I had two moments of rapture at the movies recently. Perhaps they’re just signs that the 2013 blockbuster season is already upon us, creeping up earlier as it does with each passing year. Or maybe they’re souvenirs of what going to the movies once meant, what it still occasionally means, and what it may soon cease to mean.
Rapture #1: A young man drops in on his neighbor’s party in the suburbs. The young man lives in a cottage, the neighbor lives in a mansion and the journey from one to the other is like crossing the threshold of Dorothy’s house after it lands in Oz. The party is beyond enormous — it seems to expand in successive horizons of Jazz Age hedonism, every inch of the screen filled with politicians and prostitutes, flappers and frauds. Cars pile up in the driveway and confetti fills the air like 3-D static; the soundtrack riots to a hip-hop score built to scandalize. It’s Hieronymus Bosch in West Egg, the camera pulling back along Art Deco lines of vanishing perspective until fireworks explode and the foreground is filled with the man responsible for it all: a confident, unknowable figure born James Gatz.
Rapture #2: Two figures in blue robes race down a path on a red alien planet, chased by yellow primitives who seem to have escaped from a Day of the Dead parade. Hoods fall away and we see the familiar faces of the young James Kirk and Bones McCoy, desperate to get back to the mothership without revealing their presence to the natives. (Oops, too late, the spears and arrows are whanging by their ears and ours.) Where is the Enterprise, anyway? Our heroes dash down a shrubby path, the camera pulls up and we see them race straight off a cliff into the air above the ocean, their legs pumping in Wile E. Coyote disbelief. The yellow aliens pull up to the precipice in time to see the waters roil and the Enterprise, unimaginably immense, emerge from the waves like a primeval god. They kneel before this thing too big to conceive, and we join them in awe.
Yes, these are scenes from two much-hyped blockbusters, “The Great Gatsby” and “Star Trek Into Darkness,” respectively. If you’re not compelled to see the films in theaters, you can always catch up to them in due time, through your cable company’s On Demand menu, through Netflix, on your laptop, even on your cellphone. But that would destroy two elements that make these sequences so exhilarating: that they seem to extend beyond our field of vision and that we experience them as an audience, sitting in one location at one time.
Movie critics often champion smaller and subtler films, if only because those are the ones that need extra attention in a braying commercial marketplace. Allow me, for a moment, to sing the praises of bigness done right — of glorious cinematic overkill that plays to a massed crowd rather than a fragmented field of viewers at home alone. At issue is an experience in danger of falling by the cultural wayside: our communal sense of wonder.
Aside from a handful of box office hits per year, the old-fashioned theatrical film is under assault. Ticket prices are rising while sales remain stagnant. Large-screen TVs and improved sound systems have made the home viewing experience often preferable to the multiplex, with its chattery crowds and dodgy projection issues. The window between theatrical exhibition and the home-video aftermarkets is narrowing: It’s possible to order up many non-studio movies on demand before they open in your local moviehouse. Twitter and Facebook allow younger audiences to quickly spread the word about what movies their peers should wait to see at home, legally or not.
Actually, you could argue that the audience experience has been on the ropes since soon after World War II, when TV sets flooded into American homes and movie attendance dropped from 1948’s $90 million in annual ticket sales to $51 million a mere four years later. Before the arrival of television, the movies were our sole source of audio-visual wonder on a mass scale — a way for audiences to access characters, stories, and emotions that felt bigger than life and that stressed the experience of community on both the level of the neighborhood theater and the larger pop culture itself. We all once watched “Gone With the Wind” at the same time — or we seemed to — and the watching and wondering connected us the way that oral histories once bound tribes and peoples.
With TV, the mass audience went home and stayed indoors, clustered around the small screen in clans. The movies responded by faking bigness through wider screens, more dazzling colors, stereophonic sound, and primitive 3-D, and there were still enough cinematic circuses to draw us back to theaters. One of the last great studio dinosaurs, 1963’s “Cleopatra,” is getting a 50th anniversary theatrical re-release this month (it’s at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts on May 22), and, if you’re interested, I advise you to see it on the biggest screen possible. Otherwise, the movie doesn’t even make sense.
Technology is unstoppable, though, and it moves in the direction of individual ease of use, the when and where of the viewing experience increasingly controlled by the individual. The rise of pay cable and home video in the 1980s broadened our ability to tap into movies at home and at our convenience, and the digital watershed of the past two decades has led to instant streaming of recorded narratives to whatever viewing platform we choose, whether they’re as big as our 72-inch TV screens or as tiny as our iPhones.
As a consequence, the mass audience as it used to exist — physically concentrated in many theaters playing the same movie at more or less the same time — has now all but vanished in a diaspora of pixels. A studio blockbuster like “Iron Man 3” still gets a wide release in hopes of striking the motherlode, but after that it becomes oddly un-located. I can watch a major motion picture on my laptop, pausing to check e-mail or fix a snack, going online to compare my experience with that of others. For my teenagers, this is business as usual, the digital slipstream through which their generation watches, discusses, partakes.
There are certainly upsides to the unyoking of cinema from its traditional access points, just as there are downsides to the commercial studios’ response. Desperate to put rear ends back in theater seats, producers and exhibitors are relying once again on phony bigness: “Improved” 3-D, computer-generated mayhem, higher frame rates, a reliance on pre-sold franchises and properties. If you want well-crafted drama about actual characters, you’re probably better off watching a TV series like “Mad Men” — by now everyone knows they do the job better than the movies do.
Yet every so often, the pieces click together, and the movies deliver on their century-old promise of the greatest show on earth, where much of the impact — the straight-up pop joy — comes from experiencing it together. Do you remember where you were when the Millennium Falcon leapt into hyperspace in “Star Wars”? When John Hurt had really bad indigestion in “Alien”? When the ship went down in “Titanic,” or the shower curtain parted in “Psycho,” or Charlton Heston stumbled down the beach at the end of “Planet of the Apes”? I’d ask you to make your own list, but I don’t have to. You’re already carrying it around in your head, aren’t you?
These are not moments of great art but of sensation inextricably tethered to storytelling, which the movies have the potential to do better than almost any other mass medium. That they can also do it worse is evidenced by every “big” Hollywood movie with nothing inside it but computer-generated hollowness: the spawn of “Twilight” and “Transformers” and all the rest. But when the craft is there, and the tug of genuine narrative, you may respond to those scenes in “Gatsby” and the new “Star Trek” as I did, with the thankfulness of a man finding water in the desert. It’s beside the point whether the two are “great films” — “Star Trek Into Darkness” is a prodigiously enjoyable summer ride while “The Great Gatsby” is ambitious but grievously flawed. What matters is the skin-prickling sensation of a vision so big it seems to extend into infinity, and the way that experience welds each person watching it into a community far bigger than its individuals.
The movies used to achieve that sensation as a matter of course. Maybe you should go before it’s gone entirely.