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  • Writer's pictureRob Freese

Relearning How to Watch Movies

I recently binge-watched Blockbuster on Netflix. It's a bittersweet look at how changing times dictate how media is viewed. I'm not here to talk about the show but I enjoyed it for what it was. It did get me thinking about things.

I'm an old guy. I love movies. I love collecting movies on whatever format and watching them repeatedly. I love discovering some old movie I missed the first time around.

But I still love going to the theater. I used to enjoy standing in line in front of the box office to buy a ticket (provided I wasn't running late) and anticipating what confections would accompany from the snack bar to the theater. I loved finding my seat and just feeling like I was part of something bigger than myself. Theaters have always been like "dream-domes" to me, where anything can happen.

I find, however, that as I get older, I don't get to the theater as much as I used to, and that depresses me. Honestly, it depresses the hell out of me.

There are a number of factors, the least of which is the fact that very few films I want to see are released to theaters. But in the last month, with so many retro screenings of classic movies (Dawn of the Dead 3-D, Trick r' Treat, Poltergeist) and new slasher movies (Terrifier 2 and Halloween Ends), I've wanted to get back to the theater more than ever.

But, you know, streaming. It's so easy.

Let's go back. Way before I was ever a thing, people went to the movies. TV came along and people started staying at home to watch it. When we had no control over what was shown on it, it was sometimes referred to as the old "Stupid Box." (To call your TV a "Stupid Box" after the introduction of VCRs up to now, in the world of streaming, is more a reflection of what you choose to watch over anything the three major networks used to show you.)

When Pay TV came along (the precursor to cable), theaters were scared. Here was another option for viewers. Hardtops and drive-ins rallied against Pay TV. Movies were to be shown in theaters, not on small screen TVs. The landscape for viewing cinema changed.

3-D was introduced and people, for a while, adjusted to wearing paper glasses to watch their movies. The trend popped up again over the decades from time to time, with the same gripe from viewers every time, "I don't like wearing the glasses." (As someone who has worn glasses since the fourth grade, and does not have a problem wearing two pairs of glasses to enjoy the fabulousness that is 3D, I invite those people to go reproduce themselves.)

With the introduction of each new technology and format in which we could consume media, we learned a new way in which to view it. No longer did we have to go to the theater. We could watch what was on TV. (And this was when everything was new. Reruns had yet to be invented!) Watching an old movie on TV was a new way to watch movies. We adjusted well.

Then, as I mentioned, videocassettes made it easy to consume movies that you would have never had a chance of ever seeing in your lifetime. I mean, I worked in a video rental store in the late 80s and early 90s, and I imagine I saw 25% of all the movies I have watched in my lifetime during that time. It was a game-changer. I watched everything. And hey, it was nothing to work an eight or ten hour shift, get off at 9:15, and make it to the 9:45 show of some crazy flick like The Terror Within or Gnaw: Food of the Gods II. These were salad days of just watching movies. Sure, I was working a dead-end job, but I made enough to afford an apartment and I paid my bills. I never thought it would end.

After VHS came DVD, and what we learned was that it was just as cheap to buy a movie on disc than it was to rent it. Plus, there was more than just the movie. There were commentaries and interviews and scripts and videos and still galleries and everything else you could want. It was like buying the movie and an encyclopedia telling you everything you could possibly want to know about the flick. (I believe this is where "movie hoarding" became a thing.)

Now streaming. You can stream movies, and not just old movies or hard to find movies, but new movies. Like, something just came out in the theater! You can dial it up on the TV and watch it in the comfort of your own house as easy as that. This blows my mind. I don't particularly like it, but I certainly do it. I watched both Halloween Ends and Terrifier 2 via streaming in October, but, I don't know, it just seems like I missed something. It doesn't seem right.

I'm probably part of the problem I don't like more than I want to admit. I don't understand watching movies on your phone, but I've done it. I'm not proud to confess it. Years ago I had a day job I hated with my whole heart and when we got phones that were connected to the Internet, it was nothing for me to find a place to hide and just watch a movie for ninety minutes. It kept me sane-ish during a weird time in my life. (But regularly, I do not watch movies on my phone and I cringe when I see a commercial for a new cell phone that promotes all the media and movies you can stream on it.)

I hate running to the bathroom at the theater because I will miss a few minutes of the flick, but I hate just as much the ability to pause a movie at home, and then get distracted, and then don't come back to it for fifteen minutes or longer. Sometimes, streaming a movie, I can take up to two hours to watch an 80 minute movie with all the distractions and pauses.

Is this really "watching" a movie.

Hey, I lived through the pandemic too. Streaming was a godsend for many people. Me, I went to the drive-in more times in 2020 than in the last 30 years of my life. (And many visits were for retro double features like Christine and Fright Night, movies that would never have played on the giant outdoor screens around me under any other circumstances.)

I miss seeing movies in movie theaters. I miss getting ready for a night out and then standing in line to buy an actual real paper ticket- when they shot out of the slit on the counter, that was the best! I miss going with friends and the excitement for whatever movie were were about to see. I miss the overly enthusiastic snack bar girl and the weird ticket taker, and I miss not having to pick my seat before I go into the theater. I miss when the 35mm print would get stuck and melt on the lens and it would take a few minutes to fix. (I have no patience for downloaded movies that freeze up and pixilate in the theater now.) I miss the smells of the theater (but not the ones that smelled like urine) and even sort of the way your sneakers would stick to the floor. I miss seeing a really great movie and talking about it afterwards or seeing a really horrible movie and talking about it afterwards. I miss going to a movie that is not a giant blockbuster tent pole bullshit studio movie that will make half a billion dollars in one weekend. (I miss the small little independent surprises that regularly found their way into theaters.) I actually miss waiting six to eight months for a title to be released on videocassette, and then spending weeks trying to rent the one copy my local mom 'n pop video shop offered. It was like hunting big game and snagging a prize, for people who love movies.

Once again, I'm learning how to watch movies. Just sit on the couch like a lump and let the algorithms decide what I like. It's way easier than getting up and finding a disc, right? (Maybe our Smart TVs have more in common with the old "Stupid Box" than I realized.)

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