What's so Wrong with the Television Effect on Film?

The first problem is the most basic of all. Television is a writer's medium. The relative size of the television screen combined with the average production time meant that the industry learned very quickly that speed was of the essence. And this speedy, somewhat shoddy production mentality was combined with the force of advertising in a profound and ultimately destructive synergy. It is not surprising in this context that the writer, who was the closest thing to a marketing person in the creative process, and also the source of the inchoate concept plots, proved to be the invaluable tool in the television machine. As a result, then, television and TV plot is precisely that—plot-centered in its narrative design.

This notion of plot foregrounding means that the creative decisions revolve by and large around writers' devices (story, et al), as opposed to those fostered by investing energy in visually creative modes of expression. The real issue for immediate purposes is that this infiltration of plot-centeredness into the filmic equation fosters a reduction in those elements that make film special as both a visual and also an aural art form.

Contrast this with film, which is concededly (though not universally) a director's medium. This is not to say that story is insignificant; it is merely to make the point that, in the truly successful film, this story necessarily takes a back seat to how it is told. When the great international filmmaker Jean Renoir said in his memoirs "Show me a man looking at a woman, and a woman looking back at the man, and I'll show you the world," he was not speaking in narrow terms. Like Josef von Sternberg's great pronouncement that the perfect concept for a film story was a simple anecdote, Renoir's statement is an assertion of the ability of the great film artist to take the simplest of tales and through visual artistry render a poetic or prosaic meditation on humanity.

Even if these statements were true, doesn't the advent of the "home theater" systems, which replicate the theatrical experience, renders these distinctions largely moot? Not true. Speaking just on the physical, even large televisions are nowhere near the scale, nor can they convey the same sense of motion or wonder as the theater experience. Perhaps former-film-critic/historian-now-professional-crank David Thomson put it best when he said that camera motion projected on the motion picture screen is like watching a great whale pass overhead from the ocean floor, whereas watching the same scene on your television is like watching a fish swim around in a fishbowl.

Similar limitations attend the suggestion that your home theater surround sound is "just like a movie theater." Hardly. While the vast strides in sound technology on the home front are surely commendable, and do indeed allow for a fuller, multi-layered soundscape in the home (as opposed to the old monaural TV sound of the past), it is not likely that even the more sophisticated system comes close to approximating the sense of auditory engulfment (to borrow a term from Thomas Elseasser) possible in a movie theater.

And this does not even consider the fact that the experience of watching film with an audience in a theater is communal, whereas watching television at home is a largely solitary activity. Additionally, the visual experience of the "big dark" of the movie theater is hardly approximated in a living room, even if the lights are dimmed while watching the set.