Movie magic

Theaters: Despite the advent of TV and other competing technologies, Americans have continued their love affair with the cinema.

February 27, 2005|By Michael Hill | By Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Why is it that we still go to the movies? Why do we bother now that we can sit at home in front of a huge television screen with booming sound coming out of speakers all around the room?

The movie industry has been mugged and left for dead more times than can be counted. But each time, it has gotten up, dusted itself off and America has responded by once again buying tickets and waiting for the lights to dim and the screen to come alive.

"Hollywood has constantly been pronounced a corpse, yet it never dies," says Jeanine Basinger, professor of film studies at Wesleyan University.

"It survived the collapse of silent films and the arrival of sound. It survived the Depression, in fact it was booming. It got through World War II, survived the collapse of its own studio system, fought off television, met the challenge of the foreign film. It survived videocassettes, now DVDs and streaming on the Internet," she says. "It's never going to die."

Peter Lev, a historian of film at Towson University, agrees. "I think something called film will probably be around in 100 years, even if the technology has nothing to do with celluloid."

When the Academy Awards are telecast tonight, certainly the audience will be smaller than it once was - just as movie attendance has declined since its glory days. But the awards' place in America's cultural and fantasy world remains secure. Television shows might attract much bigger audiences than movies, but few are as interested in seeing their stars get their statuettes. The Oscars clearly remain the king of the awards shows.

This is emblematic of movies' retention of the top spot in the pantheon of America's imagination.

"It is still the best medium for communicating a realistic image of the world," says Saverio Giovacchini, a film historian at the University of Maryland. "Television has made leaps, but cinema is still the best at mimesis, at re-creating a world, at giving a skin to our thoughts and dreams." That is particularly true in America.

"Movies really are an American invention," Basinger says. "Yes, other people can claim to have invented the technology, but no one has embraced the idea of moving image escapism quite the way America has."

In times of record trade deficits, movies remain one of America's major exports, bringing billions of foreign capital into this country in return for images made in Hollywood.

"It is not just film that is being sent abroad, it is American ideals as well," says Sheri Parks, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. "The American genius is to create a popular culture that translates into other cultures."

And within America, the movie theater remains an almost mythic cultural space, a place of magic and ritual and rites of passage.

Gilberto Perez, a film historian at Sarah Lawrence College, says that some have said that the big screen has a hypnotic effect.

"In the darkened theater, the big picture takes over and draws you into the experience, that's one theory," he says. "The way it draws you into the world that is represented on screen, the way it takes over, of course that is not going to happen at home watching on a much smaller screen TV when you can get up and get a cup of coffee."

It is also important that in a movie theater, you are sharing the experience with others, both friends and strangers, who have chosen to come together to form an ad hoc tribe.

"There is also the public and communal aspect of it," Parks says. "Things are more emotional, more fun, more exciting when experienced with other people."

The movie theater remains a public space at a time when more and more Americans retreat into their homes and cars and eschew many of the communal activities taken for granted by previous generations.

Such spaces are particularly essential for adolescents as they first venture out into the wider world, seeking their community, their friends, their mates. Going to the movies remains the quintessential first date, at once intimate and public.

Imagine the difference in asking that date to come over to your house and watch a DVD. "It would be the modern equivalent of 'Come up and see my etchings,' " Basinger says.

Though it seems hard to imagine now, there were many who thought the movies would not survive the advent of sound that augmented silent images with scratchy voices. The technology impeded filmmakers by forcing actors to remain close to a hidden microphone.

Of course, the opposite happened. Movie attendance almost doubled. By the late 1930s, well over half the country was seeing a movie every week. Radio was popular, but it could not compete.

Attendance began dropping after World War II - all those baby boomers were babies and kept their parents home - but it was the rapid spread of TV sets a decade later that really threatened the movies.

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