11 February 2009

Film as a Medium

The venue of the movie theater and the medium of film are separate things for me, so I have to talk about them separately. Theaters have gotten continually more commercialized, with only the very rare, hold-out, old-fashioned theater, and some taking advantage of modernization in more fun ways, like the chain with the theater where I saw a movie when I was in Austin, TX, that put a row of tables in front of every row of seats; full restaurant menus, complete with beer and desserts; and quick, quiet servers who dart in and out of the rows with orders and checks more covertly than you would think possible. I can't, for the life of me, think of the name of those theaters right now, but that was fun, and it's a brilliant idea.

Film, however, for all of its seeming changes, such as its growth and regression, and its trends of bigger effects, minimalist story-art, and big-star oversaturation vs. unknowns, is as strong as ever. As a "business," I think that the "film" industry has suffered some at the hands of the "theater" industry, but I also don't know the costs of getting and running a film, so I'm open to the fact that it could be the other way around. However, given at least the obvious motivations of both parties, it seems more likely that it's the former than the latter.

Whatever the obstacles, on which I hope it is never completely dependent for survival, film remains the best and most intimate way to tell a story. Some would say that television is more intimate, because it comes into our homes, but so few people stop their lives to give their attention to even the best story on tv, that by definition that communication is more superficial. The communication between a movie and a theater-goer, even among 100 others in that theater, is like having an intimate dinner with a friend, never interrupting, just sitting and listening and being totally engrossed in that friend's joys or troubles, compared to television-watching being like the communication you would have with several friends at a party you were hosting yourself. Your attention is everywhere; you have tasks to complete, and messages coming from and going out to a dozen different sources the whole time. One is quantity; one is quality.

When I was young, before several years of self-realization and peace-making, and a few more of therapy, in other words before I had any ability to know what I was feeling, much less how to feel it in any healthy fashion, movies were often my savior. I could safely and openly feel the feelings of a well-written and well-acted character, comparatively isolated and "cushioned" in a dark theater for a couple of hours; and it was undoubtedly an outlet in me for whatever feelings would otherwise have just collected and grown and done more damage than they did. They may have been "borrowed" feelings, but I used them well.

Even when I was a small child, as much as I loved some of the Disney animated movies, like "Lady and the Tramp," "The Aristocats," "Bambi," and "The Fox and the Hound," (note my preference for even cartoon animals over cartoon people), I remember vividly seeing movies like "The Gypsy Colt," "The Three Lives of Thomasina," "Forever Young, Forever Free," "Rocky," and "Star Wars" before I was ten. They represented a reason to believe that anything was possible, that other experiences did exist, somewhere, for someone, and for me, in my hometown of 700 people and change, teased terribly at school, parents divorcing and remarrying, and feeling utterly disoriented, disconnected, and often miserable, movies were one of the things that made the necessary difference.

My love of them only grew, and I don't feel like that was misplaced or misguided in any way. As I grew up and broadened my movie horizons, I was never any less aware of the potential wisdom to be gleaned from them, the exposure to other cultures and the various points of view available on any point. There are far corners to this world of which I would never have known had I not seen them on the big screen. There are so many stories of so many different kinds of people that are told in films, in attention-getting and -keeping ways of which, as I said above, television just isn't usually as capable. I have no complaints about television, and happily credit the shows from my childhood like "The Six Million Dollar Man," "Bionic Woman," "Charlie's Angels," "Love Boat," and "Hart to Hart," on up to "Cheers," "Frasier," "Empty Nest," "The Golden Girls," "ER," "The Big Bang Theory," "Brothers and Sisters," and the recently and tragically departed "Boston Legal," (one of the most stunningly written and acted shows in history) for adding volumes of inspiration to my life. I wish I could have seen them in the theater, without commercials.

I could be in a coma, hear the theme from "Rocky," and come to and run a marathon. "Schindler's List" should be required viewing, not just in schools, but, for example, to be able to vote or some other equally broad application. "Kramer vs. Kramer" is a gift to all, but especially to anyone affected by a divorce, in the way that validates all the hurt and confusion real people usually feel, that I felt when I saw it at the age of 9. "The Champ" will remove every last stored-up tear from you that "Steel Magnolias" might have missed; and the "Star Wars" trilogy (especially the original three :)) is awe-inspiring, not just in special effects and music, but in possibility and in the power of good over evil, faith over fear. "Boyz n the Hood," "God Grew Tired of Us," "Central Station," "The Last Days," and "The Deer Hunter," "Kolja," and "Once Were Warriors," among others, introduce you to people you need to meet and possibly otherwise never will.

I was fortunate enough to work as an extra on a few productions when I lived in L.A. in the mid-90's, and even seeing the sets and several re-takes of a critical or hard-to-get scene took none of the magic away from it. This is possibly because the magic, for me, and therefore the truth, has always been in the heart of a film. I got to spend some time with some really gifted people, like Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo on "Outbreak," that only underscored what it is about them that makes them gifted and what they bring to the characters they play. The first time I saw "ER" in color was when I actually stepped onto the set. (Those were lean days in material ways, and I had only a 4" black and white tv). I waved a sign in one brief scene in "The American President" that was meaningless to me out of the context and didn't even include me in the shot, but that made me so proud to have been even remotely part of when I saw that wonderful movie in the theater.

We need films, and it would behoove us to recognize that before we manage to do away with them and then, in our typical human reactivity, cry because we've lost it, lost something that was always within our power to keep and preserve. It would be a shame to add the medium of film to the long list of other resources, natural and otherwise, that we have taken for granted and abused and neglected until we managed to destroy them.

Going to the Movies

Have you ever seen a movie at Hollywood's Chinese Theatre? A lot of people include it in their sightseeing when they're visiting the area, to put their hands and feet in the cement prints of their favorites and see how they measure up, and snap pictures of the ornate red towers at the entrance. But most people just passing through don't stop to actually see a movie there. They should.

It's more beautiful on the inside than it is on the outside. It's enormous, like theaters used to be, before they got divided up into the multiplexes that exist today. The center row is about 25 seats across, and the walls are covered with giant wooden Chinese carvings, and top-of-the-line speakers, front to back. The screen is about the size of a basketball court stood on its side, and is covered until the start of the show, as in the old days, by a huge red velvet curtain. It opens about 3/4 of the way for watching the previews, then closes again and reopens to full width for the start of the feature. The Chinese does it up the way theaters used to, when going to a movie felt like the event it still is to me, instead of the cheap, easy, compromise it has become, with not only previews but commercials that tack a half hour onto your time there, which is already more time than many are willing to take out of their daily "busy"-ness, whatever that is.

I don't get it. I don't take the time I used to for movies, but I like to think that it's just where I am, and that my "busy"-ness has at least a finite term length. Even now, I go to the movies more often than many people I know. I wish that the experience was always as great as it's been the few times I've seen a film at the Chinese, old-style presentation with absolutely modern sound and picture technology, but I'm happy just to have a screen roughly the size of an outside wall of my house. I try to time my arrival to miss at least most of the commercials (which never should have been allowed to breach the tv/movie theater threshold), although I do love to see a couple of previews. I trade being spared the ads for seeing the theater darken, but it's worth it. Commercials are irritating on a small screen, at normal volume, and many people cite them as one of the main reasons they've been "turned off" by movies in recent years. The marketing is especially annoying because it's just another way to squeeze more money out of people, which never should have taken priority above the theaters' integrity and taste, and the customer's experience. Splitting two theaters into 12 multiplied their profits by almost six times (allowing for increased procurement costs) without even raising the prices, which have also at least quadrupled in most cases. And that's before figuring in the cost of refreshments, which were always higher than on the street, but have multiplied along with ticket prices.

Personally, I also wish they'd left the floors on gradual slopes instead of turning everything into stadium seating. I understand that on the rare occasion that really tall person sits in front of a really short person, stadium seating works better for the really short person, but I don't like sometimes having to sit not only close, but below, the screen; or not only far away from it, but far above it.

Still, I wouldn't give it up. Even on a multiplex screen, a fifth the size it used to be, at $9 a ticket, it's still an experience I can't get any other way. The smallest movie screen is still bigger than anyone's entertainment room screen (unless you're a pro ball player or a movie star yourself), and the two hours in the dark, commercial-free (once it starts), story-absorbed subreality with outside distractions and stresses prohibited, is a necessity to me. I love it. It does me more good than an annual physical or vitamin supplements, and I hope they can hang in there, and wait out the people who haven't yet figured out that they won't be able to stay sane their whole lives if they can only watch a movie if they can also spend that time texting and emailing, balancing their checkbooks, checking their eBay, talking, cooking (for those who still do), and making to-do lists for the stuff they're not doing at the moment.

02 February 2009

Picture's Worth a Thousand Words...

Images can be extremely powerful. Sometimes one image can conjure thousands of lives and experiences, sometimes millions. Consider the swastika. Nothing but a few intersecting lines, but that image represents one of the greatest tragedies committed by humans against humans in our history. Hatred and prejudice beyond comprehension, and millions persecuted, tortured, and killed. There was no more sane or logic reasoning than about as much as can be contained in those few black lines, but that symbol was enough to inspire many, and to horrify generations, because it represented the words and ideology of Adolf Hitler, the man who made the swastika famous, and his odious Nazi party. That image, along with an image of a gaunt, hollow-eyed man in a striped uniform of a concentration camp; the star of David, sewn in yellow on the coat of a young German girl; the black "SS" on the collar of a German soldier...any single image representing that time is likely to make me cry.

As many people as show pride in their Southern heritage by displaying the Confederate flag, others get the same chills as when they see any of the images mentioned above. Some see it and think only of where they came from, the history of both challege and progress; some see only slavery and decades of prejudice and inequality.

The cross is another familiar and powerful image, one of the most simple, and at the same time, most profound. It means hope and promise for many, endurance, grace, and love. For those who believe in what it represents, it means that the one true God, creator of heaven and earth, sent his son to walk among us; teach us about the concepts of forgiveness, unconditional love, and eternity; be executed by crucifixion; and actually rise from the dead, all as a message to us as a species, to make a point about what is possible, what is expected, and how much we are treasured by this God. That is some message to be carried in such a simple design, even in its multitude of sizes, colors, and materials.

The peace sign is another charged image that can mean a theory, a practice, or an era. A pink ribbon commemorates the victims and survivors of breast cancer, a yellow ribbon soldiers whose return we await. The Iwo Jima Memorial statue sends waves of emotions and memories across the hearts of many who see it. The eternal flame marking the gravesite of John F. Kennedy has moved people for generations, as did the picture of his son saluting his casket.

Innumerable stories have been written to accompany just the few images I've named, and there are so many that spring to mind that I could easily fill my hard drive with them. They are like magic buttons, time machines that in a breath take you to that place, that moment, and fill you with the sights, sounds, and feelings of their subjects. They're virtually universal in their communication, transcending language and station, which is something that cannot be said about all mediums.