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Monday, May 20, 2013

The mixed blessing of watching movies online

Posted By on 05.20.13 at 02:36 PM

Jason DaSilva in his video-shot documentary When I Walk
  • Jason DaSilva in his video-shot documentary When I Walk
It's increasingly common for distributors to make movies previewable on password-protected webpages, and for exhibitors to send critics passwords rather than discs, as they've done in the past. Truth be told, this is how I watched several movies I reviewed in the last month. There are obvious practical benefits to this arrangement: distributors save money on DVDs, and exhibitors don't have to worry about discs getting lost in the mail. From the reviewer's standpoint, though, there are deleterious effects on the movie-watching process. The most obvious is that the movie must be viewed on a screen that's, in most instances, smaller than a television. On top of this, a computer is also an avenue for competing sources of information like e-mail and news updates. I imagine this worries filmmakers even more than critics. How stressful it must be, knowing that the first people to evaluate your art must contend with so many distractions when they do it.

Critics tend not to divulge in their reviews how they watched the movie in question, whether it was in a theater, on their television, or (surely this must occur, though I'd prefer not to think about it) in the bathroom. I suspect this a sign of professional etiquette. It's seldom the filmmakers' fault if someone watches their work in compromised conditions. And so critics assume the polite thing to do is to write as if they saw it under the best possible circumstances—or to act as if circumstances don't affect their response at all. Reflecting on my own experience, though, I can list numerous films and filmmakers that have affected me more profoundly in a theater than they have anywhere else. For instance, I've adored every film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul that I've seen in a theater, but his work leaves me cold whenever I've tried to watch it at home. His meticulous cinematic environments just don't register with me when something's around that might break their spell.

Yet when I watch a Weerasethakul short—or any truly cinematic work—on my laptop, some instinct tells me I'm watching the facsimile of a theatrical experience. It's comparable to viewing reprints of paintings in books. Though I'd prefer not to, I'd feel relatively confident if I was asked to write about it professionally—I'd start by imagining, as best as I could, how it might look on a big screen. Where I run into trouble is when I watch something on Vimeo and find myself struggling to envision it in any other context. As a result of advances in consumer-grade video, amateur recordings now come closer than ever to resembling legitimate movies—which means that lesser films now look more than ever like amateur recordings. Compared to celluloid, digital images can seem ineffably thin; their proliferation online can make them seem disposable as well. Certain recent movies have acknowledged these qualities to provocative effect, Jean-Luc Godard's Film Socialisme and Neveldine and Taylor's Crank: High Voltage providing two radically different examples. But too often digital filmmakers behave as though these issues simply don't exist or else (whether consciously or not) they adopt a paradigm that feels closer in spirit to web videos than theatrical releases.

Jason Statham in Crank: High Voltage
  • Jason Statham in Crank: High Voltage

For this week's issue I reviewed a movie called When I Walk, an intimate, video-shot documentary that I compared to a personal blog. I didn't write that to be disparaging: the straightforward, casual nature of the imagery just made me think of the instant—and often ineloquent—communication I'm used to seeing online. The movie offers a valuable experience in normalizing director Jason DaSilva's experience of living with advanced multiple sclerosis—by the end of the movie, you regard DaSilva as a normal guy, not a medical patient. (If you want to see if for yourself, it screens again tonight at the Gene Siskel Film Center.) Yet the normality of the images (many of which depict DaSilva in his apartment) proves a mixed blessing, diminishing one's sense of wonder along with one's fear of the unknown. For the record, I previewed this movie from a DVD; but when I watched it, I found myself thinking about how it would look on Vimeo more often than I thought of how it would translate to a big screen.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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