A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the theatrical inappropriateness of Cloverfield and was subsequently chewed out by my readers. As much as it sucks being told you're wrong by three pages worth of commenters, though, I appreciate that so many people disagreed with my argument. There's nothing better than sparking a conversation, even if it means I have to single myself out and appear as a fool to do so. That isn't to say I don't still believe in what I wrote or that I meant only to be provocative, but I did become convinced by some of the points made, and was able to rethink a lot of the issue. However, I'm not about to redo that column; instead, I'm simply going to contemplate the more general idea of theatrical appropriateness and hopefully continue the discussion.
This week I heard from some college film professors dealing with the sad truth that their students don't actually go to the movies anymore, that they instead watch films primarily on DVD or other home entertainment formats (these particular professors teach in New York City, where there's countless old and new films to see every week, by the way). One professor caught herself, though, telling a class that while many films, such as No Country for Old Men, need to be seen on a big screen, DVDs are fine for comedies, which tend not to lose much in the translation to the small screen(s). As this class was on American film comedy, she quickly corrected herself and noted that comedies too are best viewed in a theater, because we're more prone to laugh when doing so in large groups.
It is certainly true that comedies are theatrically appropriate due to the communal experience. This weekend I decided to see Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins in the theater. I wasn't terribly excited about this film necessarily, and if I didn't see it in the theater I would likely never rent it nor watch it on TV. But I wanted to laugh out loud, and I knew seeing it with a large opening-weekend audience would be an enjoyable experience. Of course, the same might not be true for just any comedy released to theaters. There's little that's more awkward than going to see a "comedy" and sitting in a packed auditorium in which nobody is laughing. Roscoe Jenkins, fortunately, is not an awkward movie. It's not amazing, but it manages to do what it's meant to do: elicit laughs from a big group of people.
Though I'm apparently in the minority, I don't feel the same about the communal experience of watching a spectacle, such as Cloverfield, or any number of special-effects-heavy blockbusters (most of which are theatrically appropriate merely because spectacle is best seen big). Sure, Cloverfield, because it's partially a scary movie, gets some of those fun fright-based reactions from a large audience, and in that regard it is appropriate for the theater (I'll only watch scary or horror films in a public setting, where the crowd is typically more entertaining to me than the actual picture). However, the ending of Cloverfield, when I saw it, received a tremendous, shared reaction of disappointment and anger from the audience. Just as being surrounded by laughter causes us to laugh more easily ourselves, such a negative reaction can also be contagious.
Because a film gets an improper response from a large group of people, however, is not evidence that the film is theatrically inappropriate. Much worse than that experience was the time I saw Billy Wilder's great but somewhat dated film The Lost Weekend at a repertory house and became annoyed at how much of the audience uncomfortably laughed during moments that were intended to be serious. As much as I prefer to watch classic movies on the big screen (although Turner Classic Movies is fine, too), it's quite difficult to see them with a modern audience. And it's not merely a problem for old films, either. The same kind of chuckles can be witnessed during serious moments in a recent film like There Will Be Blood, which definitely needs to be seen on a big screen. Movies like The Lost Weekend and There Will Be Blood, therefore, may be theatrically appropriate, but perhaps they are best if you have the theater all to yourself.
Unfortunately, most of us haven't the kind of money to rent out an auditorium for a private screening at the theater. If we did, we'd probably just build a nice screening room in our homes instead. With enough seats for all our friends, so if we want to watch a film like There Will Be Blood alone we can, but if we want the communal experience of Roscoe Jenkins, we can have that, too. Fortunately, the fact that most of us don't have that kind of money means the movie theaters get to stay in business.
But why should theaters stay in business? Because of new theatrically appropriate experiences like digital 3D? Nah, even some home theaters can be equipped with digital 3D, and maybe eventually the format will be a staple in homes the way VHS once was and the way HD is currently becoming. No, the reason theaters should stay in business is because there will always be a huge number of us who feel this movie or that movie has to be seen in a theater, is only appropriately seen in a theater, whether it's because of the spectacle or the communal laughter and/or fright or the grand beauty of film projected on an enormous white screen.
So I ask you, aside from Cloverfield, what kind of movie do you just have to see in the theater? What kind of movie do you consider theatrically appropriate?