No longer do we need to leave our homes to enjoy the best that film culture from across history and across the world has to offer. With a broadband connection and a bit of disposable income, pretty much any film (or television programme) can be downloaded or streamed, or ordered on disc if we’re feeling ‘retro’. Perhaps the only role left for cinema is to overwhelm us with spectacle, not to supply us with interesting things we might not get the chance to see otherwise?
It is easier to assume that there is no significant difference between a film screened in the comfort of one’s own home and a film screened in a cinema than it is to assume that a musical recording does not differ from a live performance, or that recorded theatre does not differ from live theatre. Whether we watch a film at home or at the cinema, we are watching a recording. And in our digital era, it is becoming increasingly rare to be able to point to celluloid as the magical ingredient distinguishing the cinema from the home movie experience. However, there really are significant differences between watching a film at the cinema and watching the same film at home. And this needn’t have anything to do with the size of the screen or its resolution, or the number of speakers in the sound system. More fundamentally, it’s about the difference between the public and the private.
Your home is where you get to do what you want – especially during your leisure time. You can sit, or lie, on the sofa, in whatever state of undress you wish. If you’re watching TV, you can shout, jeer, make witty comments to any viewing companions you might have, ‘live-Tweet’, and perhaps even throw things. Such actions may earn you a frown if you disturb the viewing of a ‘favourite programme’, but they are also recognised and widespread ways of viewing in private, and indeed, part of the fun of the experience. We have even reached the stage where live television can be paused if bathroom, kettle, or snack cupboard beckons.
Television makers came to realise very early on that because their viewers could quite easily switch off if they didn’t like what they saw and heard, these viewers had to be addressed in a particular way, and given particular things. If you talk ‘at’ or ‘down to’ someone in their own home, your stay will probably not be a long one. In the ‘network’ era in the United States (that is, a time where broadcasting was dominated by a few major networks), there was a strategy known as ‘least objectionable programming’: you maintain a decent audience share not by provoking delight and wonder, but rather by not doing anything abrasive or offensive enough to prompt your viewer to take the trouble to change the channel. In the more fiercely competitive multi-channel environment we now live in, television professionals are acutely aware of how hard it is to grab and to keep hold of a viewer’s attention when so many other potential sources of gratification lie at those viewers’ fingertips.
The point I am making is not that watching television turns you into a slob, or destroys your attention span, or that television programming is doomed to always be ingratiating, a dancing monkey, or an attention-seeker, and never to deliver authentic or aesthetic experiences. Nevertheless, I do want to argue that some experiences are more easily, naturally and fully available in public than in private.
When you watch at home, a film meets you on your terms; when you go to the cinema, you meet the film on its. There is no pausing, rewinding, or changing channels. Respecting your fellow patrons, by keeping quiet, keeping your phone switched off, and not throwing things, means that you also respect and attend to the film too. The greater restrictions upon conduct in public than in private in fact liberate you to forget, or at least suppress, your private needs, all the better to immerse yourself in the public screen.
In the cinema, once you have bought your ticket, you are also temporarily liberated from the tyranny of choice. No longer are you uncommitted, and playing the field, constantly looking for the most attractive prospect out there in a world of almost endless possibilities. You have invested time and money in this choice, so it will take more than momentary displeasure or lack of interest to drive you away. With such commitment comes access to a wider and deeper range of experiences. The film doesn’t need to act like it’s on a permanent first date. Some films are loveable and worthwhile not because they’re attention-grabbing, exciting, or fun, but because they’re confrontational, or tranquil, or confusing, or a huge range of other things.
Taking choice partly out of your hands is also, as paradoxical as it may at first sound, a good way of exposing yourself to a wider variety of cultural goods. It is true that television viewers no longer have their viewing choices made for them by television schedulers. However, it is not true that these choices are now completely unguided. When your subscription streaming service uses metadata to suggest what you should watch next, it will usually try to offer you things similar to things you have already watched. You are being offered lots of stuff, but at the same time, you are being funnelled into a taste bracket, because it is lots of similar stuff. This explains why a mid-century viewer of the BBC would enjoy greater variety in their viewing than many contemporary users of Netflix do. More choice does not necessarily lead to greater variety, and can in fact diminish it.
The cinema offers us not content but experiences that are harder to get at home. Bingeing on, grazing through and relaxing with television are all wonderful things. But there is no substitute for dressing up, leaving the comfort and endless choices and distractions of the private sphere behind, and going out to meet a film in public. Familiar comforts and predictable pleasures are legitimate things to seek out in our leisure time, but there is also a place for taking a chance on something that might not have been your first or natural choice, but might, for precisely those reasons, expand your taste horizons. In the city where I live, that place is called Hull Independent Cinema.
Dr James Zborowski is a Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of Hull where he teaches modules on a range of aspects of television, media, film and other forms of popular culture. You can read more from him over on his blog.