Basic Instinct: The Director's Cut
Let me see if I can’t sort out my current feelings about videos, after only recently having come through one of my irregular stretches of watching some.
Upside: Cost. I start out with this point, in public-spirited mode, in order to get it out of the way. It is not, for me, cheaper to rent a video than to attend a press screening, but not everybody has that option. Idle question: would my own view of movies be altered (more specifically, softened) if I had to pay good money to get in to see them? Rephrased question: does it follow that Beverly Hills Cop III or City Slickers II automatically becomes more treasurable, less resentable, at seven dollars (hill price) than it would be at four dollars (bargain matinee)? More treasurable at four than at three (video rental)? More treasurable at three than at zero (press screening, network premiere)? Doubtful. Perhaps just as probably the opposite. One of the constant clichés of the losers’ locker room is that the paying customer has acquired the right to boo. And I was not born with a lifetime free pass in my hand.
Downside: You get what you pay for. For the time being, let’s just note that what you get with a video rental is substantially smaller than what you get with a movie ticket, though it would not be quite fair to attach a strictly proportional value based exclusively on size. Say, conservatively, 250 to 1, so that if a movie ticket goes for seven dollars, a video rental ought to figure out to three cents. No. More could be said here about what you get, or rather what you do not get, with videos as compared with movies. It, or some of it, will be said later.
Upside: No people to distract you. No talkers. No heads in front of you. No late-comers. No candy-wrapper rustlers. No seat-kickers. No baby-nursers. Or anyway only people of your own choosing; only conversations you are a part of; only heads you may feel free to hit with a cushion; etc.
Downside: Telephones, doorbells, lawn mowers, leaf-blowers, car alarms. Or in other words, people after all. (A standoff.) To say nothing of cats and dogs and others — never a problem at theaters outside of the rare mouse or cockroach. And conversation, even when consensual, is still a distraction when watching a movie. Is still the enemy of concentration. It might be wondered, in addition, whether the gregarious viewing habits fostered in the TV room at home do not have some spillover into the public movie theater, such that the distractions that tend to push people away from theaters to begin with are somehow amplified whenever people force themselves, steel themselves, to attend a theater regardless, lust a suspicion. No hard evidence.
Upside: Broader, healthier, tastier choice of snacks (without smuggling). No sticky floors unless you prefer them that way. No wads of chewing gum with strangers’ germs on them. No one to shine a flashlight in your eyes and command you to put your shoes down. Favorite chair. Footstool. Stocking feet. In sum, all the comforts of home.
Downside: Too much comfort — another of the enemies of concentration. The couch-potato viewing posture encourages snoozes; the proximity of the kitchen, the bathroom, the telephone encourages interruptions. There is something to be said for sitting up straight, keeping eyes to the front, paying attention. There is something to be said for a room with one purpose only.
Upside: Pause button (to study at leisure the compositional elements of the image, or, in the case of “R” rated videos, the anatomical elements of it); fast-forward button (to skip the boring parts); reverse button (for instant replay); slow-motion button (for instant replay in the style of a sports telecast); stop button (for snack breaks, bathroom breaks, etc., without “missing” anything). You are in control!
Downside: You are in control! Video throws off the balance of power in a movie, where traditionally and properly the maker of it is in charge of calling the shots, setting the tempo, dictating the duration, and the watcher of it has only the power to fall asleep, walk out, stay away in the first place. That’s the deal. “Missing,” in the foregoing paragraph, is in quotation marks because what you would be missing, although none of the actual action, is the flow of the action, the continuity of the action.
Upside: Useful scholarship tool for studying composition, shot sequence, staging, and all the rest. Useful fan-ship tool for memorization.
Downside: Yes, yes — but that’s just a way of saying that video is only, or mainly, useful for the second or third or fourth viewing of a movie, not for the first. Only or mainly for fact-checking, we might say, not for experiencing the movie, nor even for re-experiencing it.
Upside: Convenience and selection. A video store in virtually every shopping mall, and a wider selection of what to see at any given moment.
Downside: Two round trips instead of one — the getting of the video and the returning of it afterwards (always a longer trip than the getting of it) as against the going once to the theater and back. And after all, there is a movie theater in virtually every shopping mall as well. And then there is the matter of timeliness. Part of seeing a movie is seeing it in context. To see Unforgiven as an Oscar winner, or as a box-office smash, or as an American Classic, is not the same as seeing it as a cussed ornery mulish anomaly. (And video must be greatly to blame, along with multiplexes and “saturation booking,” for shortening the theatrical life of a movie: once it goes to video, it’s gone for good, and it goes there much quicker than a movie used to go to network television.) Then, too, there is the bigger and vaguer question of whether a movie seen on video has really been seen at all. And now would be the time to elaborate on the first downside mentioned above: the smallness of the image.
Downside (cont.): Everyone knows enough to protest what we can think of as “horizontal” cuts in a movie — deletions of footage to make it fit into a television time slot or into “community standards.” Video, improving on commercial TV, although not necessarily on all cable stations, avoids those. But it does not avoid what we can call “vertical” cuts — the cropping of a fraction of every last image, often a very large fraction. One-fifth to one-third is common; more is not uncommon. Nor does video avoid what I can only think to call “lateral” or possibly “homaloidal” cuts, straight across the surface like a deli meat slicer (very thin), with attendant loss of definition, detail, color, what-have-you. Less like precise cuts, really, than like general erosion. In a word, video reduces a movie in a manner comparable to, though not altogether as bad as, a plot synopsis, a Cliffs Notes boil-down of a novel. Of course it will let you know what “happens” in a movie, but it downgrades the very attributes that qualify a movie as a movie, that distinguish it from a novel or a campfire tale. The ramifications of this are, in all senses of the word, incalculable.
Upside: But what about “letter-boxed” editions of wide-screen movies? They give you the full, the un-vertically cut (or vertically uncut) image, do they not?
Downside: Yes, well. A poor, not to mention a sporadic, solution to one part of the problem. Good for the scholarship purposes spoken of above, but actually counterproductive to the intended viewing experience, giving you roughly a half-the-size image where a wide-screen movie means to give you a roughly twice-the-size one. And you can’t (or anyhow I can’t) look at this shrunken image without feeling you are sneaking a peek through the slats in a fence or a rip in a circus tent or, obviously, a mail drop in the front door. You can’t see the image without consciousness of the surrounding frame. One possible good use (one possible upside) for the lower part of that frame is as a blank space on which, in foreign films, to spell out the subtitles without covering up any of the image. But I am not sure (downside again) that that doesn’t further detach you from the image. And here would be as good a spot as any to remember Marshall McLuhan’s classification of TV as a “cool” medium. Those who have read McLuhan more recently than twenty or twenty-five years ago will have a better idea than I have what I (and he) mean by that.
Upside: Most of this applies not just to videos but to movies-on-tele-vision in general, and videos certainly look a lot sharper and richer than the diluted signal transmitted by your cable company.
Downside: We’re not talking about video vs. cable. That’s another argument, another article.
Upside: Directors’ cuts, unrated cuts, “NC-17” rated cuts include footage never seen on the big screen. Horizontal insertions, if you will.
Downside: I am not convinced, from the ones I have seen, that these are more aesthetically motivated than commercially motivated. The implication that one must re-see Basic Instinct, Love Crimes, Crimes of Passion, Heaven's Gate, and the like is apt to put one in a snappish mood. And I’m quite convinced that these, like so many of the “restored” movies re-released theatrically, are historically distorting. Basic Instinct could no doubt have been a better movie, but that’s not to say it deserves a second chance.
Upside: Video provides an outlet for movies that never appear in theaters.
Downside: Granted. And still the single best reason I myself can think of for the existence of videos. Big but: the availability of the video outlet is one significant reason why some movies never do appear in theaters, just as video shortens the theatrical life of a movie (see above), it can also abort it altogether: distributors find it more cost-effective to palm off a movie on the video market than to spring for the advertising and the 35mm prints. It’s nice to get to see some of these things, but it’s not nice not to get to see them in the best possible light. Red Rock West, which reversed the normal life cycle from movie houses to video stores, is too rare an exception to merit more than a footnote.
Upside: Video facilitates the building-up of a personal library, with your cinematic favorites as near at hand as your Complete Works of Shakespeare, Henry Fonda’s “I’ll be there” speech in The Grapes of Wrath as quick and easy to locate as Steinbeck’s original.
Downside: Democratization might be one word for this, but others might be demystification, deglamorization, devaluation. That might still sound like an upside to some, especially those to whom "You are in control” (above) is an unqualified upside. But I don’t know that the concept of movie hasn’t lost a little something in connotation, just as the concept of poet might have lost a little something now that it includes people like Kurt Cobain, or critic now that it includes Jeffrey Lyons. On balance, weighing the distribution of words throughout the previous paragraphs, the downside looks to be the heavier side, if not so much so as to drag the upside all the way under. The image of an iceberg comes to mind.