Movies Are Better Together

You probably have a nice big TV at home. Cable or satellite; a Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon account; or maybe even a local video store. You can download a TCM app and watch The Maltese Falcon on your phone. Your living room seating is cushy, and you can eat or drink while you watch. Why leave such comforts to see a movie in our theater?
Still from Torrent (1926), starring Greta Garbo, in her first American film, and Ricardo Cortez

Movies were made to be watched with an audience. No matter how many times I’ve seen a film, even just before writing notes for my weekly talk, watching with others is always a special experience. Intense focus (without the interruptions of phone, fridge, or bathroom) and sharing an interlude with other filmgoers creates a communal atmosphere that enhances cinema in a particular way–in fact, the way the films were meant to be seen. I always look forward to movie Fridays with the NCMA crowd.

Comedies are funnier if other people are laughing. Years ago, one patron brought his very small daughter, perhaps 3 or 4, to see a Laurel and Hardy comedy. She laughed so hard that he clapped his hand over her mouth, embarrassed. But, her unfettered hilarity brought joy to the entire room. Recently, we screened Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. I’ve always found it rather a depressing film, but with an audience laughing uproariously at all the jokes, this shared experience balanced out the movie’s mix of sweet and sour for me. It was a revelation.

There is nothing like hearing the crowd react to an unexpected plot turn. The audience often allows me to see things I had never seen before. In Peyton Place, when widowed Lana Turner is ready for love, she puts on a startling Technicolor slash of a red dress. The audience gasped out loud when they saw her, understanding the visual code of the film.

Our 2015 winter series focuses on the interplay between costume and character. Costumes may be scrupulously historically correct, as in Frenchman’s Creek, or completely outlandish, as in the 1934 Cleopatra. They can be the height of chic, as in Now, Voyager, or extravagant fantasy, as in A Thousand and One Nights. I feel confident in saying there will be audible reaction to many of the spectacular ensembles on view this season.

Torrent (1926)

The annual silent film, accompanied by David Drazin, is always special for me (and not just because he’s my brother). Silent films bring a very particular attention to the screen. Without speech, viewers have to concentrate to bring their own emotions to the story, providing unspoken dialogue and personally interpreting actions. It is almost as if the collaboration of audience, musician, and celluloid creates a piece of performance art. In this Friday’s silent, Torrent, Greta Garbo plays an opera diva, so David will improvise music for a singer you cannot hear, as well as accompany tender romantic scenes and a raging flood.

Watching at home, whether on a 60-inch flat screen or your iPhone, makes you a passive consumer of films. Attending a film at the NCMA is, I hope, participating in a welcome community of film lovers whose company makes each screening a memorable occasion.

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