I remember when the movie theater in our old mill town seemed enormous to a child, and glamorous even though the gilded curlicues along the ceiling’s dome and above each door were dingy and the once-plush seats were nearly threadbare. It never occurred to me then, but the building had probably been an actual theater/opera house combination way back when the town was halfway prosperous. The screen was set in behind a substantial stage, and live events like beauty pageants were still sometimes produced there.
I remember always looking for a seat in the first row of the balcony, where you could look down on the folks below, and during the raucous Saturday matinees you could toss popcorn and candy wrappers down onto the kids below rather than having them tossed down onto you. Well, I didn’t actually toss things, but it was fun to know you could. What I really wanted, what was so wonderful about the first row of the balcony, was that you could gaze out through space at the movie screen with the sense that there was nothing in between, nothing to keep you from becoming so immersed in the movie that it felt as though you were actually there. There with the cowboys on their beautiful horses riding through redrock western landscapes (it took a while to notice that no matter what the movie was called or who the cowboys were, the redrock background was always the same,) or with Dorothy and Toto in the Technicolor world of Oz. What I wanted from movies was a different world to inhabit for a while, places I had never been and places no one could ever go except in imagination.
When I think about movies I’ve seen I realize that the ones I love best, or at least remember best, give me a sense of being in a different world, with expansive vistas and bigger-than-life characters and emotions. Lawrence of Arabia always grips me, time after time, although the best time to watch it is on a cold winter night, just as the snowy plains of Dr. Zhivago are best for hot summer viewing. The Lord of the Rings movies can always catch my attention and draw me into their mythic universe, and so can the Harry Potter series with its intricately detailed world so close and yet so far from our own. In all those cases I’ve read the books (or, in the case of T.E. Lawrence, some biographies,) and in most ways I prefer books, but the movies can give a sense of space and light that is very hard for books to deliver.
Another thing movies can deliver is the emotional impact of background music. I’m not particularly into war movies, but I do like historicals, and the music of Gettysburg sweeps me along into that time and those events. Sometimes the music is even a big factor in the action. I love Michael Caine’s first major picture Zulu, most of all for the scene at the tiny fort at Rourke’s Drift in South Africa where the small band of surviving British soldiers, mostly Welshmen, are surrounded by thousands of Zulu warriors on the hilltops chanting their war song. It’s a hopeless situation, but the Welshmen are rallied by their choir director, and hurl back their own ancient war song, “Men of Harlech.” It’s impossible for me to impart the stirring impact of this in prose, but in the movie it was overwhelming, and in real life the Zulu are said to have felt that, too, and honored the bravery (and musicality) of their enemy by chanting once more and then departing with no further attacks.
There are many things that books do better, and I often prefer the book version to a movie made from it, but there’s still something close to magic that movies can do for me. It’s a matter of light, and space, and sound, especially music.
Well, I admit that it’s also a matter of great actors. I do like Frances McDormond, as mentioned by Giselle, and I’ll watch nearly anything with Judi Dench and/or Maggie Smith in it. Or Olympia Dukakis. And Cher in Moonstruck was great. With men, I tend to remember the ones from yesteryear most vividly, from Gregory Peck to Peter O’Toole to Richard Burton. It’s not that I don’t like some of the newer guys, but maybe I was more impressionable way back when.
I haven’t said anything about sex in the movies, which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy what there is of it, but this topic has made me realize that sex is one thing I really prefer to dwell on in prose rather than on the screen (although sex in the flesh always, of course, comes first.) Maybe I’m somewhat of a prude in that way, even though I have no trouble standing up in front of an audience and reading my erotica out loud. Or maybe it’s just the way my particular type of imagination works. The Big Screen is great for transporting me into other worlds, but for the really intimate, physical, sensual scenes, I’d rather watch it in the privacy of my own smutty mind.