Critic's Notebook: Movies Have Always Had Their Place on the Small Screen

Wonder Woman 1984 - Publicity Still 4- H 2019
Warner Bros. Pictures

With big-ticket films like 'Wonder Woman 1984' premiering on streaming platforms, some purists have lamented the death of cinema as we know it — but theatergoing is only a small part of celebrating film. 

I have cried about a lot of things in 2020 — the loss of loved ones, the loss of quality time with friends and family, the loss of a sense of identity and temporality. I have wept due to fear and anger and injustice and disappointment. I have also whimpered over missing petty little things that bring me quotidian joy, such as eating a hot French fry or wearing red lipstick just to look bitchy. Not too long ago, my husband walked in on me while hot tears streamed down my face. "What's wrong?" he urged. "I just wanna go to the movies!" I wailed, toddler-like.

It's not a stretch that a professional film critic would ache for the big screen. The last film I saw in theaters was Autumn de Wilde's spring release Emma, a wry and talon-sharp take on Jane Austen's Regency classic. The joy of Emma is in its silent moments — a bemused glance between servants or the honeyed snarls across star Anya Taylor-Joy's mouth — but the film is also lush period comedy awash in azure walls, emerald lawns and rosy-pink confections. It's designed for a behemoth projection, and I long for the days when I can once again be swallowed up in the sensorial experience of a movie theater's proscenium. Nothing beats the immersive grandeur of the proverbial silver screen.

Still, the movie theater isn't the only place to savor the splendor of film. Over the past few months, as studios scramble to release long-delayed tentpoles via web streaming while the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to decimate moviegoing, I've read and heard many fellow critics bemoan the supposed "death of cinema." The shuttering of movie theaters and the demise of the theatrical window is akin to destruction of a sacred temple in their minds, it seems. Some have even argued movies will cease being movies at all if they don't play on the big screen before anywhere else. I agree that the decimation of movie theaters is culturally devastating, and I pray moviegoing bounces back when it's safe to reconvene, but the virus has not "killed" cinema. Instead, it has merely hastened entertainment's inevitable shift toward more global accessibility thanks to advances in technology.

Movies have always had their place on a TV screen. Before the rise of home video, premium cable channels, pay-per-view or streaming services, cult B-movie programming thrived on syndicated television as early as the 1950s, introducing generations of young fans to the horror and suspense genres. As such, film's existential crisis isn't new. While golden age studio execs and aging stars dreaded the increasing popularity of TV, portending it would extinguish the film industry altogether, television ended up cultivating legions of film buffs and future auteurs who got their first taste of wild, moody and obscure cinema via the small screen at home.

On Roger Deakins' podcast Team Deakins, director Joel Coen recently credited his eclectic storytelling style to the indiscriminate curators who broadcasted all sorts of "crass" and "sophisticated" films, such as The Son of Hercules and , on his local Minneapolis television station when he was a kid. When asked about his early childhood influences, he shared, "They were all, for the most part, they were films that we'd seen on television. There were some films we would go to the movie theaters to see whenever we could, but most of our background in film history came from TV." Later, he intimates he wouldn't have had much of a career if people didn't catch up with his work on home video.

Watching at home has traditionally been more affordable than the total costs of visiting the multiplex. Movie theater tickets have always been relatively pricey, well before the industry attempted to luxurize with heated reclining seats and bougie commissary refreshments. (Even when my grandmother went to the movies as a kid in the 1920s and 1930s, those few cents she paid to enter represented hard-earned savings in her impoverished Lower East Side neighborhood.) Growing up, I was fortunate to have parents and relatives who loved film and prioritized taking me to the theater, even when money was tight.

Still, I never would have been able to connect with the thousands of films I've seen without the help of basic cable, Blockbuster, file-sharing among friends and today's streaming platforms. And I know I'm not alone. Some months ago a Canadian friend confided to me that many movies often never reached her small Ontario village, so she had to rely on home video and TV to keep up with popular cinema. No doubt, both television and the internet have been formidable educational tools for budding movie fans and will continue to be indispensable for the next generations of arts critics and entertainment journalists.

I sometimes get the sense that movie theater purists, consciously or not, take on the role of cultural gatekeepers, using the symbol of the big screen as a shibboleth to create a false distinction between cinephiles and fanboys/girls. There's more than a tinge of elitism to this fervor, no different than Martin Scorsese lambasting franchise movies as market-researched eye candy or cinephiles claiming Showtime's Twin Peaks: The Return is actually an 18-episode "film."

This moral panic about movie theaters ignores the reality that even with valiant recent efforts to democratize moviegoing — such as the now-defunct MoviePass or the AMC Stubs membership, which allows moviegoers to watch three movies a week for roughly $20 per month — charges add up when you factor in invisible costs like snacks, parking/transit and family pricing. After all, between screener links and in-person screenings, film critics typically see most new films without paying out of pocket. For example, I usually view well over a hundred new releases a year at minor personal cost to me. I am grateful for this access, but well aware it is an immense social and financial privilege.

I will always prefer to see a film on the big screen, but I can't help but recognize the perks of at-home viewing and why many people would prefer this as their default mode for diversion. I sorely miss the communitas of a theater experience — sharing a laugh or a gasp (or a collective cringe at a crash-landed punchline). But I don't miss receiving dirty looks from other people when I cackle at horrendous goopy dialogue or annoying children get snatched by unseen aliens. Frankly, who doesn't appreciate pausing whenever they want, loudly gabbing whenever they want or pulling out their phone to Wikipedia an actor whenever they want? (I also don't particularly pine for the exhaustive labor of catching a train, trudging in the snow or hauling my tush to the crowded cineplex after a long day at work, although I'd gladly do any of those things to finally escape endless lockdown.)

The canonization of the movie theater erases the intimate pleasures of watching a film on your home screen just feet (or even inches) away from your face. I've enjoyed many a film in bed while perched like an otter with a laptop resting on my belly, the computer interface, in its way, just as visually all-encompassing as a 50-foot projection. When it's just you and the screen up close, with no one else around to distract you from the artistry, how could there be any question that this, too, is cinema?