Sunday, September 12, 2010

It's the Pictures That Got Small

I got something in the mail the other day from a cable company offering "movies on demand". Budgetary considerations convinced me to turn this offer down, but it got me thinking about how often movies, theatrical movies, are used as a come-on, an enticement, to watch something outside of a theater, in our own living rooms, on TV.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, whenever one of the three networks showed a theatrical movie, it was often promoted as being "the first time on TV!" Not just blockbusters like Jaws or The Exorcist, but even something like The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. I actually watched Bean for that very reason. It was OK, but I found out later that when it was first shown in theaters, rather than living rooms, the movie came and went pretty much unnoticed. Still, I did get to see it for the first time on TV!

Not long after I graduated high school came cable. Then, as now, it was divided between basic and the more pricey premium channels like HBO and Cinemax. Though these premiums also offered sporting events and even original programming, the big come-on was theatrical movies. These premiered much earlier then they would have on network TV, sometimes mere days after they had closed in theaters. Also unlike the networks, these movies were shown (wink, wink) uncut.

A few years after cable came the VCR, and video stores suddenly sprung up everywhere. Some of the product sold in these stores were written, directed, and produced solely for the VCR, such as Jane Fonda's exercise and Tim Conway's Dorf videos, but those were a distinct minority. It what was written, directed and produced solely--well, maybe not solely but initially--for the big screen that brought in customers. During the heyday of the VCR, Saturday night at the movies meant you first stopped off at Blockbusters.

The VCR had a good decade and a half run, but with a new century came a new means of communication: the DVD player. The means were new but what was being communicated was actually quite familiar: theatrical movies. OK, you can also get TV shows on DVD. But I don't see season 3 of Xena: Warrior Princess in any of those red rent-a-DVD boxes that you now see everywhere.

No matter what the technological advance in home entertainment, movies remain the main selling point. So, for me, that poses the question: what exactly is a movie, anyway?

Is a movie a "motion picture"? Well, if you're going to take that term literally, everything on TV, whether it's a movie or not, is still a picture in motion. A commercial is a motion picture. So is Dancing With the Stars . Even a video game can be considered a motion picture (maybe too much motion; the last time I tried to play one I broke out in a sweat while watching my race car go off a cliff.)

Is a movie "film"? To be specific, celluloid? Last year's big hit, Avatar , was shot on digital tape. Yet people persist in calling it a movie (when they're not calling it a film!)

I've used the term "theatrical movie" throughout this piece. So is a movie something you see in a theater? Well, at first, yeah, but not for long. I want you to do something. Write down all the movies you've seen in your life. Then divide them up between the ones you saw in a theater and the ones on you saw on a TV set. If you actually do this, my bet is that TV will win in a landslide. TV--network, cable, VCR, whatever--is how most people see most movies most of the time. Some of the biggest box office hits of the last 40 years--Star Wars, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, Titanic--nevertheless got their biggest audiences when it came time to debut, in whatever form, on TV. And the box office take sometimes doesn't even matter. The Big Lebowski tanked in theaters in 1998, yet it's gone on to become phenomenally successful on video and DVD.

Is a movie a visual story told in two hours or more? Well, then that should include made-for-TV movies. Sure, why not? Except I never see any of those in the red boxes either. And if they're really movies, shouldn't they be recognized by the Academy Awards? I don't just mean they should get a statue. You know how on Oscar night they always show a montage of famous movie scenes, such as King King on the Empire State Building or Cary Grant running from a crop duster? Why not show scenes from famous made-for-TV movies, like Billy Dee Williams as Gale Sayers standing over the bedside of a dying Brian Piccolo played by James Caan, or, um, er, hmm....

So why is the nearly 40-year old Brian's Song the only made-for-TV movie I seem to remember?

One traditional difference between movies and television (at least since 1968, when the Hays Code was scrapped and the current ratings system debuted) is that movies have more explicit sex, explicit violence, and explicit language. Thus the appeal of "uncut" movies. What did you think "uncut" meant, no commercials? But if a premium cable channel can show all that explicit stuff in a movie, then they should be allowed to do so with original programming as well, and in fact have with such shows as The Sopranos and Oz. But theatrical movies are still the main attraction. And what about the explicitless G-rated movie? Two of the biggest grossing movies this year have been Toy Story 3 and Shrek Forever After. They'll gross even more once they're repackaged as DVDs.

I think I've found the answer to my question. What is a movie? A movie is a conceit. Movies have been conceits since roughly 1950. Movies are special only because we expect them to be special. But why do we expect them to be so?

Two reasons, both having to do with theaters. I said earlier that most of us watch movies on TV. But we know somebody watches them in the theater. So, when we're standing at the red DVD box in the supermarket foyer, trying to decide whether to rent The Invention of Lying for the night, on some subconscious level we're saying to ourselves, "If someone was willing plunk down $7.50 to watch this at the multiplex, least I could do is spend $2.00 to watch it in my basement. With what's left over I'll buy a hamburger." So much depends on the relatively small portion of the population willing to go to a movie theater on a regular basis. If they ever decide to either stay home or go bowling instead, the entire home entertainment industry will collapse.

For the second reason, we have to go back to the first half of the twentieth century, when moving pictures were much less ubiquitous than they are today. You HAD to see them in a theater. Think about that. If you weren't in a theater, pictures simply didn't move. Eerie, huh? Because of that rarity, movies exerted a powerful hold on people back then. I've read interviews with that old cynic Woody Allen where he positively waxes poetic about his movie going experiences as boy in the 1940s. A mystique grew up around movies. And that mystique was passed down to, and completely accepted by, later generations who probably couldn't tell you how that mystique came to be in the first place.

So, is this mystique/conceit such a bad thing? Not as long as Hollywood lives up to its' end of the conceit and provides movies that are better than, or, at the very least, different enough from, fare specifically intended for the TV screen (or the computer screen, cell phone screen, etc.)

Now, I wonder if there's any other means of communication out there that's technically outdated, but because it has its' own mystique, will nonetheless survive, even thrive, in the future.

Hmm. Can't think of any right off hand.

But if I ever do, maybe I'll write a book about it.


  1. ok, it's time i just come out and say it.
    kirk, you're freaking brilliant.
    if you don't write a book, shame on you.
    no, i retract that. no shame. just a missed opportunity to wow the world.

  2. I think I'm more freaking than brilliant, but thanks for the compliment anyway.

    Know any publishers?

  3. I live in a TV free household and have dome so for the past fourteen years. We watch DVDs on our computer screens and maybe once a year visit the movie house. That's an old fashioned term my daughters tell me - a movie house, a bit like my husband's term for radio, the wireless.

    I'm the sure the history of any object creates a mystique that hangs around long after the original mystery has disappeared.

    Thanks for a fascinating and thought provoking post, Kirk.

  4. If you write a book on this will it be available for my Kindle, now with 3G Wi-fi. Is there something about holding an actual book in your hand even though the binding is coming apart that will never be replaced by an electronic device. I have Xena season 3 on dvd if you need it.

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  6. Oh the memories of sobbing during Brian's Song. That was a great sappy made-for-tv-movie.

    Loved the essay but I'm gonna have to dissent. At least partially. Because I do not have television reception (I use my TV only to watch DVDs from Netflix) and because I no longer really enjoy going to a movie theater (all those kids and germs and commercials, never mind the expense), I watch about 95%, maybe 98% of movies from Netflix. And I know many of them have never even been considered for the big screen, let alone made it there.

    No, they were made as their own art form. Which is why I love them. These are mostly independent movies, foreign flicks, documentaries, etc. They are superior to made for TV movies in the way that literature is to Danielle Steele. They include actual character development and complexity, tell us something about what it means to be human.

    So while yeah, I do always get a smug satisfaction from paying about $2 or less for a Netflix DVD that arrives in my mailbox and leaves from same, watched in my jammies with a glass of pinot grigio in hand, while someone else has paid $10 plus $10 for refreshments, while a baby cried throughout and icky stickiness got on his shoes...I will defend the film as art to the death.

    Now about books....I hope to never ever have a kindle.

  7. as a matter of fact, i do. go here:
    i met the folks who started this. i don't know the details, but i do know they want books to publish.

  8. @Elisabeth--That you can now watch movies on a computer, I think further supports my contention that movies are more a state of mind than anything. It's an honor to provoke your thoughts, Elisabath.

    @Tag--Maybe bookstores are the movie theaters of the future. Even though most will read books on electronic devices, a certain percentage of the population will still buy and read the kind with binding. That way, we'll know the difference between "real" books, and those that are made-for-kindle.

    @Dreamfarm--Oh, I do defend movies as an art form. In fact, I have a whole other blog dedicated to movies that's currently on ice until I can find more time to work on it (as it is, it's hard enough finding time to write this one.) But there's no inherent reason why movies should be better than TV other than the size of the screen, and that size is irrelevent if you're not watching it in a theater. I purposely left Netflix out of my essay because I think you can probably find anything visual ever produced, movies or TV, much as you can find just about any book on Amazon. My piece is really about the continued commercial viability of theatrical films (amazing when you consider that TV originally brought the movie industry to its' knees in the 1950s) and that's why the Redbox was such a great thing to write about. You're only going to see what's considered commercial there. As for the 95%, maybe 98%, of movies you watch that weren't considered for the big screen, well, then, are they made-for-DVD's? You mentioned independent movies and foreign flicks. Well, those may have been shown on a big screen SOMEWHERE, just not at the local multiplex. Maybe the Sundance Festival. But if you can enjoy those movies on the small screen, then there's theoretically no reason what you like can't be made FOR the small screen. The fact that they're not being made is a whole other essay.

    @standing--Thanks for the link. I'll check it out. Now, do you also know Father Time? Because you need a whole lot of that when you write, too.

  9. This is/was a great commentary on "film", or whatever it "really" is. I love movies, and have seen literally thousands of them. Good, bad, and mediocre. Long may they live.

  10. well, yes, i'm rather closely acquainted with father time, as he leaves his wafflestomper footprints across my face.
    time is an artificial construct, designed to keep everything from happening at once, and it is elastic. given that, time expands or contracts to fit the event. so, you have endless time to write.
    i know, being obnoxious.

  11. Ditto Badger, no matter what format even pan and scan movies are fun.

  12. @Badger--I agree with you. It's my love of movies that made me think about and write this piece in the first place. If we ever stop thinking of movies as art or as something special, they'll stop being that and end up looking like everything else on TV (even if you happen to see one in a theater!) Thanks for commenting, Badger, especially after my screw-up over at your place.

    @standing--You're not being obnoxious, but you are beginning to sound a little like Albert Einstein. I sometimes get discouraged, which also can get in the way of writing. Maybe I should write a post (or book!) about that. By the way, I just looked at your picture on your blog. Can't say I detected any wafflestompers.

    Coincidentally, I noticed Gabriela Abola had a post earlier in the week titled Father Time.

    @Tag--I grew up watching pan-and-scan movies, and they never bothered me, probably because I didn't KNOW they were pan-and-scan. But I can understand why the people who originally directed those films might be a bit ticked-off that their movies were being viewed that way. Now, of course, we have letterboxing, but that's hardly consolation to someone like William Wyler (who directed 1959s Ben-Hur in Cinamascope) who's long since dead!

    Along the same lines, the newer TV sets are now rectangles rather than squares. Ever seen an older show made for a square screen on one of those? Stretched like taffy.

  13. I'm a huge movie fan, but lately have not seen many.

    I wonder about the correlation of movie-watching and longevity.

    The last movie my mom saw in a theater was "Chariots of Fire." She's 96.

    Probably no connection.

    Interesting take on pictures in motion.

  14. Another brilliant post!! I totally resonate with it :)

    I rarely watch any movie (TV or Theater)- life is too short for me to spend it sitting on a coach.


  15. @Kass--If watching a movie somewhere else other than a theater makes you live longer, then maybe that's why so many people have stopped going to them.

    By the way, I haven't read it yet but I see on my blogroll that you have a new post. Good! I was worried for awhile that maybe you were yet another person who had given up blogging.

    @Gabriela--I'm just grateful that life's long enough for you to sit in front of a computer screen and send such kind words my way. Thanks!