By John H. Foote
Remember the ritual of going to the movies from our youth? As a film critic and 59 years old, I consider my youth the seventies when I discovered cinema as the most important art form on the planet.
You lined up, perhaps purchasing your ticket first. The line snaked around the block, people close to you anxiously discussing the film. As the line moved forward, the smell of fresh popcorn hit you, seducing you to spend. The doorway loomed, and those in line were swallowed up in the darkness of the mystery of the experience ahead. Seats were chosen, collectively the audience sat, conversations, a hundred or more could be heard throughout the theatre. Then, the lights dimmed, the curtain was raised, and a hush fell over the audience, the silence suggesting, “show me”. The previews came first, three usually, followed by a short, which living in Canada meant something from the National Film Board. Once that was over the words “Our Feature Presentation” came up on the screen and blessed silence fell over the audience.
For the next two to three hours, we sat as one group, a bond forever forged by that single experience of watching a film together. The theatre rocked with laughter at a great comedy, there were screams of fear and shock at a horror film or thriller, smiles across the rows at something beautiful on screen or, my favourite, absolute hear a pin drop silence as the audience became one with the film. They were what we called “in”.
When the film ended no one moved at first and the a slow shuffle started out of dark cinema, some chatting could be heard, opinions, reviews as the audience spilled into the bright lights of the night, all going their separate ways yet all altered, even galvanized by their shared experienced in that dark room with a flickering beam of light spilled light and sound onto a huge silver screen.
Home entertainment started a long slow breakdown of the ritual of movie going. You could rent a movie for three or four dollars, and watch it in your living room. I was in university when my Dad, still the finest man I know, bought a VCR and proudly called me to tell me the news. Visits home were suddenly more frequent. Dad would pick me up at the train station and we would make a stop at the video store to stock up for the weekend. Usually I rented 10 films, and did little else with my visit except further my expand my education in film studies. Though I much preferred watching films on the big screen, this would do if there was no other way.
Little did I know the terrible impact home entertainment would have on my beloved movies.
Bad manners were created because at home you could talk, you could pause the film and get up numerous times and you could talk some more. Gradually these dreadful habits spilled into the cinemas, making the movie going ritual less enjoyable.
Then in 1986 films on video were price for purchase, so yes I built a massive library. Then came DVD and Blu Ray which vastly improved the quality of image and sound, giving the film a pristine quality on the large and larger TV screens. Theatres were built into homes, film buffs built huge libraries of films, the VHS tapes became extinct except in far north cottages, and more and more people were watching films alone. There is, I believe something lost in the experience of seeing a movie alone in your home. The energy of hundreds around you laughing, screaming, sitting on the edge of their seats or crying that is sadly absent at home.
Is the ritual of movie going dead?
I think so and then something happens to restore my faith.
But right now I am terrified that this Sunday could kill that experience forevermore.
If Roma wins Best Picture, the floodgates for films made directly for streaming will open, and suddenly hundreds of films watched on televisions, computers, iPads, even cel phones will now compete for the Academy Award. These films will go toe to toe with movies released in theatres. Oh sure the streaming film might open for a week or two in a cinema to qualify for the Oscars, but how long before the fast evolving Academy erases that rule?
On one hand streaming companies such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon offer up and coming, as well as established filmmakers, a chance to make dream projects free of studio interference. Of course the artists will take that chance. And with massive success for Roma and several other streaming films, it is going to happen more and more.
How long before film audiences find themselves alone in a chair in a world entirely computerized, just like the obese human race in WALL-E (2008)?
There was something very special about going to the movies in a cinema with hundreds of others, and it does still exist. Just two years ago at TIFF, the opening sequence for the much loved La La Land (2016) brought applause from a very cynical group of press, very early in the morning. We were stunned by the pure rapture of the movies, so yes, that magic is still there.
If Roma wins the Academy Award for Best Picture that seismic shift you feel is not an earthquake, it is the shifting of movie watching for all of time. The beginning of the end of watching films with an audience together in a theatre.
The death of a ritual, the loss of something unique and special.
Just a piece of our humanity breaking off, disappearing for all of time.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.
He remains cinema obsessed