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The Singular Magic of Watching Movies on the Big Screen

For most of the 20th century, the paradigm looked like this: The television set was a piece of furniture — a box that sat in your living room, big and a little ugly, and cozy, too. It was the electric hearth everyone gathered around, and the shows you watched on it were comfort food. The movie theater, by contrast, was a palace, a church, a house of worship. The audience, united in holy silence, looked up at the screen to gaze at stars who were like oversized gods. The movies could be comfort food, too, but at their best they were greater than that. They took the rows of worshipers and swept them up into a dream of what life was, and what it could be.

So what happens when the small screen and the big screen trade places? By almost any standard of buzz, prestige, and the collective immersion of the audience, television now rules the culture as it never did before. It’s not just that people talk about TV more than they do movies; it’s that they respect it more. In fact, TV is now so powerful that it seems to have sucked the medium of cinema right inside of it.

Video-on-demand is a simple concept (even as it applies to a sprawling network of services, from cable VOD to Netflix to Hulu to iTunes to DirectTV Now), yet it describes a revolutionary form that has recalibrated how we watch, organize, and experience entertainment. If you’re old enough to remember going to a video store (the original video-on-demand), you know the kid-in-a-candy-store feeling it could give you. VOD is the candy store moved right into your living room: a never-ending feast of viewing pleasure at your fingertips. For the true entertainment junkie, is there a reason anymore to leave home?

As the options for home viewing have exploded, and binge-watching has become the entertainment-consumption model of our time, a negative karma has crept into the moviegoing experience. We’ve all heard (or made) the litany of complaints: Going out to a megaplex today is a noisy, draining, soulless experience; you have to sit through 28 trailers (and, what’s worse, commercials); there are people who won’t turn off their cell phones; and even though most people do, the nonstop, wired metaphysic of digital-communications culture creates an environment where people are constantly talking, shifting, competing with the diversion on screen. The holy silence — the reverence — is gone.

The disillusion with the megaplex experience has become an American meme, one that raises an obvious question: In the age of VOD, why should anyone go out to the movies? It’s a question that has produced an equally obvious answer: You go out to the movies to see a major-spectacle entertainment like “The Force Awakens” or “Furious 7” or “Finding Dory” or the latest “Captain America” sequel — the sort of thing that lives (and belongs) on a big screen.

Sure, you could wait a couple of months and catch it on VOD. But you’d be missing something. As long as there is action and fantasy and spectacle, there will be movies!

Yet I think that argument misses the true essence of why the movie theater should — and, I believe, will — continue to be a transcendent aspect of our culture. If you had to name the quintessential movie experience of the 20th century, it might well be the interface of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca” — tender, passionate, melancholy, transporting. In other words: two people talking. And that was the glory of what audiences sought in that holy silence. Not visual spectacle. People went out to a movie to connect, in an emotionally boundless way, to the people on screen.

In 2017, films like “Moonlight” and “La La Land” are proof that this sort of magic can still happen. But let’s be clear about what the magic is: It’s when the most intimate of encounters — two men murmuring in a diner; a woman and a man staring across the years in a nightclub — comes to seem impossibly vast. When it becomes larger than life. When it takes place on a screen that is big enough to hold our dreams.

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