By Bob Clark
Among my growing obsessions while following movies for the past several years has been observing the cinematic experience– that is, the act of actually seeing a movie in the cinema, in the theater, as opposed to merely watching it at home on a television or computer screen. Increasingly we’re seeing a whole host of generations growing used to viewing films made for the biggest of screens on the smallest of devices. The gap between a mainstream film’s theatrical lifespan and its home-video release in all manner of physical and online forms grows shorter and shorter, with some filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh even cutting out the middleman entirely and preferring to experiment with solely on-demand and streaming releases for some works. We’ve also seen the rise of television as a prestige medium for storytelling, something which is relatively new in America but established most other places. A crucial difference lies in the balance of creative power, however– whether in live-action or animation, television in Europe and Asia can very often be a director’s medium, whereas in the United States it is almost always a writer-driven affair, which can result in excellent long-form serial narrative but oftentimes lackluster visual storytelling. Add to this the by now standard habit of sending out screener discs for industry-insders to catch up with new releases at home before casting their ballots during awards season, and one may well wonder if the various recipients ought to be receiving Oscar or Emmy statuettes for their troubles.
Because of these and so many other reasons, I can’t help but worry about how films survive in the long-term as media products that will almost wholly be consumed on televisions, computers and tablets. What happens to a work made to be experienced in the dark, on the big screen, when it’s shrunk down to something small enough to fit in a living room, on a school-desk, or in your pocket? And what happens when one of those secondary mediums becomes the film’s primary form of exhibition for years, for decades to come? How many classic films have dedicated cinephiles only experienced on the small screen, taking for granted to actual cinematic experience, and ignoring (or worse yet, failing to even notice) the ways that the domesticated viewing can alter the way such a movie is processed? Usually if we think about the ways that television and other secondary forms affect cinema, it’s contained to the notions of aspect ratio– are we watching a widescreen film in a proper letterbox format, or are we making due with some form of pan-and-scan? It’s a question that has grown more and more problematic with the rise of HD television and the illusion it can foster of presenting all things widescreen without such pesky masking– all too often I find people satisfied to watch 2.35 movies cropped to 1.77 without even noticing the loss of visual information, or perhaps even worse thinking it’s good enough to meet the film halfway.
Beyond that there’s the question of how to watch full-frame films on wider screens, with far fewer viewers being bothered by the notion of cutting off the top and bottom of a picture than they were about slicing off the sides, but in either case it’s still a matter of expecting the film to conform to our comfort zone, rather than for the viewer to attempt to aspire to its best possible form. Thanks to the rise of DCP and a renewed interest in exhibiting films in pristine celluloid prints, retrospective screenings have been growing more and more common, and hopefully may prove to provide an alternative to the small-screen. Of course New York is already well ahead of the curve on something like this, and as such it’s always been a fair deal easier to experience some of the more niche titles out there at art-house theaters like the Film Forum. It’s something I’ve taken advantage of for years, but am more intent upon documenting now as a means of comparing and contrasting the ways that works created for one format change to the next, especially where it concerns films that I was introduced to and experienced for more than ten years exclusively on the small screen. There’s no better place to start than Peter Weir’s haunting 1975 feature Picnic at Hanging Rock, a film which has been a personal favorite of mine for the better part of fifteen years but one that I’d never gotten a chance to see theatrically until this past week at Lincoln Center’s recent series on Australian cinema of the 70’s. The contrast between my experiences with the film on the small and big screens couldn’t be starker or more informative, especially when taking into consideration how I first came to watch the film years ago, and what it says about the difference between the cinematic and domestic forms in general. When seeing something in a theater, you’re almost guaranteed to be seeing it from start to finish, whereas on television, you very likely may find it somewhere in the middle of its broadcast.
That’s roughly how my first experience was with the film, stumbling over it in 1998 while it played on the Independent Film Channel back when the bulk of their programming was scans ripped directly from Criterion Collection DVDs, complete with their imprint playing at the start of every broadcast as though it were a studio. I wound up seeing a great deal of movies for the first time on IFC, many of which would go on to become personal favorites, and for the most part I wound up discovering them while they were in the middle, forcing me to watch them for a while at first without really knowing what was going on and grow used to increasingly idiosyncratic cinematic stylings before I could even decide whether or not I enjoyed it enough to seek it out when it came on the air from the start once again. Usually I wouldn’t have to wait long, as IFC tended to repeat the same handful of films over and over throughout the course of a day then, allowing you to walk in on something like Gray’s Anatomy and find Spalding Gray delivering a monologue in mid stream, or Solaris around the second time Kelvin’s wife comes back to life. You might expect that this kind of viewing habit would naturally diminish the impact any given film might have, but surprisingly it could just as often help an otherwise difficult movie open up to an audience less suited for it, by letting them walk into it blind on a scene of high import and drama without having to sit through the occasional tedium of build-up and exposition. Whether through televised broadcast, or fast-forwards and scene-selection on home video, one thing that the small screen allows the viewer is a sense of editorial control, the possibility to invest any cinematic experience with a dose of in medeas res.
I can’t remember exactly where I first fell upon Picnic at Hanging Rock in its running time, but I’d say it was somewhere around the scene where the remaining students at Appleyard’s College fall upon Irma during a dance-class and demand that she tell them what happened to the other girls during their field-trip. I could only gradually glean the broad strokes of the story that had come so far– mysterious disappearances, Victorian culture-clash, and all kinds Saphic undertones. Between the bevy of comely young uniformed schoolgirls and dreamlike tone it sometimes seemed like a cross between anime and David Lynch, two things I was getting into deeper at the time. The connection with Lynch seems almost natural– one wonders if it had gone on to a third season if Twin Peaks might’ve benefitted snagging Weir to direct an episode or two, as much of the series shared his trancelike visions while following the mysterious fates of beautiful girls– but oddly it’s the stuff it shares with anime that I’d been watching in bits and pieces at the time that speaks stronger even now. Perhaps mostly it’s the connection that the film has with the beauty and danger of the natural world that speaks to this– there’s the same sound of cicadas buzzing in the air familiar to so much of anime, and a similar kind of fatalism you might’ve found in any given episode of Evangelion or Serial Experiments Lain. In particular there was the slight tinge of recognition in the mid-point subplot of the young upper-class gentleman who braves the elements to try and rescue the girls– that with the element of the supernatural at play, and it carried something of the same kind of discovery and danger that Tenchi Muyo did in its opening episodes, with only the raucous sex-comedy traded in for something smoother, and more sustained in its restraint.
Something that all the immediate associations had, no matter how superficial, is that they were works originally created for the small screen. Subconsciously I was looking at Picnic at Hanging Rock and looking it as a piece of television. When I first watched the film from start to finish I’d realize its connection to the broader filmography of Peter Weir, several of whose works I’d also watched on television (Dead Poets Society, Fearless) and a lonely one of which I’d seen on the big screen (The Truman Show– another movie with strong small-screen connotations, indeed something that might’ve benefited from being made for television instead of the big screen). The general visual conventionality of Weir’s following films helped to provide a bit of contrast for the somewhat more experimental style of Picnic, but the reductive quality of the small-screen naturally diminishes some of the more progressive ways he treats the frame, something that’s clearer now after seeing the film on the big screen. Viewing a film on television or other small screens tends to either favor close-ups or strong compositional middle and long shots, something that’s present throughout much of this film in its interior sequences. There and in some exteriors, Weir’s use of heavily arranged mirrors, magnifying glasses, picture frames and other decorative elements helps draw attention to his use of repetition and patterning within the film. Seeing these elements on the big screen offers a newfound appreciation for the careful craft and polish of the film, but they don’t necessarily enhance them as much as they expand them from the realm of pure visual information. Especially in a film as mysterious as this, there’s a tendency for the cinematic image on television to not so much express emotions or offer pure abstract aesthetic, but rather condense everything into the picture as exposition.
This can be something of a dark side of the camera stylo, a treatment of the cinematic image less as an ends of its own and rather as a means to simply tell what’s happening, to offer clues and other avenues of neat and tidy narrative storytelling. Things necessarily get lost in translation when thinking about a film purely in terms of what it all means rather than how it makes one feel, and the televised image with its diminished visual scope necessarily aids in this process of turning the richness of the big-screen picture into something you can wrap your head around. It’s still possible to be impressed by Picnic at Hanging Rock on television, and still to find it emotionally provocative by its own means and not just for the explicit who-what-when-where-why of it all, but portraying as it does a strict brand of historical fiction with a strong hand in physical, immaculately detailed realism, it’s a little harder to be affected by it on the small screen in quite the same way as something like 2001: A Space Odyssey, even when that movie is squeezed into the tightest of letterbox corsets. Weir skirts with surrealism, but he remains entrenched in the real world, which is largely what gives the mysticism of the movie its power, that palpability of the unnatural being just somewhere within reach of any ordinary hiking expedition, not out beyond the infinity of space.
And elements like those thrive on a much grander scale on the big screen, where the ancient volcanic formations of Hanging Rock can tower over the viewer just as they do the girls– indeed, even the characters themselves can dwarf the viewer, and become something mythic as they leave the physical plane and enter the limbo of missing posters. Weir’s use of low cameras at wide angle lenses can be taken for granted on the small screen, where the image doesn’t impose upon the viewer. That, along with his careful reflection and magnification heavy compositions and his use of cross-cut dissolves all can look very pretty on a television, but are removed from their natural form of large projection in the dark– seen in a brightly lit living room’s television set or on a computer screen, the image can’t fill your vision, and therefore can’t manipulate you to quite the same degree. When it does, however, it swamps you, and gives you that ideal experience of at first not quite knowing where to look on a shot, which rests long enough to give y0ur eye time to roam all over it. This lets the film play out in a far more nuanced way than I enjoyed it on television, where some of its mystery can either go unnoticed or else feel a little hollow without the context of an all-encompassing field of vision. Even character development improves, with the headmistress of the school’s arc feeling much more natural and empathetic than it did in my initial viewings, where she felt like something of a Disney villainess come to life.
There isn’t any doubt that the film dramatically improves on the big-screen, but it’s a small pleasure to behold, knowing that it isn’t exactly yet in the canon of almost permanent repertoire-material for most art-house theaters. I’m not likely to be able to enjoy seeing this or most other Weir films outside of television again, barring the p0ssibility of a career-wide retrospective for the director the next time he has a high-profile release on the horizon (whenever that is). That’s unfortunate, because it can’t take you out of your comfort zone nearly as much when there are other images around to distract you, or the image itself it too small to impose its sheer scale upon you. Even the film’s careful marriage of composition and naturalism can hurt it on the small-screen, where Weir’s visual arrangements can be condensed to the point of artificial pristine quality, turning every natural-lighting moment into a strained kind of Malick-esque magic-hour. One of the nice things about the big-screen is how it washes things out, keeps the image from getting too twee on its own. You’re impressed less by the unnatural gauze and beauty of a scene than the realness of it, and if there is beauty to behold then there’s a sense of it being earned rather than it being something of an after-effect from being crunched down. It becomes a thing of beauty all on its own, rather than one you have to strain your eyes to find, and yet it all that does is beg you do look closer.