It’s one of the most memorable lines in movie history. “I am big,” Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond declares in “Sunset Blvd.” (1950). “It’s the pictures that got small.” Who knew that Norma wasn’t just a washed-up star of silent movies but also an epidemiologist who worked at Best Buy? For nearly six months, the pictures actually have been small, with COVID-19 shutting down theaters. Now that’s begun to change.
Theaters have reopened in most states. A few theaters in Massachusetts reopened as long ago as late July. Actual, major-studio new releases are screening. Last weekend “Tenet” brought in $20.2 million in its US opening. That’s pin money by blockbuster standards. But we’re talking pandemic standards. Overseas, ticket sales have been even better. So far, after opening two weekends ago, “Tenet” has earned $129 million.
Even moviegoers unwilling to resume going to the movies, because of health concerns, understand the allure of entering a large darkened room to sit with strangers and watch images being projected on a large white rectangle in front of them. There is no better place to appreciate what Jean-Paul Sartre called “the frenzies of a wall.”
Still, what about the frenzies of a TV or laptop? The natural tendency is to focus on what the big screen has to offer: scale, sweep, immersion. Perhaps only opera, and maybe only Wagnerian opera, at that, can match the movies’ capacity to overwhelm an audience — and what’s more thrilling, artistically, than being overwhelmed? But now that Netflix and its streaming kin are no longer sole recourse for movie watching, it’s a good time to consider what smaller screens have to offer. “Smaller” is, of course, a relative term in this age of home-entertainment centers. But even the biggest-screen TV can’t really compete with a movie theater.
How different is the moviegoing experience from the movie-watching experience? Both involve the same optical activity. “To watch a two-hour movie is simply to look at 172,800 photographic afterimages,” the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto has pointed out. He once did a photographic series where he left his camera’s shutter open over the course of a movie, producing photographs that rendered the screens a ghostly glowing white. Those afterimages reach viewers’ retinas regardless of whether they’re sitting in a theater (Sugimoto took his photographs in old-style movie palaces) or a living room.
Yet where those images are seen, and the circumstances of that where, matter almost as much as what’s being seen. Walker Percy’s best-known novel is called “The Moviegoer.” What if he’d called it “The Movie Watcher”? At least part of the appeal of moviegoing has to do with that third syllable, “go.” It’s not just the size of the screen that makes a movie an event, which in its small way it is, but the fact of having to leave the house and see it at a particular place. In that respect, a movie is more like a play — they’re both seen in theaters — than it’s like anything watched on television. Television isn’t a set of discrete events; it’s an environment, a continuum.
A movie theater is an environment, too, though of a very different sort. This is where the appeal of smaller screens begins to announce itself. The big screen may be majestic, but the rest of the package rarely is: sticky floors, poor focus, variable volume (as likely to be too loud as not loud enough), the person sitting in front of you who’s too tall, the person sitting next to you who’s too wide — and, of course, that pricey ticket (the cost of a month of Netflix) and the even pricier popcorn and other concessions.
Avoiding such annoyances is part of the appeal of the small screen — of moviestaying, the opposite of moviegoing. There are the obvious domestic comforts, too: familiar surroundings, a well-stocked fridge, a handy bathroom. Instead of strangers, you can watch with just family or friends — assuming you’re not watching alone, which is also easier to do than at a theater.
Such practical considerations are fairly mundane. They’re more about convenience, really, than watching, per se. Yet there are aesthetic considerations, too, and they relate to two key aspects of watching on a small screen.
The first is straightforward: control. You work the remote. You can pause (speaking of handy bathrooms), rewind, fast forward. So much of the thrill of the big screen is the imperial disregard it has for those of us sitting in the auditorium. We stay. We leave. We come back. Doesn’t matter to the movie: It just goes on without us. We aren’t in charge with a big screen, in a theater, as we are with a small one, at home.
The second consideration has to do with something very different: intimacy. The big screen puts us in our place. It is god and altar both, with us as worshipers. (There’s a transcendent moment in Terence Davies’s 1992 film, “The Long Day Closes,” that gets at this association: A dissolve takes a boy from sitting in church to him sitting in a movie theater.) Darkness may give the illusion of intimacy. Really, though, there’s nothing intimate about looking up at the big screen. This isn’t the case with looking at a movie on a laptop or while sitting close up to a screen at home. It’s a different relationship, with something like equality between watcher and watched. In some ways it’s less rich, less intense, diminished — but in others it’s not. Much as many of us have missed going to the movies these many months, maybe we’ll find there’s something absent once we’re back. It isn’t just scale, sweep, and immersion that can overwhelm. Intimacy can, too.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.