Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Alone at the Movies: The Medium Makes the Message

Last week I was musing about my experience in a local multiplex, watching 12 Years a Slave while trying to block out the rantings of a woman in the throes of dementia. Part of my point was that moviegoing is intended as a communal experience. Traditionally, movies are made to be seen by large groups of people, feeding off of one another’s amusement, or exaltation, or fear. Yes, it’s maddening to be disturbed by an unruly patron in the next row. But those choosing to watch a video solo, in the privacy of their homes, are missing out on something: jokes aren’t as funny and scare moments aren’t as shivery if they’re not shared.

Back in 1976, I watched a brand-new film called Rocky in a packed neighborhood theatre. During the climactic bout between Rocky and Apollo Creed, the L.A. audience was emotionally transported. In our minds we were all ringside at a live sporting event, and we were not embarrassed to cheer aloud for our hero. It was deafening in that theatre—and thrilling!

Then there was  the day that I (as a young film critic) was invited to write about Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes. It’s a stark film about isolation and entrapment, and I saw it completely alone, sitting in the middle of an empty art house. My solitary viewing perhaps brought home the film’s lessons with special force, but I cannot think of that afternoon without a shudder.

The subject came up recently when I discussed Roger Corman with Mark Lynch, whose “Inquiry” is heard weekly on WICN (90.5 FM) in Central Massachusetts. Mark, a true movie buff, as a young man traveled from Worcester to Boston to experience William Castle’s The Tingler, complete with wired theatre seats. He’ll never forget the hysteria and the laughter greeting the moment when creature apparently springs from the screen and gets loose among the moviegoers. The crowd reaction was so intense that he never did see The Tingler’s last 10 minutes. 

Since my interview, which you can check out here, I’ve discovered that Mark has thought  long and hard about the effects a movie can have on a home viewer.  He recalled, “I had a very bad case of the flu once (temps 104-105) and I began to watch The Harvey Girls, going in and out of awareness . . . . I began to think the film just consisted of different versions of  The Atcheson, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.” Apparently I kept dozing off and on during that one number and thought a lot of time passed. Then I kept the TV on and all the subsequent films (a film noir and some comedy) all wove themselves together into one huge disjointed film in my mind. Very uneven, but it all sort of made (feverish) sense. ‘Where's Judy Garland?’ I kept thinking, then dozing off again.”  

 Mark has his pet theories about comfort films, the videos that make you feel better when you’re down. No, he wouldn’t suggest Eraserhead. On his list for colds is Forbidden Planet (“I bet the Kryll had a cure for the cold”). Or maybe The Andromeda Strain (“I guess my cold could be worse”). For stress or general malaise, he advises The Seventh Seal (“It's so dark and serious, I have to feel better in comparison,” Anyway, “it's just great to wallow in Swedish misanthropy.”)

I have my own disturbing memories of trying to use movies to stave off serious illness. It didn’t exactly work, but being in a cinematic Twilight Zone at least helped pass the time.


  1. I can't watch much of anything when sick - I just shut down and sleep round the clock.