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.

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