Most people have a favorite place to sit when going to the movies. Some people like the back row; some people like the centermost spot (middle seat, middle row); some people like to sit near the front so that they can stare up at the screen and let the picture fill the limits of their peripheral vision.
I figure that last preference made more sense fifty years ago, when Cinerama and CinemaScope presented vast, expansively shot epics and westerns that were made to surround our senses and engulf our whole eye-span. Nowadays, most movies are too fast-cut and often the camerawork is too shaky to really work for close viewing. Have you ever been forced to sit in the first few rows when a movie is sold out? Wasn't it hard to tell what was going on most of the time?
Personally, I like watching movies close up, when it's appropriate. Unfortunately, it rarely is. But movie theaters can't just start removing those front rows because they aren't good for the moviegoer's eyes. No, that would mean a lot fewer tickets sold, a lot fewer popcorns sold, and a lot less money going to both the theater owners and the movie distributors. So, moviemakers should go back to making movies that are more accommodating to the theatrical audience, right? Yeah, that's not going to happen.
This weekend I finally went and saw I Am Legend on an IMAX screen. Those screens are huge, and they pretty much fill your vision. I had feared that such an experience would give me a headache, as many of today's blockbusters are fast-paced and fast-cut, but I Am Legend is surprisingly slow moving. There aren't a lot of scenes in which it was difficult to tell what was going on. And there were even some wide-encompassing views of the devastated New York City that were perfectly suited for such grand scale projection. But I Am Legend is not really that appropriate for IMAX, because like most Hollywood films, it predominantly features close-ups of its star.
It's funny to think about the conflict involved in how a movie is shot and presented today. As has been the case for decades, Hollywood is completely interested in making a movie appropriate for watching on a small television -- hence the close-ups and fast-cut action -- but it also wants to present visuals, particularly special effects, that are better suited for as large a screen as possible. This conflict is even tenser today, because so many blockbusters are being shown on IMAX screens, but then they're also expected to play on portable DVD player and iPod screens that are so much tinier than television sets.
I have to say that I'm glad I saw I Am Legend in IMAX as opposed to, say, Transformers, which did in fact run on IMAX screens last summer. When I saw Transformers, I chose to sit fairly close. You know how many stadium-seat auditoriums have those few rows up front that aren't stadium style? Yeah, I sat in one of those, thinking the movie would be best in such a big, visually encompassing way. But I had to close my eyes during most of the robot-on-robot fight scenes, because the visuals were registering in my brain as just blurred messes of action. I imagine it would have registered somewhat similarly on an IMAX screen.
You know what movie I would like to watch in IMAX? There Will Be Blood. Now there's an old-fashioned, slow-moving spectacle that would look best as big as possible. Maybe add to that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old Men. None of these movies need such quick-cut action (I think most effects-laden movies like Transformers feature such fast-cut-editing to disguise sloppy CGI and poor directing skill) and each was hardly made to be viewed on a television let alone an iPod. Maybe they aren't as big moneymakers, but I guarantee they would seem more appealing to moviegoers on such a big screen, and could possibly be worth the risk -- anything is worth trying once, right?
No matter what, though, with any IMAX movie you have to have a good seat. As I pointed out in the past with my IMAX 3D experience of Beowulf, there are too many spots in an IMAX auditorium where the view just isn't worth the same cost as those seats smack in the center. However, at least IMAX auditoriums feature that huge light pit between the screen and the first row of seats, so nobody is sitting too close for comfort.
As I said at the beginning of this column, most people have their preferred position from which to watch a movie. I have a number of favorites, depending on what kind of movie I'm seeing and what kind of theater or what specific theater I'm at. For example, I'm not a big fan of stadium seating, and not just because I've been an usher that had to sweep those annoying carpeted, stepped aisles. I'm not a fan because too many stadium-seat rows are actually above the center of the movie screen, so you're actually looking downward. To me, that's completely the opposite of how movies should be watched. Of course, as I've already pointed out, sitting below the screen and looking up just doesn't work with most movies these days.
But I do need to sit as far back as possible when watching a foreign film. My vision isn't so great, so I should really sit closer, so that I can read the subtitles more clearly, but I'd rather sit far enough away that I my eyes can take in the subtitles and the film all at once. I've often been in the situation of sitting too close and paying more attention to the text than the picture above it. I might as well be reading a book. The most recent foreign film I went to was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and fortunately it wasn't in a stadium-seat auditorium. But if it had been, I would have had to suck it up and look downward at the screen, so that I could be sure to catch both the dialogue and Janusz Kaminski's cinematography.
Meanwhile there are many times when I have to sit in the very first row of an auditorium. This is typically the case if I'm covering a screening that's followed by a Q&A. I need to be right up there in front in order to have the optimal position for recording the discussion. The thing that often surprises me, though, is how many people sit in that first row who aren't there for a job. They want to sit as close as possible so that they have the best view of the movie star or director or whomever is the Q&A guest. Just as it's more important for me to get a good audio of the Q&A than it is to enjoy the actual movie, it's more important for them to be in the presence of stardom than it is for them to enjoy the film. However, there is one auditorium I frequent where the front row is actually a great place from which to see a movie: Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, which has a large stage between the screen and the seats. I know it isn't the only auditorium in the world constructed this way, but it's the one most familiar to me.
Well, enough about me. What is your favorite seat, or if applicable, some of your favorite seats, when you go to the movies?