-Wed evenings for 9 months out of the year--just before they come out on DVD.  The closest real art house theaters are in Raleigh, NC or Columbia, SC (over 2 hours each way).

My solution, of course, is Netflix.  When a film comes out that I definitely want to see, I immediately put it in my queue even though the DVD release date is unknown.  I suspect that most movie lovers across the country get their cinema fix via DVD because it’s just so damn easy.  But cinema purists, like me, consider the DVD experience a compromise over theatrical viewing.  Would it be possible for me to have a fulfilling life in Southport and still be a card carrying cineaste?

The first order of business was to realign my reaction to buzz.  Even as a child I was adamant about seeing a hot or controversial film on opening weekend (preferably Friday afternoon).  Now I must weigh my enthusiasm against the long drive, time away from my lovely wife (who hates the drive), and the fact that I don’t have any cinema buddies to chat with after screening.  This filtering process means that 98% of the time I decide to wait for DVD.  Films I tend to see in theaters include epics (Apocalypto, Children of Men), films of favorite directors (The Departed), and horror films if they make it to the Surf (Bug, Hostel 2).

Once you convince yourself that you must see films NOW, the rest is easy.  There are even benefits to seeing a film long after the buzz is gone because one’s expectations are not affected by the publicity and critical response.  It requires judicious reading of reviews to avoid spoilers, but anything that keeps expectations at bay is, to quote Martha Stewart, “a good thing.”  I had read that Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers  was inferior to Letters From Iwo Jima.  By the time I got around to seeing them on DVD, I found Letters to be moving and sad, but Flags was much more emotionally engaging and was unfairly left out of consideration at Oscar time.  The best film of 2006?  I saw it April of 2007: Little Children.  In fact, I watched it twice on successive evenings to be sure that it’s brilliance was not a figment of my imagination.  It gets expensive to do repeat viewings on a regular basis in a movie theater.

Had I been influenced by the poor reviews and/or dismal box office reports, I never would have seen Hollywoodland (how was this overlooked?), The Ice Harvest (great nasty fun), The Good Shepherd (flawed but engrossing), V For Vendetta (fabulously subversive), and Stranger Than Fiction (Will Ferrell’s best film).  On the other hand, I was glad I didn’t pay 10 bucks for overrated duds like Talladega Nights (where’s the comedy?), Flightplan (ridiculously implausible), Half Nelson (good acting, no story), The Devil Wears Prada (even Meryl was one-note), and Transamerica (mannered performances).

As most of you are well aware, achieving the ideal moviegoing experience in a theater is increasing difficult in these days of short attention spans, cell phones and self absorbed behavior.  Unless you can go when the likely audience is small (often many days after the film has come out) disruption to your viewing experience is almost assured.  Have you noticed that even when the audience is small, those few people seem to talk louder?  Every trip to the movies is a spin of the wheel, a roll of the dice.

When I do manage to wander into the theater here in Southeastern North Carolina, the experience is much improved over public screenings in San Jose and the rest of the Bay Area.  Audiences are more quiet and considerate here in the South.  The theater owners are also serious about keeping it that way.  The entrance to the Surf Cinema warns all “teenagers” that disruptive behavior will not be tolerated, and acting up can result in expulsion without a warning.  Almost all theaters in the region have embraced the digital revolution, so the familiar clickety-clack of the projector is gone.  The most annoying feature is the 15-20 minutes of commercials before the show begins (do you have that in San Jose too??).  Although, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a commercial for a Southern car dealership with the owner as on-air talent. 

I have finally embraced life with DVDs as my primary movie source.  I have a live-in cinema buddy (my wife--except for horror films) and going to the movies is not a half-day ordeal. I no longer feel guilty about giving in to convenience, and I have come to appreciate the fresh perspective the theatrical-DVD time lag provides.  I will always believe that the ideal place to experience any movie is in a state-of-the-art theater with a quiet, attentive audience.  That being said, watching movies like most of America does is just fine by me.

2007 Ken Karn/Celluloid Dreams

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of Ken Karn, and do not necessarily reflect those of Celluloid Dreams staff or other contributors.

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Respond to this column! Email Ken: ken@celluloiddreams.net.  Your message and/or Ken's response may appear on this page. You've been warned.

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8-27-07 "Superbad"
 
7-7-07 "Oh, the horror... the horror..."
 
6-19-07 Ruminations on the Movie-going Experience
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