Backstory: Cinema is art, not furniture

Home sweet home is no substitute for movie magic - no matter how big and expensive your screen.

I have a memory of my grandmother taking me as a very little girl to see a movie in a Philadelphia theater. It seems to me Jimmy Durante was involved and there were bubbles floating across the screen.

Whether Jimmy Durante and bubbles really ever joined forces in some cinematic moment is unclear to me. The important part is how enduringly magic it felt being in that theater.

I have other theater memories powerful enough to rival Proust's madeleines.Growing up in a tiny New Jersey town, moviegoing was rare. Occasionally the neighbors would invite me to the King Movie Theater in nearby Gloucester City. For a dollar I'd get to go see "The Hindenburg," or "Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood," or (the best ever) "Jaws." How I screamed when the head popped out of the boat. I wasn't alone. The chorus of shrieks around me was an early lesson in the power of community.

By the time I had a kid, VCRs were commonplace and most helpful when I needed to plant the baby in front of some Disney dreck so I could meet a deadline, or wanted to see a flick but couldn't afford a sitter. Still, I made certain to show my son the power of the big screen.

A favorite occasion came when we were living in Knoxville, Tenn. It was 1998 and Henry was 7. The Tennessee Theater is one of those huge old theaters with ornate everything - from chairs to gilded ceilings. There was even a lift that brought an organ up from the mysterious bowels of the place. It was here that Henry first saw "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." We roared at the Knights who say Nee, the rabid rabbit, and all the rest - our experience inarguably enhanced by the fact that this larger-than-life farce was being projected on a larger-than-life screen in a larger-than-life theater.

Henry and I are fortunate enough to live in Austin, now, where there are two prominent film festivals. The Paramount Theater offers a summer movie series of classics. And the Alamo Drafthouse provides several theaters where movie lovers can enjoy a meal while watching new movies or enjoying old favorites, preceded by hilarious and fitting trailers, not the usual assault of popcorn ads and blockbuster previews.

But a lot of the rest of the country is stuck with those darn multiplexes, which rob them of the magic feeling of immersion in a story.

Ubiquitous videos and DVDs and the growing popularity of home-theater systems, flat screen TVs, and mind-blowing personal sound systems have further lured moviegoers away from the go-to-the-movies experience and lulled them into a stay-home-and-watch state of mind.

This shift was lamented several times at the podium of the recent Academy Awards.

"The Academy Awards were about the funeral of movie going," says Sam Grogg, dean of the School of Communication at the University of Miami and former dean of the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. "It was an evening where a lot of terrific films and artistry in film were being displayed, but there was something somber. I think it's because we see the moviegoing experience as literally passing. It's something we'll see go away over the next several decades."

To stave off the inevitable, he's changing the university's campus theater into an art house, showing films from the school's film archive. "We have a great theater and we're trying to show movies to the younger generation the way they were meant to be seen," he says. "Most of them haven't seen 'Dr. Zhivago' or even 'Jurassic Park' on the big screen. Movies quickly find their way into lower quality imagery devices so much so that our young people don't have an opportunity to be surrounded and enveloped by a movie."

Whether home viewing is ruining moviegoing is a complicated question, says film critic David Edelstein, who recently left for New York magazine.

For starters, where you lives can affect how you choose to view, he says. "At Slate I was always getting e-mails from people saying movies didn't come to them." He also heard from people tired of going to the movies because of poor projection and being stuck among viewers who'd "lost the capacity to watch without talking on phones or to each other."

Mr. Edelstein says he's concerned about "an increasing absence of public culture." Historically, movies were considered a private experience, but now, he says, "with all sorts of private culture experiences like iPods and computers, going to the movies is one of the more public things you can do. Talking about it with people when the lights come up or afterward in a bar or over coffee ... that's a wonderful thing."

That said, Edelstein admits he has a state-of-the-art 60-inch widescreen TV that he uses to properly view some films sent to him for review. But he maintains that TV remains "a piece of furniture" no matter how well it offers the kinetic impact of any given film. "It competes with your kids screaming in the other room, your significant other, your navel.... You don't have the same absorption you have as when you sit in a theater."

Movie ticket sales have declined for the past three years with one notable exception - IMAX theaters. Regular movie theaters have sabotaged themselves, suggests Rick Aristotle Munarriz, a senior analyst for Motley Fool. "You sit through 10 minutes of commercials and trailers and pay $5 for a soda," he says.

IMAX draws crowds by making movies like "Harry Potter" and "The Polar Express" gigantic screen experiences and community events. Mr. Munarriz says IMAX spends up to $4 million to remaster a film for the huge screen, an enhancement that can give a movie a second life: " 'Polar Express' did pretty poorly at the regular theater but was a hit at IMAX for two holiday seasons."

Netflix, says Munarriz, has grown people's appetites for movies the same way the ability to download music has inspired people to expand their music collection. Nonetheless, he thinks some films like "King Kong" or "Spider-Man" just have to be seen on the big screen.

It's a need Grogg attributes to the "intimate relationship between the screen and the audience." That's a relationship that started a long time ago, he says, citing the 1903 short, "The Great Train Robbery," which gave audiences such a sense of being there that when a gunman onscreen pointed his gun at the camera, some audience members actually pulled their guns and shot back.

Not something likely to happen in your living room.

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