waiting for the video

Does this conversation sound familiar?

Man: Did you see that movie?
Woman: No.  I was thinking about it, but it looked like I could wait for it to come out on video.
Man: Absolutely.  It’s a rental.

OK, that last phrase, “It’s a rental”, is dated, but you get the idea.  Now, I guess, you’d say “I’ll Netflix it.”   I’m sure you’ve heard some version of this conversation, or even had it, in your life.  I’ve definitely had it, often with myself when I’m debating whether to go to a film or not.

Which films are deemed worthy of a trip to the cinema and which aren’t?   I think there are two things at play here.  One is a simple measure of perceived quality.  The film doesn’t look that good, but I’ll give it a chance, when it’s cheaper and more convenient.  Or maybe, it looks mediocre, so it’s worth less to me; I’ll pay a couple bucks, but not 15 at a theater.

The other seems to be a measure of size.  It’s heresy to see AVATAR on your tiny 50″ HDTV.  It has to be seen in the theater to be fully “experienced”.  Of course, 3-D is an attempt to add to this, but generally speaking, you need to see “big” films, like Lawrence of Arabia, in a theater.  This is the Hollywood lifeblood.  All Hollywood films are “big” because they all cost a shitload of money and they usually have stars.  Hollywood also fills up all the screens, so it’s almost a moot point, except for that first reason: the quality factor.  Hollywood movies are often big and sucky.

There is also a feeling, much less felt, that you have to see a film with others to experience some sort of collective euphoria.  This gets marketed from time to time with a film like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, where they actually feature audiences jumping in the trailers.  This would also apply to comedies, and I think it’s more justified with comedies.  Films do seem funnier when everyone else is laughing (and less funny when they are not).   What’s ironic about this last one is that, apparently, the most common complaint about going to the movies is that other people are making noise.

I would rather see almost any film in a theater, and I think most people who like films feel the same way.  Why else would the home theater be such a big ticket item?   I love my big TV and the picture from my Blu-ray player is probably better than it was in most of the theaters I sat in throughout my life.  THUNDERBALL looks so good that you can easily tell when it’s not Sean Connery swimming with the sharks – I’m sure that wasn’t the case in the theaters of 1965.  It definitely looks better than those old Art House theaters I used to frequent, like the Scala in London, or the Thalia Soho in the City, with the sticky floors, moldy smell and eccentric clientele.  I’d still rather see it in a theater.  It’s a great film.

VHS killed those art house theaters, so it couldn’t have been a quality issue with them.  As grungy as they were, VHS was worse.  Convenience trumps all, but it was also the curated nature of those theaters that got me to go.  I loved those calendars that they printed with all the clever double features, mixing camp and horror and art.  There’s no question that my idea of what a quality film is was formed by the wacky tastes of the crazy people who ran those places.

In a sense, even multiplexes have a sense of being curated.  There is still a feeling that a film that doesn’t make it to theaters is not as good as one that does, although I’m sure this is changing.  And people, at least the audiences that are catered to, generally like the films that are shown in theaters.  Pretty bland stuff, but that’s not their fault.  Whether they are “events” or they “have to be seen in theaters”, something is still bringing people to the theaters.  It would be cynical to think that it is just the marketing of Hollywood, but that has a lot to do with it.

So how do you make a film that must be seen in a theater?  Obviously, you have to get over that first hurdle, which is that it has to be, or at least appear to be, good.   Size in films has always been a nebulous thing.  I would consider a character drama like WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLF more epic than AVATAR, but I don’t think everyone would agree with that.  I would like to think that making a film cinematic would help get people into theaters, but I’m not sure it does.  The more visual the story-telling and the less “talky” it is, then you should see it in a theater; after all, an uncinematic film is just TV anyway, talking heads and dialog.

But I think the most important factor has to do with that curation element.  A film has to be deemed worthy to make it to the theaters, and then deemed “must be seen in theaters”, and the curator has to be someone who has earned their reputation.  The harder it is to get a film into theaters, the more valuable a film that gets into theaters is, despite the fact that this is controlled by factors that have little to do with the quality of a film.  When a film like SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE breaks through, it has faced countless obstacles and has earned its value: people go to the theaters and see it.

I don’t have any conclusions about this, but I do know that a film that gets put out on video isn’t necessarily worse than some Hollywood schlock that gets into theaters because it cost 50 million dollars to make.  And finding a screen for your film is still the most valuable and the hardest thing to get.

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The 3-D fad

Is 3-D a fad? I think so. There is one thing that will keep it going past its sell-by date: money. Not only are the studios loving every extra penny they charge for 3-D, but now the electronics companies are getting in the game with 3-D TVs. What happened to the idea that 3-D was what made a film special enough to get people to go to the theaters?

There are some very basic reasons why 3-D won’t last. For me, the biggest reason is that movies were already in 3-D. Through little visual tricks, focus, depth, dollies, things like that, we pretty much know where everyone is standing in relation to everything else.  Would a Coen Brothers film be any better in 3-D?

The other thing is that, with 3-D, after a couple minutes, you forget it’s 3-D and just start watching the movie. In that way, it’s like subtitles; you just get into a sort of mental state and you don’t even realize you’re reading them. The difference with 3-D is that around half way through a movie, your eyes get tired and you take off the glasses for a second to watch the blur and try to figure out the technology before this gets boring and you put them back on.

There really is no need for 3-D, no need to have those glasses. It’s fun, but we’ll be craving something else next year when there will be a flood of these films. And it’s certainly no replacement for artistry, although one advantage is that it forces filmmakers to think about their shots in a visual sense.  They should have been doing this anyway.

What I’m saying is, 3-D isn’t adding anything to the language of film because, if it was, it wouldn’t have been the recurring fad it’s always been.

Educated Characters

Stupid characters are fun to write.  They’re easy to write too, an easy target, they never really seem in on the joke.  It’s sort of a way for the audience to feel good about themselves.  At least we’re not as stupid as that!  But, putting aside the usual Pollack joke racism and dumb blond sexism, I think that anyone who cherishes the education that they got, owes it to the world to spread the word that education is good.

It’s not that hard to write a smart character.  I often write characters that are smarter than I am.  Characters, even dumb ones, are more articulate than me: they always know what to say because I wrote it for them.  An educated character uses the right word.  If I can’t think of that word, I have a thesaurus to help me.  I’m not above looking up a quote or a poem and have my character recite it from memory.  I know a few quotes and poems, so it’s not unnatural to me that someone might know more.

An educated character doesn’t have to be an intellectual.  A college degree doesn’t mean that you go around spouting Yeats.  But educated people think things through.  They have an idea of how the world functions and the history of events leading up to the present.  Educated people move this world forward, and I expect my characters to do some of that too.  When a dumb person, like Forest Gump, or a child, spouts off some little nugget of wisdom in a film, it is so phony it makes me sick.  Does anyone really believe that simple truths are discovered by simple people?  Apparently, uneducated people do think that, or at least they are willing to suspend their disbelief for two hours.

There are entire sectors of this country that have decided that educated people think they are better than them and are therefore worthy of their contempt.   Hollywood films have to reach across borders, not just educations, to get to the broadest audience possible.  They avoid anyone with intelligence for fear that a character like that might not appeal to the masses, or that the language won’t translate.

I’m not a person that believes that films are lessons for peoples’ lives – I don’t think drinking in a film makes anyone drink in real life, or violence in films makes people violent – so I’m not saying that the reason characters should be educated is to influence someone to get educated themselves, although that would be great if it did.  But I live in a world of educated people, and I’d like to see a little more of that reflected in the films I see.