How We Like to Watch

In an aimless, nearly endless essay (more than 3,000 words), Wagstaff brings up some fascinating questions in what mostly functions as a personal remembrance of the circumstances of watching movies.

The apparent thesis (which is presented past the 1,000-word mark) is more a statement of intent, but it’s provocative:

“Most film criticism is rightly focused on the movie itself. The purpose of this essay is to clear a little spot of ground for the circumstances that surround watching a movie, the things that affect so strongly how we see it.”

The author then offers an extreme (but effective) illustration of the effect of viewing context on a movie’s quality:

“Let’s pretend for a minute that Airport ’75 is an excellent film that achieves greatness. I contend that it would ... be a horrible film to show as an in-flight movie on an airplane. ... [C]ircumstances matter.”

The actual thesis arrives after more than 1,200 words:

“Songs and movies are like ships that move in and around and through our lives. They gather memories and associations like barnacles.”

Wagstaff doesn’t seem interested in the implications, though, of the dramatic shift in how people watch movies. Over the past 25 years, we’ve gone from a theater/drive-in culture to a VHS-rental culture to a DVD-purchasing culture. The viewing screens have gone from large to small to both larger (big-ass plasma and LCD sets) and smaller (portable DVD players). The fidelity to the filmmakers’ vision has gone from high to low and back to high again, with proper aspect ratios and better resolution. We once bought tickets for a single showing; then we rented it for a few days; now we own a perfect digital copy of the movie. Movies were once as ephemeral as memories; now they’re hard and tangible — artifacts that we can look closely at with a magnifying glass. We used to be at the mercy of theater owners and television programmers (and, to a lesser degree, video stores), determining what and when we saw a movie; now we’re in charge.

I agree with Wagstaff, and will claim an even more extreme position: The increasing dominance of watching films on DVD at home fundamentally alters our relationship with movies. We are more watchful — backing up to hear that bit of dialogue, or to explore the way a scene works. Yet we’re also more careless, pausing or stopping the movie to take a phone call, half-ignoring the picture because we can watch it anytime, and so overwhelmed with choices that no film can hold our imaginations very long.

In other words, for the brief period of time a movie can grab our attention, we might mine it thoroughly. Think of how people pored over Memento, or Mulholland Drive. Yet when that cultural moment passes — and these days, the half-life of a new movie seems to be about a week — it’s gone forever. Intense but fleeting scrutiny in a short-attention-span world.

An English teacher told me once that where we are in our lives is also important when observing something, using the book Animal Farm as a pefect example. Children read this as a cultural story about animals, High School students read it as an essay of a deeper subtext, while college students see it for the Stalin / Trotsky / Marxist historical commentary that it is. When you add where we are now and who we were before into the mix, things can change drastically. I, myself decided to study film in chronological order, immersing myself in the Silent Era. In the beginning, the films were nowhere near as appreciated as they are know, with the knowledge and background that I aquired along the way, and still dusty, grainy videocasettes are indeed less appeciated than the ‘digitally remastered with a new score!’ DVD version... so much so that my opinion of the film is greatly aletered by the presentation...

Squish’s comment made me wonder if any other medium has undergone such radical (and quick) shifts in delivery that fundamentally changed our experiences of it.

Certainly, the digital delivery, storage, and access of music (by the song rather than by the album) represents a sea change, but that follows decades of new storage media that preserved the integrity of the whole album.

The distribution of news content has undergone multiple radical shifts in the past quarter-century, but it seems to me that the content is merely more easily accessed rather than different.

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