Sunday, February 24, 2013

On ways of watching films (and connecting dots from The Apartment to the Bates Motel)

Yesterday I had the very happy-making experience of watching Billy Wilder’s The Apartment in a darkened mini-theatre, on a screen that, at a rough estimate, had a surface area around 12 times larger than that of my plasma TV at home (a TV with which I have sometimes tried to simulate the theatre experience). For selfish reasons I won’t say where this screening took place, but there were only two other people in the room, one of whom was my viewing companion, a huge Apartment fan. We had both seen the film recently enough for it to be fresh in our memories, so we murmured through parts of the screening, exchanging nerd-trivia and observations, imagining how much more subversive it would have been if James Stewart had played the manipulative corporate heel Sheldrake - and even remarking on the film’s tangential similarities with Hitchcock’s Psycho (naturally I was the prime culprit in this), which released in the same week in 1960.

(Have trouble linking the two movies? Well, think about illicit sexual liaisons conducted hurriedly in rented rooms; think social outsiders living lonely lives in stripped-down settings, photographed in sombre shades of grey. Think of one melancholy working-class girl, played by a film’s ostensible star, who dies unexpectedly in a shower before the halfway point, and another who almost dies in another bathroom after swallowing half a bottle of sleeping pills halfway through her film. Think of earnest, likable young men performing clean-up operations after crimes have been committed. And both films – it just occurred to me as I was writing this – have discomfiting scenes where a bullying man in a position of power casually, callously hands over money to an unhappy young woman, an act that precipitates a life-changing decision for her. The scene in The Apartment where Sheldrake, having strung the vulnerable Fran along for weeks, gives her a hundred-dollar bill as a Christmas present, is one of the cruelest moments I can think of in a fiction film, and the look on Shirley MacLaine’s face is devastating.)

Anyway, the Apartment screening was a reminder that for all my mad love of old Hollywood, I have only rarely watched movies of that vintage on a big screen (what sort of screen can be considered “big” is of course a relative matter these days) and that one is at a vast remove from what the original viewers of these films saw and felt. It also reminded me of observations in two essays about cinema. First, one of my favourite film writers David Thomson***, in an entry in The Biographical Dictionary of Film:

Intensive film study and film scholarship now work by way of the TV screen. It is seldom possible to review the great movies “at the movies”. Suppose I wanted to see Sunrise, Duel in the Sun, and Ugetsu Monogatari on big screens – where would I go? […] Yet I might be able to summon them up on video, where I could see them as often as I liked, with “pause” to access the full beauty of the frame. Everyone is doing it, no matter that the colour is forlorn (the United States has the worst TV colour in the world), the image format is different, the sound is tinny…and the passion is not there. That passion is made by the dark, the brightness, the very large screen, the company of strangers, and the knowledge that you cannot stop the process, or even get out. That is being at the movies, and it is becoming a museum experience. How can one tell one’s students or one’s children what it was like seeing Vertigo (in empty theatres – for no one liked it once) or The Red Shoes from the dark. We watch television with the lights on! Out of some bizarre superstition that it protects our eyes. How so tender for one part of us, and so indifferent to the rest?
And here is Pauline Kael, from a 1967 essay titled “Movies on Television”:
Not all old movies look bad now, of course; the good ones are still good—surprisingly good, often, if you consider how much of the detail is lost on television. Not only the size but the shape of the image is changed, and, indeed, almost all the specifically visual elements are so distorted as to be all but completely destroyed. On television, a cattle drive or a cavalry charge or a chase – the climax of so many a big movie – loses the dimensions of space and distance that made it exciting, that sometimes made it great. The structural elements – the rhythm, the buildup, the suspense – are also partly destroyed by deletions and commercial breaks and the interruptions incidental to home viewing […] Reduced to the dead grays of a cheap television print, Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons – an uneven work that is nevertheless a triumphant conquest of the movie medium – is as lifelessly dull as a newspaper Wirephoto of a great painting.
Reading these quotes, it might seem that both essays are prim condemnations of how things are “now” compared to how they were “then”, but that isn't the case - they are both pragmatic acknowledgements that things change, and that our assumptions, attitudes and ways of looking shift with them. Thomson in particular, being from a generation after Kael and having seen many further variations (including the phenomenon of people watching films on YouTube, or even on smart-phones!), has often written insightfully – in such books as Have You Seen...? and The Whole Equation – about the complex ways in which we engage with our art and entertainment in the contemporary world.

Meanwhile, in another astute piece, “Movies too personal to share with an audience”, Jim Emerson provides an important counterpoint to the idea that film-watching is best as a communal experience. I myself have had a terrible time watching films such as Vertigo with large, mostly indifferent audiences, and I know that I wouldn’t have enjoyed The Apartment so much the other night – notwithstanding the screen size and the print quality – if the room had contained people who had just happened to stumble in and didn’t care about the film. Perhaps what we thin-skinned and over-sensitive movie buffs really need is permanent access to a private screening room along with programming software that tells us exactly who we should be watching a particular film with.


*** More on Thomson, and especially his book The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, in another post soon. And here are some other connect-the-dots posts: Mean Streets and Contempt, Ozu's Good Morning, Altman's 3 Women, and Peeping Tom and Psycho


  1. Old Hollywood...
    I can never tire of it.
    Not just Old Hollywood but also the brilliant little phase of "New Hollywood" which ended in 1977 with the release of Star Wars. Hollywood has never been the same since '77.

    American cinema from the 20s to the 70s is the best popular advertisement for Western civilization. It is brilliant in its capaciousness, its powers to cogitate on serious matters in a most accessible way, its moral ambivalence, its distaste for preachiness and most importantly its ability to laugh at its own civilization while never descending to self-hate.

    These attributes are in some ways unique to Anglo Saxon cultures and hence best reflected in American and British cinema and to a lesser extent Continental cinema. Elsewhere you have great films but often lacking in the attributes listed above. Movies elsewhere often take themselves too seriously, often erring on the side of extreme radicalism or extreme bigotry, often blighted with moral certitudes and missionary zeal!

    Which is why the gradual demise of American cinema we've been seeing over the past 30 years is so very disappointing.

  2. Shrikanth: any thoughts on Jimmy Stewart as Sheldrake? I couldn't shake the thought off once I had it. Of course, Stewart had already done Vertigo (and conversely, Fred MacMurray had been doing Disney films like The Shaggy Dog just before The Apartment) - but even so, what a shock to the system that casting would have been.

  3. Jai: Not sure if Stewart's casting would make sense.

    McMurray is perfect in the role. I think Fonda would've done well too.

    Stewart has always had an earnest, self-righteous streak in his persona - even in films where he has essayed dark roles like Vertigo. He wouldn't have done well as an amoral philanderer with no self-righteous streak like Sheldrake.

    By the way, I saw Shop around the Corner yet again yesterday. What a masterpiece! It epitomizes everything good about American cinema. The inconspicuous narrative style, the exhibition of the darker side of human nature without for a moment losing a sense of humour or turning very gloomy.

    Talking of social outsiders - there was no dearth of similar films throughout the 50s. The Apartment and Psycho were at the end of a cycle of brilliant films, which include Minelli's Some Came Running, Preminger's Angel Face and The Man with the Golden Arm, Stevens' A Place in the Sun and Hitchcock's own Rear Window - all films that examined the condition of fringe players in society, the non-conformists and rebels who find life tough.

    The difference is that all these great films were never anti-Establishment! They empathized with the social misfit but never mollycoddled him and descended to berate "society". In the best liberal tradition, these films simply medidated on the issues of the world without offering "fixes", without identifying villians!

    However things changed in the 60s, especially in 1967 when two landmark films - The Graduate and Bonny and Clyde were released.

    That was the year American cinema dropped several notches in my estimation. Because suddenly American cinema lost its moral ambivalance and its "liberalism" turned militant. Suddenly it became fashionable to champion the social outsider/misfit and calm meditation gave way to aggressive counter-culture.

    This phase lasted for about a decade maybe. Not sure about films today. They neither belong to the 50s tradition or the 70s "New Hollywood" tradition. They take pride in being non-serious. Movies like Juno for instance! Even Disney animations make you think more than some of these supposedly serious Hollywood films!

  4. Arre baba, I'm not talking about "making sense"! I'm talking about an Alice-in-Wonderland-on-LSD scenario where some drunk scriptwriter thought up the idea in a stupor and somehow convinced everyone involved to do it. I'm just wondering: might such a casting decision have somehow hastened the "new era" in American cinema (the one that sort of began later in the decade with Bonnie and Clyde etc)?

  5. It is always an unique experience to watch a classic on big screen... I personally don't care about the companions but love the big screen and the dark room although I rarely get the opportunity...

    Wonder what do you think about watching it on tiny laptops and PCs? That is the only option for most new cinephiles...

  6. Wonder what do you think about watching it on tiny laptops and PCs?

    Jitaditya: having mellowed with age, I have gone from disapproving in unconditional terms to merely feeling queasy about it - and a little sad, because watching a film on a tiny screen almost inevitably means that all you are really following is the story or the narrative, without paying adequate attention to the "how". But I do know some very serious film enthusiasts who routinely watch movies on screens no bigger than their laptop.

  7. I think the biggest advantage of watching movies in a theater is forced immersion - you know you can't pause the movie, or can be disturbed by a phone call. Of course you can CHOOSE to do that at home too, but its good to feel that you don't have any other option. I believe films are meant to be watched like that, at least once. The rhythm (of film viewing)is important.Then you can revisit parts if you want to.
    Other than that, I have watched several movies on my 27 " HD TV that are great works of cinematography - all the Bergman films,the Wong Kar Wai films, most recently "The spirit of the Beehive" which I think was one of the most moving cinematic experience I have ever had . I didn't feel that watching on TV encumbered my appreciation for them in any way.
    By the way, did you get a chance to catch the Wong Kar Wai retrospective at PVR?
    Jitaditya, these days there are easy ways to connect the laptop to the TV. Most new laptops have an HDMI port and so do most TVs. Its just a matter of getting an HDMI cable and connecting the HDMI out of your laptop to HDMI in of your TV.

  8. I'm just wondering: might such a casting decision have somehow hastened the "new era" in American cinema

    I think it would've just hurt the film with no real consequence besides that.

    Actually I think a lot of the Old Hollywood actors were products of their time and might've disliked acting in movies of New Hollywood.
    Definitely Stewart, Wayne, Grant and perhaps even Bogart wouldn't have been motion picture actors in the 70s/80s.

    The likes of Fonda, McMurray, Lancaster and Clift would've adapted better I guess.

  9. But I do know some very serious film enthusiasts who routinely watch movies on screens no bigger than their laptop

    I, for one, have visited a movie theatre some 12-15 times all my life (of 29 years duration). Most of those 12-15 movies have been Hindi/vernacular movies I barely remember.

    It's been some 8 years since I visited a theatre. That's worth noting because I started watching movies seriously only some 6 years ago!

    So the last time I visited a theatre (sometime in 2004 I think) I hadn't heard of Hitchcock or Ford or Welles or Scorsese!

  10. One of the reasons I moved to NYC in '79 was to enjoy all the revival houses. By '97 when I left the city every one of them was closed. Now there are only museum shows and the Film Forum.

    Nowadays with a Blu-ray on my high-def plasma screen I can distinguish the grain pattern of the original print. My 5.1 sound system makes everything sound great, and it's loud enough for the woofer to shake the windows. Yet I'm still lacking two things that would make my living room comparable to a movie house. The first is the sheer size. I got a digital projector a couple of weeks ago (a good one, high-def and made for 16x9) and watched a few things on a wall; the image was almost 5 meters long. I put on the Blu-ray "Ben Hur" and watched (of course) the chariot race. It was incredible, and a totally different experience from the plasma monitor.

    The other thing is the indefinable extra oomph that comes from watching with others. The audience somehow amplifies the effect. Comedy, for instance, isn't funny without an audience surrounding you with laughs. As often as I deplore an East Coast audience (with their seat kicking and their cell phones and their sometimes puzzling, inappropriate reactions to what we're watching) I still can't get the same buzz at home.

    I'm going to get the best of both worlds this summer: I will rent a large screen and sound system (doesn't cost much), set it up under the trees outside, and use my new projector to watch some movies with a crowd of friends. And I can watch any damn thing I want!

  11. The other thing is the indefinable extra oomph that comes from watching with others.

    Mike: I take your broad point, but I still get a chill at the thought of watching a film I feel strongly about with someone who doesn't "get" it. Or having to shoulder the responsibility for someone else getting bored or restless. This is partly a quirk of personality, of course, and it may also be that you have more friends who share your movie tastes. (Don't know, just guessing.)

    But yes, there's nothing quite like that one serendipitous experience where you're showing a cherished film to someone who hasn't seen it, and they get immersed in it the way you'd like them to. I remember watching The Birds with Abhilasha at a festival a few years ago, and being struck by her first-time-viewer responses to all the scenes I was so familiar with (and had taken for granted). It gave me an immediate sense of what Hitchcock meant about wanting to "play the viewer" like a musical instrument. That's exactly what was happening.

  12. Rahul: no, didn't even know about the Wong Kar Wai retrospective. If it was sometime in the past few weeks, I probably wouldn't have had the time anyway.

  13. I just started watching Old Hollywood films and O Boy, they are awesome. Even, what seems to be a cliche plot now like "In a lonely place" was nicely directed and acted. These films seemed to always have a number of interesting supporting actors, who make the film so much better. Was blown away by Advise and Consent (though, it cant be categorised under Old Hollywood, I guess).

  14. Actually its from March 1 to 7. All 3 films are a classic, IMHO. They should have gotten 2048 as well.

    From 1st to 7th March 2013

    Date Day Movie
    March 1 Friday In The Mood For Love
    March 2 Saturday In The Mood For Love
    March 3 Sunday Chungking Express
    March 4 Monday Fallen Angels
    March 5 Tuesday Happy Together
    March 6 Wednesday In The Mood For Love
    March 7 Thursday Chungking Express

  15. Sorry, my bad. That's for Mumbai. I guess its already finished in Delhi.

  16. Was blown away by Advise and Consent (though, it cant be categorised under Old Hollywood, I guess)

    I think it can be.
    Directed by an "Old Hollywood" director and populated with all the familiar "Old Hollywood" personages. Fonda, Pidgeon, Laughton, Gene Tierney, Franchot Tone, Lew Ayres.

    To my mind, it's one of the great American films! Sad not many have heard of it.

  17. I'm lucky enough to live in London where you can still watch Old Hollywood films thanks to the BFI. My wife and I have recently had the pleasure of re-watching classics like Laura and Red River on the big screen. And there's usually at least a dozen such opportunities each year if not more.

    I think casting Jimmy Stewart as Sheldrake would have been a smashing idea :)

  18. Even, what seems to be a cliche plot now like "In a lonely place" was nicely directed and acted

    Pessimist: I think you're selling that great film short here by the phrase "nicely acted and directed"!

    It is a truly remarkable film. Arguably Bogart's best performance ever. Blighted ofcourse by a terrible background score throughout. But a masterpiece nonetheless.

    Many many times better than all these heavy and moronic monstrosities that get Oscars these days - the likes of Slumdog Millionaire, Schindler's List, A Beautiful Mind, Lincoln etc.

  19. @ shrikanth - It was your comment only on one of Jai's earlier posts, which made me curious about Advise and Consent. Planning to watch more work of Otto. Have seen Anatomy of a Murder. Any recommendations?

  20. Preminger made a number of fine films that are more morally complex than they appear to be on the surface - among them Saint Joan and Exodus. I was particularly fond of The Man with the Golden Arm when I saw it as an adolescent. And then there's that wonderful noir Angel Face.

  21. Pessimist: I recommend Cardinal and Bunny Lake is Missing - two very late Premingers that are among his best.

    Cardinal chronicles the career of an American Catholic priest. Offers a very nuanced take on how organized religion works. Bunny Lake... works brilliantly as a companion piece for Psycho!

    I don't like the early Premingers as much as a lot of people do. Not a huge fan of Laura for instance.

  22. cool..thanks Jai and Shrikanth..will try getting hold of these films...