Report from the front: pressure mounting, resistance weakening, defenses leaking. Try as I might to hold the line, more and more movies in recent months and years, mainly movies of the “alternative” as distinct from mainstream cinema, forgo the 35mm press screening in favor of the DVD screener. On general principles it has always been my preference to see a movie in a theater rather than on my television set, the first principle being that I am in some fashion a movie reviewer and not a video reviewer, and the second principle being that, as such, I have an obligation — over and above a preference — to view the movie under the same conditions the public will view it, even if that means I don’t get to see it till the public gets to see it. Better late than errant. Beating the competition to the punch was never to begin with a very realistic goal for a weekly reviewer in the provinces, and (if we’re talking about me) an overtaxed, poky, and procrastinating reviewer at that. With the ascent of off-the-cuff and from-the-hip online commentators free of concerns with things like deadlines, grammar, and spelling, the goal can only be given up as a hopeless cause. I’ve had to learn to live with the fact that in the online edition of my own paper I cannot be assured of having the first say on a movie. The traditional letter to the editor, an avenue of response, can now be dashed off before there’s anything to respond to. It becomes, in effect, a scoop. I’ve learned to live with this by looking the other way.
No longer, meantime, can the aforesaid second principle — viewing the movie under the same conditions — be followed by a third principle of viewing it under the optimum conditions. The frequency with which films today are shot on digital video has overthrown the long-standing rule of thumb that a film will always look better on a movie screen than on a television screen. The rule now is, sometimes yes, sometimes no. You never know. A movie that is digitally shot and then transferred to 35mm for theatrical distribution will often, not always, look worse in a theater (grainy, fuzzy, faded, etc.) than in your own living room, where it will look exactly like a TV show. On the opposite hand, a movie that is shot digitally and then projected digitally (as more and more theaters are equipped to do) will often, not always, look just as good in either venue, home or theater, simply smaller or bigger. Watching such a movie on a DVD screener will tell the reviewer that it was shot digitally — will in other words put him on high alert — but it will not tell him how the movie will look to the customer who shells out ten dollars to watch it on a big screen in mixed company. I can get sniffy about people who prefer to wait to see a movie on DVD, to say nothing of people who prefer to download it to the postage-stamp screens on their cellphones, but I cannot fault anyone for waiting to see a movie on DVD when it means waiting to see a movie look its best. Advising them on such a matter has come to be an unwanted part of a reviewer’s job. If filmmakers elect to turn out a TV show, they deserve to be kept waiting.
All of this, however, is taking me a distance from what was going to be my main gripe: that when the reviewer’s only pre-screening option is a DVD, he is being coaxed and coerced to adopt the standards of the very people he likes to be sniffy about, those who choose to wait for the DVD. In the majority of cases, when the film was shot in 35mm (I hope that’s still the majority), he is being asked to settle for an inferior visual experience, and moreover asked to judge the film on the basis of that experience. Maybe he can manage to feel flattered that his professional expertise is expected to compensate and overcome. But hold on. I haven’t yet got to the worst of it. In all cases — even in cases where the film looks as good or better on DVD — the so-called visual so-called experience will almost invariably be compounded, clouded, cluttered up, with extraneous elements meant to discourage the reviewer from afterwards peddling the disk on eBay or falling in with a band of film pirates. I am speaking of the assorted printed messages and graphic icons designed to undermine the DVD as a commercial commodity at the same time as they undermine it as a visual experience. “Property of Whoozit Pictures,” “For Screening Purposes Only,” “Not for Re-Sale,” are common kinds of wordage to be positioned above, under, or right on top of the image, typically in fluorescent white, in many instances never going away for the duration of the entire film and in other instances disappearing for a while and then reappearing to disrupt a scene just when you had begun to put it out of your mind. Sometimes a studio logo will be stamped in the corner of the image, much like the self-promotional logos with which every TV channel now feels compelled to brand every image they broadcast (excepting of course the images of paid commercials), knowing full well that this distracts the eye and the attention, that it’s more damaging to the program than any commercial interruption, and yet doing it anyway, openly communicating a disregard for their own offerings. Some screeners I’ve seen even come with a five-digit timecode that busily counts off every passing second of the film’s running time, never in sync with the film’s intended tempo.
To get down to a sample of specific cases: the recent The Edge of Love, which had no local press screening and which I couldn’t find time to get to in its one week at the Ken Cinema, not only had “Property of Capitol Films Publicity” permanently emblazoned across the upper half of the picture (albeit in a ghostlier shade of white), it also had a squeezed anamorphic image such that the normally willowy Keira Knightley appeared abnormally whittled. And after attending a proper screening of another Ken presentation, the digital Cherry Blossoms, I recommended to my wife my unused DVD of it, wary yet unaware that a “Property” claim would be posted high up on the letterboxed screen, which my wife resourcefully masked off by draping a towel over the top of the television. Why did I never think of that? Screeners, granted, would have been the sole means by which I could have written about any of the films in the Latino Film Festival before they had come and gone. Well, tough. Fortunately I refused (as is my stubborn custom, under continual bombardment) to look at my screener of Silent Light until after I had seen it on the big screen. The DVD boasted just about every feature short of a timecode: the proprietary printed matter, the branding by logo, a squeezed image in an incorrect aspect ratio, too pale in light scenes and too dark in dark. I have no confidence that on the evidence of the DVD I would have recognized this as an enthralling film. Last week, in spite of everything, I broke down and agreed to look at a screener of Love n’ Dancing (don’t film companies employ proofers? shouldn’t someone have suggested an apostrophe before the “n” as well as after?) so as to be ready to write about it for its May 8 release date. But I agreed only after receiving assurances from the publicist that the DVD, passing her personal inspection, was clear of visual impediment. I don’t think she lied to me. I just think she didn’t count, or somehow didn’t notice, the bright white “Property of Cold Fusion Media” that never budged from the bottom of the screen, but that, in fairness, blocked no more of the image than would a team of basketball players seated in the row in front of you at a theater. I note with no displeasure, in fact with hope for a reactionary countermovement, that Sony Classics, a major supplier of alternative cinema, has lately instituted a policy of no screeners. As long as they maintain a policy of screenings, that suits me to the ground. Pirates might prove to be my strongest allies.
The implicit meaning in all this extraneous clutter is plain enough: We don’t trust you. You’re unworthy of trust. And although that’s not what you want to be conscious of when watching a re-enactment of the love life of Dylan Thomas or an excavation of hidden passions among Mexican Mennonites, it can be easily set aside as nothing personal. The same meaning, after all, comes across at group press screenings where security personnel guard the door with metal-detecting wands and, in your peripheral vision, patrol the darkened auditorium on the lookout for verboten recording devices. But at least they don’t get in the way of the screen. Obstructions to your line of sight are not so easy to set aside. If it matters so little what a movie looks like — if the single thing that matters is what “happens” in it — why not just print out a plot synopsis and ask the reviewer to judge it on the basis of that? Are movies a visual medium or not?