Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Big screen/small screen

Let's get this out of the way upfront. Ideally, seeing a film at the movie theater is the best viewing experience. As big as televisions have become and as clear as their pictures can be, they cannot compare to the size of a theater's screen and the rich images presented from light projected through celluloid.

Whenever possible, I try to watch films, especially new releases, at the theater rather than viewing screener DVDs. Although I usually don't have the choice between theatrical or home viewing, more screener opportunities are available to me. There's also the entirely different matter of awards season when DVDs of in-release and upcoming films arrive in the mail as frequently as circulars featuring pizza coupons and tire sales prices.

For instance, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and THE WRESTLER showed up at my home Thanksgiving weekend. I waited until the local press screening to watch the Danny Boyle film. I felt that was the best way to see and evaluate it. Granted, this was no noble sacrifice. Holding off meant I enjoyed a better audio-visual experience than I could get at home.

Such thinking probably stems from well-meaning (and possibly snobbish) senses of purism and directorial intent--films are meant for the theater and should be seen there--although by no means have I lived by a hardline stance of projected film or nothing. There's respecting the art, and then there's trying to abide by an impossible standard. Film is better than video, but seeing is better than not seeing.

As an operating principle I still keep a preference for going to the cinema, but an HDTV and Blu-ray player have considerably weakened my resolve when both options are available. The small (or smaller) screen may not be better than or equal to the big screen, but the difference is much less noticeable than it used to be. I'm amazed at how stunning Blu-ray discs and upconverted DVDs look. Even non-anamorphic DVDs can deliver nice pictures.

With local theaters rapidly churning through specialty films that often open unscreened for press or available only on screeners, I've found it much harder to keep up with smaller arthouse fare with a theater-as-primary-option mindset. I suppose that's one reason why the theatrical vs. home viewing issue is on my mind. If I want to see these movies, chances are I'll need to do so at home. Additionally, IFC Festival Direct skips theatrical runs for video-on-demand, and Gigantic Digital is trying the strategy of opening in large markets while doing day-and-date online streaming for the rest of the country. A trip to the movie theater won't be an available choice.

While I hold the theatrical experience in high esteem--yes, even with the talkers and texters that threaten to, and do, ruin it on occasion--I'm ready to declare home viewing is now good enough to make me more flexible regarding what I'll watch where. (I've used home video primarily for watching films I couldn't see elsewhere.) Sure, HDTV and Blu-ray can't reach the thrilling heights of my personal moviegoing highlights, such as seeing 70mm prints of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, and PLAYTIME on huge screens, but technology can now come closer than ever before to replicating the AV splendor at home. What a great time it is to be a cinephile.

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