Not Being There

“Television is poised to absorb and emasculate the movies, all in the name of home entertainment.”

Moviegoers watch Rust Never Sleeps with 3-D glasses (Lynn Goldsmith / Getty)

Like most other people whose tastes began to form before television became the dominant entertainment medium, I have a simple idea of what it means to go to the movies. You buy your ticket and take a seat in a large dark room with hundreds of strangers. You slide down in your seat and make yourself comfortable. On the screen in front of you, the movie image appears—enormous and overwhelming. If the movie is a good one, you allow yourself to be absorbed in its fantasy, and its dreams become part of your memories.

Television is not a substitute for that experience, and I have never had a TV-watching experience of emotional intensity comparable to my great movie-going experiences. Television is just not first class. The screen is too small. The image is technically inferior. The sound is disgracefully bad. As the viewer I can contain television—but the movies are so large they can contain me. I can't lose myself in a television image, and neither, I suspect, can most other people. That is why people are forever recreating movie memories in great detail, but hardly ever reminisce about old TV programs.

I believe, then, that to experience a movie fully you have to go to the movies. I enjoy television for other purposes, and my favorite TV programs are the live ones (sports, news, elections, talk shows), where immediacy helps compensate for the loss in intensity. Unlike a lot of movie buffs, I am not a fan of The Late Show. If a movie is good enough to stay up late for, it's too good to be watched through the dilution of television. I'll catch it later at a revival theater or a film society, or, if I never catch it again at least I'll think of it as a movie and not as late-night programming.

Maybe it's no wonder, then, that, with these personal biases, I was disturbed by some of the things I heard last March during a conference I went to in Colorado. The American Film Institute had taken over the Aspen Institute for three days, and invited forty-five people to gather for a discussion of the future of the feature film. By "feature film," they meant both theatrical and made-for-TV features, the latter including docudramas and TV miniseries.

The conference was weighted toward the TV people, among them executives of various pay-cable companies, and although several of us professed an interest in a discussion of content (that is, what movies are about these days), most of the talk was about "delivery" (how to sell television programming at a profit). What actually went out on the airwaves or cable systems would presumably take care of itself.

Many panelists' remarks were couched in a technological Newspeak that I had trouble understanding at first. Software, for example, was the word for TV programming—software to feed the hardware of our new home video entertainment centers. ("Software," they said. "You know. That's a word for product." "Product?" I asked. "Yeah. Like a movie.") Television consuming units was another expression that gave me trouble until I realized it was a reference to human beings. Windows was a very interesting word. It referred to the various markets that a new movie could be sold to (or "shown through") once it was made. First there would be the theatrical window, a traditional booking in a movie theater. Then came the network window—sale to commercial television. After that the windows came thick and fast: the pay-cable window, video cassette window, video disc window, airline in-flight window, and so on. In the hierarchy of these windows, the traditional practice of showing the movie in a theater seemed furthest from everybody's mind; the theatrical run was sort of a preliminary before the other markets could be carved up.

One of the enticing things about all the windows, I learned, was that a new movie could now be in the position of turning a profit before it was made. The pre-sales of subsidiary viewing rights would take the risk out of the initial investment.

The chilling thought occurred to me that, if a movie was already in profit, actually showing it in theaters could be risky because promotion, advertising, and overhead would be seen as liabilities instead of (in the traditional view) as an investment risk with a hope of profitable return. But no, I was assured, that was wrong. Movies would still have to play in theaters because the theatrical run "legitimatized" them: they thus became "real" movies in the eyes of people buying them on cassettes or over pay cable.

Wonderful, I thought. The theatrical feature film, the most all-encompassing art form of the twentieth century, has been reduced to a necessary marketing preliminary for software.

If this was a pessimistic view, it was mild compared to some of the visions of the future held by the conference participants. An important TV writer-producer, one of the most likable people at the conference, calmly predicted that in ten years people would be sitting at home in front of their wall-size TV screens while (and I am indeed quoting) "marauding bands roam the streets." I thought he was joking, until he repeated the same phrase the next day.

What about going out to the movies? Another television executive said he used to go, but he had stopped. "You have to stand in line and be crowded in with all those people. And it's too expensive."

Well, apart from the fact that he could no doubt afford to buy a ticket for everyone in line, and that higher ticket prices only reflect general inflation, his view overlooked the fact that video cassettes and pay cable are at least as expensive as going out to the movies, especially when you consider the initial "hardware" investment. And for your money, you get to watch a TV image made up of dots arranged in 625 lines—an image that, even assuming your set has perfect adjustment and color control, does not and cannot approach the quality of an image projected by light through celluloid.

But those technical considerations aside, why did this man and some of his colleagues have such a distaste for going out to the movies? I do it all the time. I feel it adds something to a movie-going experience to share it with other people. It's communal. A lot of the fun of seeing a movie such as Jaws or Star Wars comes, for me, from the massed emotion of the theater audience. When the shark attacks, we all levitate three inches above our seats, and come down screaming and laughing.

Watching Jaws on network TV isn't a remotely comparable experience. And watching a comedy in isolation can actually be a depressing experience. Our laughter during a movie comedy is an act of communication; an audience roaring with laughter is expressing its shared opinion about what's funny. I've watched comedies while I was alone in a room, and I've noticed that I don't laugh at all. Why should I? Who's to hear? And, perhaps because I don't laugh, those comedies don't seem as funny. Maybe it's essential to comedy that we're conscious of sharing it with other people; maybe, in human development, the first communication was a scream and the second was a laugh, and then they got around to words.

made a modest proposal at Aspen. I suggested that some time and attention be given to perfecting cheaper and better home 16-mm movie projection systems, and that 16-mm rental and lending libraries be set up, like the Fotomat video cassette centers. I've gotten a lot of enjoyment out of 16-mm movie prints. The picture is larger, sharper, and brighter than television, so you can get a good idea of what the director had in mind. My suggestion was received with polite indifference, although, later, there was a lot of enthusiasm about reports that they're improving those giant-size TV screens you see in bars.

As anyone who has seen one knows, giant TV screens aren't the answer because they further dilute the already washed-out TV image. The TV signal has only 625 lines to contain its information no matter how large the screen is, and so a larger screen means a faded picture. TV retail outlets report that consumers seem to understand this, and that 17- and 19-inch sets are preferred to 21- and 24-inch screens because of the sharper image.

One evening over dinner, I finally got an interesting response to my suggestion about home 16-mm movie projectors. The problem with those, I was told, is that they can't be programmed by the pay-TV systems. You sit in your own house operating your own projector, and the cable operators don't have access to it. They can't pipe their software into it and charge you for it. Why, you decide for yourself what and when to watch!

What is clearly happening is very alarming.

A superior system of technology—motion pictures—is being sold out in favor of an inferior but more profitable system—pay video hardware/software combinations. The theatrical motion picture, which remains such a desirable item that it's used to sell home cassette systems, is in danger of being held hostage. Truly daring, and offbeat film subjects will become increasingly risky because they can't be easily presold for showing through other "windows."

The two edges that movies have enjoyed over television are greater quality and impact of image, and greater freedom of subject matter. Now television is poised to absorb and emasculate the movies, all in the name of home entertainment. It will serve us right, as we sit in front of our fuzzy giant-screen home video systems ten or twenty years from now, if there's nothing new or interesting to watch on them. Count me in with the marauding bands.