The Movies: What They Were

A student who happens to work in the film festival business asks me this common question: “Is it better to watch movies in the theater?”

I reply as follows:

I cannot say which is “better,” because it depends what you mean by better. Better for what?

However, it is certain that cinema was originally invented as a modern technological alternative to the theater, and it was absolutely intended to be a social event. Going to a movie was not like sitting in your living room. People used to dress up to go to a movie, just as they did when going to a play or an opera. 

Television gradually changed people’s attitudes about the social aspect of watching films. Many still liked to go to the movie theater, but they felt more casual about it, as if they were psychologically blending the old experience of a social event with the new experience of sitting in the living room with family or alone.

Now, with the internet and smartphones, movies have become a kind of virtual reality. There is no social element at all; people sit alone on a bus, or lie in bed, staring at their own little private screen, getting lost in that movie world, with no connection at all to other humans. No shared experience, no limitation on the movie world’s control over your mind — there is no moment of pleasantly returning to reality, perhaps applauding along with the strangers around you, as the lights come on. 

Movies (like plays and concerts and other public art forms) used to have a social and even political function. People of various types, from various backgrounds, would gather in one place and share an entertaining experience together. You would feel a kind of attachment to the audience — these are my fellow movie-goers and fellow citizens. We have completely lost that now. I think it has some very sad consequences, as more and more people have come to view their “fellow citizens” as nothing but sources of immediate physical pleasure or sources of annoyance. We no longer share anything enriching or enjoyable as fellow citizens, by which I mean in a respectful and mutually appreciative way. Now it’s all “What can you do for me?” or “Why don’t you get out of my way?” We have lost the community feelings — the simple reminders of shared humanity — that are essential to a healthy and free political life.


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