Posted by gregferrara on November 13, 2013
Years ago, the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC, ran a movie that flopped completely. It was Julia Roberts’ Dying Young and, as tempting as it may be, I won’t go for the obvious pun as to its fate. The Uptown Theater was, and still is, one of the few remaining movie palaces in the country. Back then (and perhaps still today), when it booked a movie, that was it. If the movie died young (dammit, see, I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist), and they had booked it for three months, well, they were out of luck. Either show it every night to dwindling or non-existent audiences or go to Plan B. The Uptown went to Plan B. What was Plan B? Take every old print of every classic they had in storage and show them for three months instead. It was the best three months of movie-going I’d ever had up to that point. I saw everything from Bridge on the River Kwai to Blade Runner on the biggest screen in town and it was great. But did it really make that much of a difference?
Now, let’s be clear. I don’t mean the difference between seeing Blade Runner on a television or seeing it in a theater. I mean the difference between seeing it on a massive screen or seeing it on an average sized multiplex screen. I bring all of this up because the latest edition of The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which aired on Monday night, covers, briefly, the rise of the multiplex, a cultural event often frowned upon by cinema purists. But I think that frowning upon has a lot more to do with the quality of movies being shown in multiplexes, and their sometimes obnoxious audiences, than with the size of the screen itself. Those complaints lamenting the passing of the massive palace screen seem a little misplaced to me.
Let’s go back to the Uptown Theater in 1991. I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey there after having seen it five or six times on a tv screen first. In the case of 2001, the difference was jarring. It was like seeing the movie for the first time and I felt like all those tv viewings had been only a tease to this, my first real viewing of the movie. Blade Runner, on the other hand, didn’t feel special at all. I’d seen it before in a theater when it was released and I was ready to be doubly wowed this time around. Instead, I found myself thinking, “eh, that was about how it felt the first time around.” That is to say, having seen it on a multiplex screen several years prior did not feel considerably different than seeing it on a more massive screen later. The difference simply wasn’t big enough.
The Bridge on the River Kwai, however, was just like 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’d only ever watched it in pan and scan on a small tv screen so seeing it on the big screen was an incredible experience.
And so it went.
Movies I’d seen only on the small screen felt transformative while movies I’d previously seen in a multiplex seemed about the same. Through time, another thing happened, too. My memory of a screening would omit the size of the screen and recall only the thrill of watching the movie. Allow me to explain.
I now see dozens of classic movies a year at the AFI Theater in Silver Spring, MD so the 1991 Uptown Theater experience isn’t as unique anymore. Now I get to see all kinds of great movies from all over the world on the big screen but not always the biggest screen. You see, the AFI has three screens. One of them, the central screen, is huge. It’s a movie palace size screen, occupying the original theater space from the thirties and absolutely deluxe in every way. On the other side, though, they’ve installed two small screens to handle more movies for more customers. The screens are maybe – maybe – half the size of the main screen and yet, many a time I’ve mis-remembered which screen I saw a movie on there. I’ve mentioned seeing a certain movie on the big screen only to be reminded by my wife, who has an astonishing recall for details, by the way, that we saw it on one of the smaller screens. The thing is, a smaller movie screen is still a huge damn screen. A lot bigger than any television you’re going to get.
Seeing a movie on a big screen is great but at a certain point, the screen is big enough and, I wonder, how much bigger does it need to get (Jake Gittes might ask, “How much better can you see?”). I’ve seen a couple of IMAX movies in the last two years and despite the majesty of the screen size, I remember my experience seeing The Big Sleep on a small screen at the AFI with much more fondness (yes, my wife confirms, it was the small screen). And not because the movie was better (it was) but the because the experience was better. Seeing The Big Sleep on a smaller big screen in a packed theater made the whole experience feel more intimate. Maybe it’s all the rain in the movie, forcing everyone to rush into bookstores and cabins, that made the whole thing so cozy. I don’t know. I do know that it was better than watching it on tv but I doubt it would have been better on a massive screen like the Uptown Theater’s. In fact, I think it would have been worse. In my opinion, having seen classic black and white, Academy ratio movies on both the big screen and the “small” big screens at the AFI, the experiences on the “small” screen are usually better. It’s grand and intimate all at once. As for modern movies, the feeling’s about the same but for some epic productions, or pure special effects spectacles, I can see how the massive screen is better.
The point is, I suppose, is that I don’t lament the smaller big screens of the multiplex. Yes, it bothers me that a theater has all those screens and still manages to waste five of them on the same movie shown at staggered times. But the size of the screen doesn’t bother me at all. I love movie palaces like the Uptown Theater and the AFI Silver’s main theater but the multiplex small screens allow for more people to have the experience of seeing a movie on the big screen instead of only on a television screen. And that’s a good thing. I don’t want the movie palaces go away but I don’t expect many (or any) new ones to pop up. And that’s not all for the bad.
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