Welcome to The Middle Seat
Column by Steve Matuszak
This column is dedicated to movies. And while there are many aspects to cinema, from the making of movies to the wild lives of those involved, I want to talk about something different. I want to talk about us – the moviegoers. I want to discuss watching movies.
I want to discuss the pros and cons of the technological, creative and other such “advances” and changes in filmmaking that affect our experience of watching movies. And I also want to discuss the experience of actually going to the movie theatre to see a film.
But, before we can get our ticket ripped, pocket the stub, grab overpriced snacks and sit down, we need to address what exactly is changing and why.
The first rule of life is that everything changes. But cinema is a technological endeavor. And technology changes at a faster rate than the rest of the entire universe (except for maybe galaxies and things related to Quantum Physics).
Computers change so exponentially fast that you have to throw your new laptop away as you exit the store you bought it from. How long did laser discs last? ‘Nuff said!
Accelerated changes in technology bring equally accelerated changes in other arenas. Unfortunately, a similar phenomenon has been occurring in the movie industry in the form of a bizarre digital Seppuku. Yes, the changes in the movie industry are simultaneously enhancing and killing it from within in two crucial areas:
• The experience of going to the movie theatre.
• The quality of what we see, whether at home or at the Cineplex.
Let’s start with the theatre experience. The first issue is “Scalability.” Technology usually grows backwards, from big to small. Look at the first computers – they were housed in warehouses! Remember the early top-load VCRs? You could go for a ride on those things.
How about beepers and cell phones? My first beeper was a toaster, and when it buzzed I would get thrown into traffic! And those first car cell phones fit in Samsonite luggage!
Microchips and other digital age wonders are getting so small they are using Nanotechnology which, loosely translated, means “F%$!*&@# Small!!”
The second, concurrent adaptation is “Portability.” We want everything to “come to us or go with us” (hence the getting smaller aspect). Bill Gates and others like him were laughed at when they envisioned a computer in every home as critics stared at giant machines with wagon wheel rolls of tape. These critics were like those who laughed at the notion of a “TV in every home” in the early 1950’s.
Lastly comes “Affordability.” Bucking the centuries-old trend of inflation-based economic principles and pricing for most retail products, technology gets better and cheaper simultaneously – computers, digital cameras and yes, home theatre televisions! As movie theatre tickets experience natural incremental inflation, the cost of home theatre systems drops while availability and quality increases.
Originally enjoyed only by the Hollywood elite in Beverly Hills basements, the home theatre experience has truly come “home.” The average consumer, like myself, can have plasma, LCD, or LED cinema-like quality flat screen TVs that, while downsized in comparison to theatres, are actually upsized for the home, compared to standard older 19” – 27” boxes. Throw in 7.1 Channel surround sound and now you’re making sweet music.
And each technological advance in the Cineplex is being replicated and truncated for your living room. Soon after seeing 3D at the theatre, Sony offered us 3D TV’s at Best Buy. My brother has a basement theatre with chairs that vibrate to the movie! (He has money.)
All of these advances in technology have led to a decline in movie attendance in favor of comparable cinematic experiences at home. Why not, who needs to leave home when you can watch “Saving Private Ryan” in a gyrating leather recliner with ear wing speakers? Who needs talkers, crying babies in R-rated films, overpriced Junior Mints and sticky floors?
Just wait until we get into the second phenomenon of technology’s affect on the quality of films! Let me whet your appetite by suggesting there are both humungous pros and cons.
When used wisely, digital effects have made leap year-like strides in helping us experience the story. Imagine “Inception” without bending entire cities in half! Or ponder the “other worldliness” in “Contact” without Eleanor’s hand touching the edge of the projected “void.”
But at times, directors, and whoever else is to blame (Bruckheimer), have tried to REPLACE story with visual. And a movie is a VISUAL STORY. Without story, character (script), you do not have a film (clear throat sound: recent “Clash of Titans” and “TRON: Legacy”).
So, join me on a journey where we look at the wonderful world of watching movies and the technology they use to take us (or not take us) there, on and off screen. Let’s go back inside the theatres and talk about babies, popcorn, seats, cultural differences, talking, listening, eating, credits, stages, projectionists, advertisements, trailers, lobby arcades and more!
Let’s play in our present family rooms while also going forward to whatever viewing experiences await us, some of which may literally be inside us.
Let’s look back at the digital effects and technological transformations that “wowed” us and made us believe in movies (the opening scene in the first/fourth “Star Wars”). Let’s talk about the new “Star Wars” versus the Old (or is that vice versa?). Let’s talk about the recent digital Medusa versus the “whatever-the-heck-she-was-made-out-of-but-who-cares-because-she-SCARED-me” Harryhausen Medusa.
Finally, we’ll mentally fast-forward to what might lie around the animated corner. Watch along with me because, like you, I love movies. And I love how it feels to sit down and willingly suspend my disbelief. And let’s call out to each other as filmgoers as much as we beseech filmmakers. So save me the middle seat.