We cinephiles had an expression back in the 1970s: “Film is art. Television is furniture.”
Today, you can barely tell the two mediums apart. We watch movies, uncut and in the right aspect ratio, at home on large televisions. And we even watch television in movie theaters.
These used to be two different mediums. Now they’re two ways to experience the same content. You can watch in the comfort of your own home, or amplify the experience with a bigger screen and an audience.
At least three of the films I saw at this year’s San Francisco international Film Festival were made primarily for TV. The Incredible Jessica James, a feature romantic comedy, was financed by Netflix. Aside from festivals, it won’t be screened theatrically. The John Ridley tribute included a screening of the first one-hour episode of his new Amazon Prime series, Guerrilla. Long Strange Trip is a four-hour miniseries. It will screen a few more times this month, but its ultimate home is Amazon Prime.
The Incredible Jessica James
But it’s not just about film festivals. Last February, at least six Bay Area movie theaters screened the Academy Awards for ticket-buying patrons. The New Parkway, more than any other theater I cover, presents TV on the big screen. Tonight (Monday), you can enjoy the Golden State Warriors/Utah Jazz game in something larger than your living room. This Friday night, you can watch an old Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode with an appreciative audience. During the last season of Mad Men, the New Parkway screened episodes as they were broadcast. Members of the audience dressed up for the occasion.
Live theater has also gotten into the act. You can now see stage plays and operas on the big screen. Last Wednesday, my wife and I attended a screening of a London production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Cerrito. This Thursday, we’re catching a performance of Allegiance, performed on Broadway – also at the Cerrito.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
These recorded stage plays only screen in theaters. But when it comes to movies – and to a lesser extent TV shows – you can pick either the home or theatrical experience. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
Television is certainly more practical. You can watch in the comfort of your own home. You can start the show when you want and pause for food or a bathroom break. Once you’ve invested in the equipment, it’s much cheaper.
TV also has one major content advantage: The stories can be much longer. Continuity-based series such as Mad Men, The Wire, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, and Grace and Frankie can tell complex stories that feature films simply can’t touch.
But there’s a downside to that length: They have too much time to fill. Even the best of these shows tends to bring in pointless subplots that feel like time fillers. What’s supposed to be a thriller or a comedy turns into a soap opera, as one new problem pops up after another.
If watching TV is like listening to recorded music, going to the movies is like attending a concert. (Yes, the analogy isn’t perfect. It may even be an exaggeration. But bear with me.) The screen is bigger than life. You’re surrounded with strangers who are there for the same reason you showed up. They wanted to see this particular film.
Lawrence of Arabia
While a long story works better on TV, a wide one needs the theater to make its magic. A film like Lawrence of Arabia cries out for a big, theatrical screen. And it’s not just about classics. Most of the superhero movies that take over the multiplexes right about now belong on the big screen.
Yes, the theatrical experiment has its downsides. You have to drag yourself out of the house, buy tickets, and hold your bladder. Some audiences make you want to stay home.
Back in the 1970s, I had little access to the recent and classic films that I loved. Now I can see most of them with a few clicks of a remote control. That’s wonderful. But I can also revisit them theatrically. That’s even better.