Precious Cargo

Refreshingly Bitter And Twisted Observations On Life's Passing Parade.

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Location: Valley Village, California, United States

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The End of Movie Theaters

With the Iraq situation in violent stagnation, Michael Jackson and Teri Schiavo behind us and no news on Natalee Holloway, there was a void today that was filled by two related stories that even made the evening tv news.

Movie attendance is down for the 17th straight week, the worst attendance in 20 years. And 75% of Americans would rather watch films at home.

I heard some discussion of these stories on talk radio. One the reasons given for declining attendance was the lousiness of the films. But if that were the case, then people wouldn't watch them at home, either. The movies released so far this summer may be below the already poor average, but not by much.

There's an intersection of trends that have now coalesced, and like a star that achieves enough mass, has now ignited. Films have been available on video for over twenty years. Cable tv and satellite dishes have penetrated millions of homes. That in turn has fueled ever cheaper, better big screen tvs and surround sound equipment. Today, even the guy who drives a garbage truck has within his reach a first rate audio video set up that exceeds almost any movie theater in picture and sound quality.

Into that environment came the DVD about eight years ago. Now you can buy a DVD player for $60 and DVDs cost less to buy than going to a movie. Throw into the mix the misbehavior of theatergoers and the piss poor picture and sound at most multiplexes and it's no wonder people would rather stay at home.

With movies soon to be released straight to DVD, what remains to be seen is whether studios will continue to make juvenile, lowest common denominator blockbusters aimed at the same demographic they shot for in theaters, or whether there'll be a splintering of potential audiences into all sorts of niche viewerships, with studios making many cheaper movies for many different markets. Probably the former will prevail, at least for a while, because blockbusters make a good deal of their profits among foreign audiences, where the installed base of home theater technology is still more limited.

Will movie theaters disappear? For the most part, I think they will. We might see a resurgence of a few single screen theaters which will be refitted to have huge screens where only super spectacular films will be shown with ticket prices closer to those of a Broadway play or sporting event than today's multiplex prices. Home theaters are still essentially tvs, and in the 50s, spectacles filmed in wide screen formats and early surround sound processes were seen as a means of salvation by the studios. These films were something that you couldn't see or hear at home. A modest home theater system certainly beats most multiplex presentations, but can't equal a movie palace with a truly first rate huge screen and roaringly powerful sound system showing a clean 35mm anamorphic or 70mm print. I remember back in the mid 70s, the now defunct Filmex film festival had a science fiction series at what I think was then the Plitt Century Plaza theaters in Century City. I still remember being awed by seeing Forbidden Planet, beautifully projected and sounding great on the Plitt's huge screen. When the C57D lands for the first time, some audience members gasped in astonishment at the combined power of the images and the Barrons' electronic music.

That can be achieved today on only a handful of very expensive home theaters. In fact, now that I think about it, such movie theaters exist. They're the IMAX theaters. We may also see some major studio 3D films. 3D doesn't work very well on video.

A Brief Review of Primer

I should have known better when a blog recommended Primer for enthusiasts of Memento and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind because I disliked those films. I went to and read some of the professional film critic's reviews and then to and sampled the customer reviews. What struck me when reading both the pro and amateur reviews was the polarization of opinions on the film. Some said it was a brilliant intellectual puzzle, others said it was inscrutable. That was my impetus to rent the DVD. Primer's actor-producer-writer-director-composer Shane Carruth is certainly a one-man band. Too bad he can't play a tune. The film is totally inexplicable on a narrative level. It took quite a while until the premise was even set up-that the two lead characters had inadvertently created a device that sends things back in time. I was only able to figure this out from their scheme to manipulate stocks or mutual funds to their advantage. That's also about the last thing in the film I could understand. The two talk about the time travel process creating doubles, but this didn't seem readily apparent to me nor was it explained. The film's plot is opaque and aside from the plot Primer offers nothing else of merit. The actors are amateurs, the dialogue sounds like what might happen if William Burroughs' cut-up technique was applied to a technical manual and the film is visually uninteresting.

Every few years someone comes along with a film supposedly made on a shoestring budget and their triumph of entrepreneurship wows people. That seems to really be the story that people want to hear. The actual quality of the film itself is irrelevant. The success of Primer and the immense frustration it generated in this viewer means that I will now take these indie success stories and the accolades they win as a disrecommendation, alas.

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