Monday, November 17, 2008

In with the In Crowd

Children are great at parroting their peers and parents. Over time their views are challenged, they realize they can't defend them since they have simply been parroting and they begin to develop critical thinking. It's essential to their development. It's also fun to watch. Our 14 year old son says this often of movies: "You have to see it on the big screen." Why does he say that? Because he's heard adults, peers and my wife and I say it. Does he know what it means? I'm not sure.

When I was a kid, one either saw a movie in the theatre or on commercial television. Later, cable and videotape became other options. When someone said, "You have to see it on the big screen" it meant something. Seeing a movie on television meant pan and scan, commercials, scenes edited out, scenes originally cut out edited back in and profanity either muted or dubbed with another word. Sometimes the filmmakers would go as far as film two scenes when profanity was used, one for the theatre and a cleaned up version for tv. If you only saw the movie on television, one actually could argue that you had not really seen the movie at all. A rough facsimile maybe but not the real thing.

Now it's different. When my son watches a movie on television, it's a fairly big screen (and relative to the size of the screen and his distance from it, around five feet, it is a rough equivalent of seeing the larger theatre screen from a distance of eighty five feet), there are no commercial interruptions, no pan and scan, no post release editing. Seeing a movie on television now, by means of a DVD player, does not present a radical difference visually from seeing it in the theatre.

But depending on the movie, the difference in social experience can be compelling.

I've never supported the idea that the movies that "must be seen on the big screen" are the great visual giants, the great special effects extravaganzas. The more I see on the small screen that I have already seen on the big screen, the more I realize that the big screen provides little difference for me visually. But emotionally, it's a completely different story.

This past October my wife and I saw The Crowd at the AFI Silver Theatre in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, and the experience was unforgettable. The film was featured as a part of the A.F.I.'s Labor Film Fest and as an added bonus had the original organ score played live for the film by accomplished organist Ray Brubacher.

Other features included the requisite film historian giving a brief introduction and a raffle in which the audience submitted their names on cards for a bag full of goodies. And I won! So if you happened to be present for this showing of The Crowd, that dashing young man who walked up front to collect his prize was yours truly. It wasn't much of a prize (a couple of free passes, T-shirt, cup, etc) but it was still exciting to win.

Then the movie started with Brubacher providing accompaniment. I had seen The Crowd twice before, both times on television, once on PBS and once on videotape. I was excited for my wife to see it for the first time. Only later did I realize I was seeing it for the first time too. Directed by King Vidor with a fluid movement of camera and lean pacing, the movie tells the story of John and Mary Sims (James Murray and Eleanor Boardman) making their way through an indifferent urban landscape as they struggle with marriage, money and parenthood. Watching it on the big screen I was reminded why so many film historians rank James Murray's performance as one of the best of the silent era. Remarkably free of over the top pantomime, it is a subdued and nuanced performance, one that draws the audience into the character and attaches them to him emotionally. Eleanor Boardman is also superb as Mary Sims, playing off Murray brilliantly as he slides deeper and deeper into emotional despair.

The film became famous for the fight over its ending by Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg. Mayer wanted to tack on a happy ending, where John and Mary win the lottery or John gets a high paying job dropped into his lap. What Mayer didn't realize, and it makes me wonder what if any understanding of story he had, is that The Crowd does have a happy ending, only it's real, not phony. At the end, as John and Mary laugh at the comedy they're watching in the theatre, they are still destitute, still jobless, still struggling. John is but 24 hours removed from a suicide attempt and Mary just hours removed from wanting to leave him. But they're happy, right now, in this moment. It took years but they finally realize that whatever is going to happen to them they can only survive it together. And that's a great ending, one that doesn't declare their troubles are over or their money problems solved, but states definitively that they've grown, together. That's a happy ending in my book. Vidor got it. Thalberg got it. Mayer? It flew right over his head. How could they be happy if they weren't rich? I'm glad I never knew Mayer.

That's the movie. Now for the experience. The audience present, the crowd, was there because of a love of classic film, a love of silent film. We all laughed together in the same places, gasped together, shared the same sense of excitement, the same sense of awe. When it was over we all applauded, ostensibly for Ray Brubacher and his excellent accompaniment, but I knew we were applauding the film as well, perhaps sharing a spiritual hope that somewhere, somehow, James Murray and Eleanor Boardman, King Vidor and Irving Thalberg could hear us and feel how much we loved their work. It was a wonderful experience, one I will never forget. And it taught me once again that seeing a film on the big screen as opposed to the television screen can make all the difference in the world. I'd recommend The Crowd to anyone interested in great cinema but feel like seeing it at home would be seeing a different movie than the one I saw at the A.F.I. This may be illogical and irrational, it may be challenged in this era of 70 inch screen televisions and blu-ray DVD players, but I have to say it anyway:

If you haven't seen The Crowd on the big screen, you haven't seen it.