Friday, 21 June 2013

Pale Blue Eyes in Hanoi

It is summer and this blog will go on vacation. There will still be tweets on but that is all I will permit myself to do for the next couple of weeks. I hope my summer days will be as serene as this:

The Vertical Ray of the Sun aka At the Height of Summer (2000) is Tran Anh Hung's third film, and quite wonderful (as is his first film The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), I am not as keen on the others). When the blog reawakens from its slumber in August I might write something about them. Tune in then!

Friday, 7 June 2013

On big screens vs small screens

It is no secret that since the dawn of cinema there has been a widespread reluctance to give it its rightful place among the arts. Scholars, critics and even the man on the street have often treated it with some kind of disrespect, intentional or unintentional. It is considerably less so now perhaps, but it is still there. To say, as if it was an objective fact, that "the book is always better than the film." is an example of this. You often read literary critics explaining why literature is "better" than film. Some people who would not be caught dead reading a detective novel have no quarrels with watching action films and thrillers because, I suppose, films are not to be taken seriously anyway. Another more institutionalised example is that when films (long, short or experimental) are shown at museums they are often treated with a disrespect (in terms of projection for example) that would be unthinkable for other works of art, such as paintings, photographs or installations.

But what is even more disconcerting is that among people who claim to love cinema, and take films very seriously, there are numerous ways in which they belittle their own chosen art form. The perhaps most common example is that they believe that watching films at home are as good, or even better, than watching them at the cinema. This is something I just do not understand. One argument for staying at home to watch a particular film, rather than watch it at the cinema, is that it is just people talking, there are no big action scenes or outdoor scenery, so the TV screen is enough. But seeing it on a big screen, where everything and everybody is much bigger than you are, is a completely different experience. You might miss important things and lose the feelings intended by the director. I had seen Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960) at home many times before I saw it on the big screen, but it was a different film. For example the dehumanising vastness of the office in which C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) toils away does not exactly have the same impact when seen on the small screen at home. The idea that the experience at home is as good as the one in the cinema is related to the idea that the words and the story are the most important things in a film. I once read a critic who said (seriously) that Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was better seen at home on a TV than in the cinema in order to fully appreciate the dialogue scenes in the tents. In that direction clearly lies madness, and one wonders if he also prefers the Cliffs Notes version of Tolstoy's War and Peace in order to better appreciate the plot. Since films are made for the big screen (as opposed to made-for-TV-films) that is where they must be seen in order to get the full experience. If having the choice how can you possibly justify watching it in some other format than the intended one. Film is a visual experience, even if it is only close-ups of faces, and you have not experienced it the way it was intended if you have seen it only on your laptop. Are there any art lovers who says "You don't have to go to the museum, you might as well watch the painting on a postcard." or music lovers who says "Don't bother listen to that record on a hi-fi stereo, a Walkman is good enough."?

Another reason given for watching films at home is that if is not a very good film you might as well see it on TV. But that might only be a valid point if you have already seen it on the big screen and did not enjoy it, although why would want you to watch it again if you did not like it? Other reasons given are that it is cheaper (although that depends on how much you spend on your home cinema equipment), you can talk while watching it if you must, pause when going to the toilet, and you do not have to suffer the odour of popcorn. But these are not reasons that have anything to do with the art form, only your comfort. It is also more comfortable to watch a documentary of a safari in your own home than going to the Serengeti and face mosquitoes, snakes and the hot, humid air.

I am not saying that we should never watch films at home. It is often the only chance we have to see certain films and it is better to have seen it on a small screen than not at all (although in some cases I wonder...). But we should never kid ourselves into thinking that watching it at home is the same, or better, than watching it at the big screen. Any film which is any good takes advantage of the scope and space provided by the medium and we as viewers (and listeners) should do the same. If film lovers themselves do not show more respect for the art form, why should others?