The old, old way of watching
The last few years have given us astonishing new ways to see movies. First videotapes, then DVDs, portable players, Netflix, streaming movies, movies-on-demand, iPads, iPhones, and their offspring--I love them all. But they haven't taken us to new ways of seeing movies. They've regressed us all the way back to the way we first saw movies, the Edison way.
Gone are the great movie palaces of the past when you were part of an audience of hundreds. You weren't sitting with just a couple of dozen people in a multiplex auditorium. You were certainly not the solitary viewer of a DVD on your tv or a movie streamed to your iPhone.
You had to enter a special, ritual place, the theater, and it made a big difference. Two differences, to be precise.
First, psychologically, being part of an audience, the bigger the better, forms an important part of the movie experience. Psychologically, in a theater you become part of a mob. You turn over part of your mental functioning--your defenses--to that collective mentality. If the rest of the audience laughs, you feel licensed to laugh. If they cry, you will feel free to cry. If they are restless and noisy, you will share their rejecting the movie. If they hiss and boo, you feel free to join the chorus. You don't decide what's okay to do in the theater; they decide for you.
Second, you lose control another way. The theater and the projectionist control the viewing. You don't. The theater creates a dark space where you see nothing but the screen. You have to sit still. If you are enjoying the movie, you focus completely on the screen. The film is in control, not you. You can't stop it, start it, or pick another film. You have to give yourself to it or leave. That's the important reason nothing substitutes for the theatrical experience.
Sitting still, giving up your wish to act, does special things in your brain. You know cognitively in your prefrontal cortex that you are not going to act to change what you are seeing. That's different from everyday life. If you are out on the street, you know that you may have to act to dodge that truck or stop for a red light or any one of a hundred things. But in a movie theater, you know you aren't going to do anything but watch the movie. Your cognitive systems shut your motor systems down.
I have written at length about this shutting down of motor systems in Literature and the Brain. But the New Yorker critic Anthony Lane put it neatly when he was talking about improbabilities in movies. "Watch [them] on DVD and you find youself scoffing at the unlikely curves and switches in the plot, whereas the same setups, viewed in the dreamy imprisonment of a movie theatre, feel like the machinery of fate." "Dreamy imprisonment" gets it exactly right. We know we can't do a thing to affect what's going on on the screen. We don't need to test the reality or probability of what we are watching and we don't. In the old phrase, we suspend our disbelief.
Also, lower, subcortical parts of our brain, the parts that give rise to emotions, get freed up. They are less defended against. Emotions carry with them impulses to act. In real life, we have to control those impulses. In a movie theater, we don't. Our defenses don't have to come into play and guard against wrong actions. We can have emotions undefendedly. We can feel pleasure, joy, grief, anger, lust, fear, all of our emotions, more strongly than in daily life.
But nowadays you can show a movie on your television at home. The convenience and the comfort are quite wonderful. But this easy experience is quite different from seeing a movie in a theater. You are the one in control. You can stop the film to get a beer or to go to the bathroom. You are in your own home, not a special place designed for an artistic experience. The lights are probably on, at least dimly. You see all the paraphernalia of your daily life, its pleasures (snacks), its worries (that stack of unpaid bills), and its rituals (time to walk the dog).
There may be other people in the room, but they are not the engrossed strangers of a theater audience. They are people you see everyday and relate to when you should be focused entirely on the screen in an otherwise dark movie theater. Often, alas, such a home audience feels free to comment or to wisecrack. The audience, not the movie, becomes the focus of attention.
An audience of one mind
VHSs and DVDs at home were just the beginning. Now, we've gotten even more new and interesting ways to see a movie. You can play it on a laptop computer or a personal DVD player, an iPhone or an iPad or any of their kindred. You can use headphones, blocking out the sounds around you.
Curiously, that was the way Edison created for seeing films when movies were first being invented. You were to look, one viewer at a time, into his Kinetoscope, like one of those viewers you still see at amusement parks where you peer through an peephole eyepiece as photographs that flip past, creating the illusion of motion.
Now, as you could then, you can plug yourself into the movie as it were. Now you lack the release you get from other members of the audience. You are in control as in the home experience. As with Edison's Kinetoscope you don't have the advantage of sharing the mentality of the experience with an audience. In short, all the wonderful technology has just taken us back to where we began--so far as the movie experience goes.
Alas, say I.