Flickering Light in a Painted Frame: The Cinema as Gallery

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN JUNE 2010; AMAAS SYMPOSIUM PROGRAM GUIDE
www.amaas.ca

The motion picture is amazing. It is inherently accessible – even in its earliest beginnings it was labeled the art of the people. It was cheap to present, to view, to transport and showcase internationally. The lower class, for the first time, had an entertainment that they could access affordably and they embraced it. Today film is a device for education, entertainment and enlightenment; it is able to create new realities and push boundaries that traditional mediums cannot, and with the advent of digital technologies, the tool to create films has been put in the hands of the masses. We can even find filmmakers in third-world countries working and showing in any way they can. Digital technology has opened a world of expressive possibilities to people who have never had a voice before, and that is only one of the many incredible evolutions filmmaking.

However much of the control over film viewing is still in the hands of theatre chains and movie studios. They have also embraced digital technology because it makes their products incredibly accessible, and that makes them money. However, is a drawback to such accessibility. Companies are losing a lot of money to the fight against internet piracy; people do not value DVD mementos or movies in theatres in the way that they used to. The corporate machine has helped to digitize every element of our lives, but it hasn’t found a way to modify the old product to sell properly in that environment. So they try to change the format of films to suit the new reality.

They are trying to retain the wrong parts of their model.

Studios make formulaic films to reach the largest audience, but they have turned their product from art into fast food. No one wants to pay $12 to see the latest Hollywood McBlockbuster when they can download a DVD quality rip for free. Especially if they have to also pay $10 for their side of greasy popcorn.

The solution for this is that film, like the other arts, must become an investment. Cinema must become like a book or painting – a collector’s item, an object of light on screen where audiences can experience a magic that they cannot find in the cold separation of glass and pixels. We have to make cinema an experience again.

In part, it is an argument for the validity of celluloid – digital projections or DVDs do not replace the look and feel of film. The term “silver screen” still lives on in film projections, with their rich colours, depth of field, and the scale of viewing a film on the big screen. In a digital world, where everything is under the control of a computer, film has a tactility that cannot be replaced. You can feel the richness of the light as it flows over your head and rests on the surface of the screen. You can hear the gears of the projector and bask in the heat that emanates from it. The act of running film through a machine is something that very few people have experienced today, and ironically, it has become a novelty again. Everyone has access to digital and that decreases its value as an art-object. Digital obviously has its benefits – DVD special features and the connectivity of the internet allows for online discourse and easy research, but does not replace the experience of viewing it in a theatre. There is still incredible value in the theatre experience and it’s a matter of educating and advocating for it. There is no reason to choose one over the other when having both is infinitely richer.

The film festival is one way that we can educate audiences in the viewing experience. Festivals have the opportunity to showcase incredible films that are not readily available, which forces people to take that first step to go to the theatre. From there, by creating an Event, rather than just a screening, we can convince viewers of the beauty of the theatre experience. We can turn the movie theatre into the Cinema again; a gallery for the art of motion pictures. Like a gallery, theatres must offer a space that creates a contemplative state of mind. We must prepare viewers to consider what they are about to view as Art rather than entertaining fluff. The mega-plexes have failed at maintaining the intimacy of the cinema, and in no way create a reflective space. To sit and watch, shoulder-to-shoulder, with other cinemaphiles, in an intimate space, and to discuss it afterwards, is where the full value of the theatrical experience lies. A digital screening in your home is isolating – it doesn’t allow you to interact with other people in the same space and talk about the work immediately after viewing. Discourse is essential to rich, dynamic, and artistic film and it is crucial for audiences to watch and discuss together, in order to strengthen their own critical understanding and tastes. Connoisseurs of cinema demand better films and ask for challenges.

In order to support audiences that want film art, we need spaces that want film art too. We need places that are luxurious; cinema architecture of the 1920’s was based on performance theatre spaces – an art form that is valued as a cultural treasure. If we want to encourage audiences to consider film as an art on the same level as theatre, music or dance, then we need to treat it with the same respect. Part of that comes from professional presentations and part comes from the atmosphere of the surroundings. While we don’t want to decrease the affordability of going to the movies, we do need to make the movie theatre a special space. A place that can host an event that people plan for, perhaps even dress up for, or dedicate an evening to. Watching celebrities on the red carpet is popular even among people that do not regularly attend film events, and by creating opportunities for them to participate in the same sort of glamour, we will draw in new audiences that have never considered film as art. Everyone wants to feel special, and dressing up for a night on the town makes anyone feel fantastic. Glamour is nothing without content though – this is not an argument for the draw of personalities in film. It is about making the moment special, no matter what the content or personalities involved. It is an argument for the theatricality of cinema presentation. If new viewers can be drawn in by glamour, and enraptured by artistically stimulating works, then film will quickly gain masses of loyal cinemaphiles that love the medium as much as we do. Control over presentation of the medium will be put back in the hands of the people and we will see many great independent works the way that they were meant to be seen.

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