Olin Goes to the Picture Show
Last semester, Olin students went to a private showing of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Something along the lines of 300 students managed to venture forth from the bubble (admittedly only to recreate it somewhere else) and arrive not only on time, but early, to the movie theater. We probably haven’t given as much credit to the brave souls who organized this, so here is a little bit more. This was an undoubtedly awesome experience, and a unique one not just for my time at Olin, but for my entire movie-watching career. Take a few more seconds to remember it before I mar it by way of explanation.
I think that a glimpse at what audiovisual entertainment may have looked like in the past could prove useful. Consider the post-war years of cinema. Movie theaters were no longer confined to populous cities. For multiple reasons, they had managed to spread to rural areas in many parts of the modern world. War-time leaders had recognized the value of propaganda and news-reels for maintaining morale and the war effort, and recognized building cinemas as important public-works projects. Going to the movies had become a common pastime for a much larger portion of the population, across multiple demographics. Even young folks of different sexes could mingle without any chaperoning, something that would have been scandalous anywhere else. “Playhouses for the masses” and “Democracy’s theater” were just some of the fanciful terms for movie theaters at the time. It offered a truly unique location for a community to come together and ensured that cinema was a social experience. It was still a form of entertainment but one rooted in more than just the sensory. Even if there was a bit of nationalism, it was still ultimately rooted in a sense of community.
Now this is undoubtedly a glorified notion. The mere fact that Hollywood loves creating films about the power of films makes me think we might be getting a good dose of movie magic (The Disaster Artist is the latest example, though it’s got nothing on Cinema Paradiso). It is undoubtedly a mythology that the studios and theatres themselves are interested in promoting. But keep this narrative in mind as we juxtapose it with our usual viewing experiences in the late teens of the twenty-first century.
I watched Star Wars again a good six days after Olin did, back home in Los Angeles. The screen was a bit bigger (IMAX), the seats slightly more comfortable (tempurpedic, with armrests). But, unbelievably, when Yoda got on stage and told me that “the greatest teacher, failure is,” I think one person in the theater may have chuckled. Now I’m sure that my memory exaggerates, but six days before at the time of this monologue, I am confident that the whole movie theater burst into laughter, for at least two minutes. Hearing the words of so many of our professors spoken from the mouth of a little green puppet who can call lightning from the afterlife was equally parts unnerving, hilarious, and touching. It was even on one of the Candidates’ t-shirt options.
I don’t think that the unique part of this Olin-at-the-cinema experience was subconsciously analyzing every moment of the film for its insights into the Olin experience. I could try to convince you that when you saw BB-8 extend more and more appendages to, uh, plug fuses, it represented the way you try to divide your time over more and more activities. And that Rey is feeling imposter syndrome because she is neither a Skywalker nor Obi-Wan’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate. That moment of identification in the film, and nearly uniform laughter that followed, was merely the effect of something more subtle.
It started with the pre-movie buzz. People mingled around, interacting in different ways. They searched for their friends, bumped into others. They were excited for the film, and they were excited for each other. Then the film began, and I realized just how much I was being affected by the people around me. Maybe you were stirred by the smiles and cheers of your fellow Oliners; I’m certain I saw your enthusiasm mirror and augment theirs, too. As a hulking spaceship was torn apart by the light of a sacrificial jump to lightspeed, perhaps the silence and sharp breaths of your peers became a fundamental part of your experience. Waves of feedback riding along the connection between people.
Another interlude. Why don’t we consider the average internet-age audio-visual entertainment experience for a moment. Let’s start by assuming you don’t go to the movie theatre. Today there are countless shows and films that you can watch at a moment’s notice, whether you pay for them or not. The possibilities are endless, though more often than not it can feel like an undeniable overload. At the same time, every streaming service wants to provide you with the most personalized experience they can, recommendation after recommendation being served to you by Big Data itself, so that you can have the content that you want. It’s an individualistic view of entertainment.
But don’t worry, you’re not alone. Just do the math: Netflix claims that it’s subscribers view an average of 125,000,000 hours of content every day. It’s currently estimated that there are 35,000 hours of content uploaded to the streaming service. By the Pigeon-Hole Principle (shout-out to Sarah Spence Adams and Discrete), at least 3,572 people watched the same show or movie on any given day. And by similar reasoning, a minimum of 3 people began watching the same content within one minute of each other.
Are you feeling a sense of community yet?
Now let’s assume you did make it out to a movie theater. Bump 3 people up to 50, or even 500 people watching with you at the same moment in time. Sitting in a crowded theater makes you intimately aware of the concurrent viewers who may or may not be ruining your experience. I think I would be hard-pressed to find many people for whom that awareness easily and always translated into any sort of connection with the rest of the anonymous audience. Simply viewing the same film isn’t enough. You don’t respond to their reactions the way I think we responded to each other in that movie theater. For the most part, we have divorced TV and films from any sort of social experience, and most definitely from a community experience.
I have perhaps drawn in too much detail the differences between our showing of The Last Jedi, and the rest of our movie-going careers. You get it. Olin is a community. Olin saw a film. It was dope. The reason I can’t leave it at that is because what I felt reminded me of something else. Something which might give insight into the real difference between the experiences you’ve just read about (and maybe experienced? Damn, do I hope this is hitting any sort of chord). I’ll tell you about it in two more paragraphs.
The more a film is capable of absorbing you in it’s myriad details, textures and plots, the more we tend to praise it. We are usually eager to be drawn in to what we see, and loosen our connection to reality. To experience the lives of other people, and worlds far removed from ours (that secretly are our own). That’s why we purchase larger TV’s, and 22.2 surround sound systems. The fundamental art of film is the art of manipulation, and we are the willing subjects.
But this unconditional immersion is not the only way to watch films. When I watch films extremely analytically, I experience them differently. Sometimes I do it for fun, and sometimes there are films which demand viewing in this way. I need to both delve into the composition of any individual scene and shot, and still be conscious of all those which have come before. It requires a constant tension, a balancing act of distance from the film. That feeling is precisely what was familiar, sitting among Oliners. My familiarity and connection with the people in the movie theater was an anchor against the pull of that visual tide. The solo critical viewing is an active and sometimes difficult one, while this was an effortless tension, floating between the flashing lightsabers and the thoughts and reactions of those around me.
All I’m really trying to say is that I was very grateful to add community-movie-theater viewing to my list of cinematic experiences. Am I being a touch romantic? I tend to be, when I think, talk, or write about film. Did you feel something different that evening? At the close of the The Last Jedi’s second act, Kylo Ren extends his hand to Rey over the carnage of their fight for freedom. Maybe you immediately thought of Olin’s mission when you saw Rey torn between throwing out the past, or building off and learning from it instead. Maybe you felt a resonance with your peers at the struggle we all face in building our futures. Ah! You were entranced when you saw that these two characters, with such different experiences, had the same pain in both of their eyes. I’ll never know for sure, but there’s a chance you thought there was something unique about that 4:30pm showing on the 15th of December.
Olin Goes to the Picture Show