In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, K. Austin Collins, Amy Nicholson, and Bilge Ebiri—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here.
Have you ever felt like a maniac? Because that’s how I felt just now as I Googled “How to use an Italian press”—the only kind of coffee press my grandmother owns—in order to make coffee at 9:30 p.m. to power through … watching more movies. (Just watched: Miami Vice for the umpteenth time, The Devil Is a Woman for the first time—wowza.) I’m about to ship myself back to New York, where I’ll be stuck watching films on a much humbler TV than my grandmother’s. I’m not exactly stressed out about that, however, because—confession time—I love watching films at home. I vastly prefer it. Don’t worry, I still went to see Roma in a theater. More on that in a second.
I’m a critic with access to screenings, but like everyone else, I still see films in theaters on my own dime (and for a while there, thanks to MoviePass), in part because I think seeing movies with everyone else, and not holding myself aloft from the culture of moviegoing, is part of the job. And, yeah, because I’m a geek. Like other cinephiles in cities and towns with active arthouse theaters, campus screenings, or vibrant local film festivals, I’m a fiend for a great print, particularly of a film that isn’t readily available to stream online, but even for films that are. I jumped at the chance to see a personal print of Michael Mann’s Heat in Brooklyn a couple of summers ago. Why? I own Heat on Blu-ray and iTunes and watch it all the time (twice in 2018 alone!). But I went to see it because of the people. I wanted to feed off of the energy of the other hundred-odd Mann stans who, like me, could have seen Heat anytime, anywhere, but chose to be right there, shoulder to shoulder. I wanted what defenders of the theatrical presentation keep calling “the collective experience,” which is real, and it’s chemical, and it’s very human.
A great sound system helps, too, and a craftsman like Michael Mann no doubt has this in mind. Alfonso Cuarón is another such craftsman. So why don’t I care if people saw Roma in a theater? Again, at the risk of sounding like a maniac, I’ve had to give my own ambivalence on this subject a lot of thought. An immediately obvious reason is the cynical one: Netflix barely gives its first respected Oscar ploy a proper theatrical release, and is mostly concerned with appearing serious to the right awards voters. It isn’t out of concern for the filmmakers. It isn’t out of some commitment to getting the best possible version of the film in front of the most people; if it was, we’d eventually have a chance to buy Roma on Blu-ray, which is certifiably superior to even the best streaming experience. Netflix is throwing us all a bone, unabashedly supplying targeted markets with expensively overhauled sound systems for the voters, critics, and others who “matter”—which excludes most people.
What sometimes gets under my skin regarding “You must see Roma in a theater” discourse is that it reveals a grave lack of confidence in the film’s power beyond its medium. It feels completely ahistorical—in part because it seems to treat the culture of movies like it’s strictly a culture of movie-going, great screens and sound systems and perfectly rapt attention. As if we don’t all know better! As if private home viewing, television edits with bad aspect ratios and too many commercial breaks, low-res torrents, VHSes, bootlegs, loud coughers, crying babies, candy unwrappers, and boredom aren’t all equally fundamental to the history of how we’ve all, always, been watching movies.
I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey on VHS. I saw it again, a decade later, after torrenting a copy on my computer; and again, several times, on a good television, via both iTunes and Blu-ray. By the time I saw it on 70mm, with my eardrums practically bleeding, it was my 10th time seeing it. I’ve seen it with my phone out in my hand; I’ve seen it with a drunk stoner providing unwelcome live commentary throughout; I’ve seen it in a theater that was near-religious in its silence. The film’s utter greatness was apparent every single time: If anything, each method clarified something new about the film. I could watch the movie on mute on a crowded train, and that’d still be true.
What I hear the Roma discourse saying is that Cuarón’s film benefits from seeing it in ideal conditions. So does every movie, probably. But we’ve never, as a society, watched films in what we now consider to be “perfect conditions.” And yet the greatness of great films has somehow still persisted. And movies, overall, have survived because of this, not despite it. I think back to movie-watching scenes in Fellini movies, with people getting up in their seats near-constantly, or arriving late, leaving early, hooking up, throwing popcorn. These are the experiences that Fellini reconstructs in his films with love and devotion. They are what made him fall in love with movies—even as they were not the ideal conditions for watching those movies.
Or what about my own childhood, seeing movies in predominantly black and lower-middle-class (read: talkative, participatory, even rowdy) audiences? In case it wasn’t clear: I do believe there’s a class discussion to be had here, less in the way we’ve been having it online (i.e., arguing that demanding people see Roma in theaters is inherently classist) than by pointing out that the ideal theatrical experience is, itself, a class fantasy, and that we’re wrongly touting it as an aesthetic necessity. It’s not bad or evil, and neither are the people who support it. But it’s certainly socially and historically specific, and critics should really think about that.
Movies are better off not being sanctified. And theaters should not be treated like museums of the singular, ideal, increasingly boutique moviegoing experience. Earlier this year, Dianne Wiest took to Madison Square Park to perform Beckett—dressed as a rock. Classical music proliferates in subway stations as much as in concert halls. These are “high art” forms that have learned to thrive far beyond their aesthetically ideal settings. Why are we so protective of movies, of all things? I want movies to live at large, mucked up and passed around via whatever new technologies we can come up with to watch them, just as mobile and lightweight and available to us as books and music continue to be. I say this as someone who brought a CD case full of Blu-rays with me for the holiday, which is a funny mix of being mobile and, insofar as I‘m beholden to physical media, old-fashioned. The last 10 years have shown us that something so aesthetically monolithic as a Hollywood epic can be seen on something so small as a phone—or even made on one! I want us to see the value in that.
Even if—here’s the kicker—I don’t entirely see the value in Roma itself. Frequently beautiful, incredibly accomplished, very sincere, but I felt like Cuarón re-created Mexico in the ’70s so fully that even his childhood understanding of his maid’s personal life got reproduced therein—resulting in a characterization that’s bookish and juvenile, rather than alert and alive. Can it hold up under any viewing conditions? As someone who frequently pulls out his phone to revisit Sandra Bullock getting catapulted into space in Cuarón’s previous film, Gravity—a “see this in a theater” film if ever there were one—I can’t say I am especially anxious. Outside the theater you will miss out on the finer aspects of Roma’s sound design, undoubtedly. You will miss out on the sense of scale. But scale and lush sound are not all that Roma’s handsome design communicates—and if they are, the film’s got bigger issues, to my mind, than how you watch it.
I’m wary of dismissing Roma—which, to Dana’s question, is a lesson I’ve learned from asking too many friends what they thought of Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk and hearing them say what I’ve been saying about Roma: “It left me cold.” That’s a tough reaction for me to make sense of, honestly, regarding a film that cuts to the heart, not only of James Baldwin’s wonderful novel and the social and historical anxieties it so beautifully details, but of American melodrama. On the other hand: The finest melodramas are not always critically appreciated in their day. This is a lesson I’ve learned from the work of Douglas Sirk. And Beale Street starts the way Sirk’s films often did—with a slow, gorgeous swoop through trees toward a tactile, colorful social world, abetted by a rapturous swell of music. This movie is, in every way I can think of, as much a technical accomplishment as Roma, if not more. How do I get more people to give it a look? How about this for an opening line: “You should see it in a theater.”