There are some movies that just don’t work at home on a television.
I am not talking about the big “event” movies like STAR WARS, AVENGERS or the Bond films. There is something to be said for that sort of movie as a theatrical event. A real, “night out” experience. Which is why all the major theater chains have pinned their hopes on such films to stay in business.
Arguably, however, you can come pretty damn close to replicating the experience of going to the latest Marvel franchise flick if you have a good-sized TV, some popcorn and a bunch of your rowdy friends watching with you. It might not be quite the same, but it would be close.
This post is about something altogether different.
I am referring to those fantastic, extraordinary films that may have left you looking at the world differently if you had seen them in a theater. However, these same films on a TV screen are just as likely to leave you reaching for the remote or in a blissful slumber.
They are powerful cinematic experience which make for total crap television viewing. Still don’t know what I’m talking about?
Here are a few examples…
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
I grew up watching David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA on TV. I still kind of liked it but there were always parts that bored me to tears.
Most notably, the part were Peter O’ Toole crossed the desert. It takes for f*cking ever. It’s horrible. I remember wondering why the hell they spent so much time on this part of the movie. The film was too long as it was, did they really need to show us every dune and every sandstorm?
Then I saw it in the theater for the first time. This was years later at one of New York’s best single-screen theaters. It was fantastic. And my favorite part? The desert crossing.
Suddenly, the pacing made sense. The scale made sense. You felt the grandeur and majesty of the harsh landscape. More importantly, you understood the insanity and bravery of the man who dared to cross it.
I can’t watch it on TV anymore. It’s such a different experience it might as well be a completely different movie. If you’re going to invest three-and-a-half hours of your life watching LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, do it right or don’t bother at all.
Wim Wenders’ masterpiece from 1984 is simply not watchable on a small screen. Period. Full stop. No exceptions.
I’ve tried. Several times, in fact. I’ve tried because it is a truly great movie and I remember being blow away by it when I saw it for the very first time. In a theater. Immersed.
On a small screen, even on a good-sized television, it is just lifeless and dull. A bunch of people in the Texas desert just mumbling about stuff and not doing a whole lot. Seriously, do NOT dare to judge this movie in any way if you have only seen it on a television. Even if you like it, you still don’t truly understand. Everything about this movie is about the big screen.
First of all, this movie is about the incredible emptiness of the Texas landscape. That landscape isn’t just beautiful. The landscape of PARIS, TEXAS is vital to conveying the emotions of the characters.
The screenplay was written by Sam Shepard back when he was known as one of America’s greatest playwright instead of as an actor. Shepard had come to fame for his plays like TRUE WEST and FOOL FOR LOVE set in similar desert locations. It was a vital ingredient for the telling of the story. The same is true for the desert environment of PARIS, TEXAS. An environment which gets diminished to near nothingness on a small screen.
The second problem is that the performances of Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski are so subtle they don’t work small. Just think about it for a second. The power of look in the eye, a very slight movement, of just holding your body in a certain way. All of that can come across on a big screen. Reduce it in scale you might not even see it. And if you do, it won’t have nearly the same power.
This is especially true of Harry Dean Stanton. If you see it in a movie theater, Stanton comes across a guy who has a world of pain and turmoil inside of him that he just can’t quite get out. It’s a brilliant performance. Sadly, on a TV it’s diminished to a guy just muttering a lot. It’s that big of a difference.
This is a great movie that a lot of people will never appreciate because they have only seen it small. On a television screen it is sapped of all of its emotional power. It’s heartbreaking. And wrong.
Don’t do it. Ever. The movie deserves better. So do you.
Martin Scorsese is one of those filmmakers that I think is appreciated too often for all the wrong reasons. The first is that he has been making movies for fifty years. Lifetime Achievement Award stuff right there.
The second is all those funny gangster bits with De Niro and Pesci. Those lines from GOODFELLAS, for instance.
However, he is, or at least was, also a master of making movies for the big screen. A director that refined the craft and power of cinema into something filled with drama and explosive energy.
Go watch RAGING BULL in a proper theater. One with a huge screen and great sound. Sure, you can watch it on TV still. It’s De Niro. The dialogue is still good. The boxing stuff is still good, even if some of the other scenes are a little slow. Unlike some of the other movies on this list, it’s still almost kind of OK on a television.
But it’s soooooo not the same.
In a proper theater you still get Deniro. You still get the dramatic moments and the dialogue. But you get so much more.
You get camera movements that will spin you around in circles. Editing that feels like your brain on fast forward. Music that feels like as much of the story as the dialogue. Sound effects so real, you’ll think your own nose just got broken….
This is Scorsese. Loud. Filled with movement. Exploding with energy. Using every bit of visual and aural skill to propel you into near overload. Then bringing you back down, only to ramp you up to such heights over and over again.
If you watch it on a TV you’re getting Scorsese light. A tepid, watered-down version. Food with all its spices gone stale to the point of blandness. Sure, there will still be hints of flavor here and there. You’ve got Deniro and Peschi and all those great lines. You’ve got some nice black and white images on the screen.
You might even convince yourself that it’s good enough seeing it that way. But why? Why on earth would you do that to yourself?
Don’t be a mook. Go see it in a theater they way you should have to begin with.
Andrei Tarkovsky is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Ever. There is not a doubt in my mind about this. Yet, on a television screen, his films usually put me to sleep.
I was lucky enough to be introduced to Tarkovsky via a film festival in New York. They showed all of his films. From IVAN’S CHILDHOOD through THE SACRIFICE. In a dark room. On a big screen.
Tarkovsky’s films were unlike anything I had ever seen before. They changed the way I looked at filmmaking. They even changed the way I looked at the world.
Yet, I find them so boring on a television I almost always find myself fighting the urge to sleep. Why is this?
There a several reasons. Let’s start with the obvious. Tarkovsky films are long, difficult and slow. This is true even in a movie theater setting. In fact, I remember feeling bored and fidgeting when I saw SOLARIS and being disappointed that I wasn’t as engaged with it as I was with some of his Tarkovsky’s films.
Yet, I toughed it out. For one thing, I had faith and trust in the filmmaker by that point. For another, I had paid, I was there and it just seemed right to force myself to pay attention and see it through.
Such efforts paid off. I still remember to this day, decades later, when I first saw the ending of SOLARIS. Mind blown. WTF? in the best of ways. I walked out of the theater with my little brain reeling. I spent hours contemplating all sorts of heavy thoughts about film and about life. All while trying not to get hit by taxis and maniacs on bicycles as I walked the streets. It was great.
This is what it comes down to. On a TV, the imagery loses its power. The pacing seems painful. The fragile, gliding camera movements which are so magical become barely noticeable.
As a result, the moments which, in a theater, would reach into your brain and into your very soul are reduced to next to nothing.
Tarkovsky on a big screen is a revelation. Tarkovsky on a television is like taking an Ambien.
STRANGER THAN PARADISE
Jim Jarmusch’s first movie (or second, if you count PERMANENT VACATION) needs the big screen as much as Tarkovsky or Lean. I know that’s a strange claim to make for a low-budget indie comedy but hear me out.
The story of STRANGER THAN PARADISE is very simple. Three people hang out in a crappy New York apartment, get bored, take a roadtrip to the Midwest and then to Florida.
It’s also about as deadpan as it gets. It’s got a very slow, unique rhythm to it which depends on static, minimalistic wide-shots to convey its tone.
For example, in a theater one of the funniest moments of the film is when the three main characters finally get to one of the sights they were looking forward to. They wanted to see one of the great lakes, Lake Eerie specifically.
They finally get there and stand in silence gazing over the lake. Which, being the middle of winter in Ohio, is frozen and completely covered in snow. This is shown in a long, static wide shot which Jarmusch just holds on.
On a TV, that scene just isn’t that funny. You lose the sense of these three people standing in front of a huge, snowy expanse of nothingness. It just doesn’t come across, at least not nearly as strongly.
Without those moments, the absurdity and dry humor of Jarmusch just doesn’t work as well. Which is probably why so few people, even Jarmusch fans, fail to appreciate STRANGER THAN PARADISE the way they should.
L’AVVENTURA was the start of a three film collection which also featured LA NOTTE and L’ECLISSE. I would also add RED DESERT into the mix. These are the films that brought Antonioni to the world’s attention before hitting a more mainstream audience with BLOW-UP. They are also his best.
The four films which I mentioned weren’t just good, they changed the way stories were told. Which is why it is so important to see them on a real screen in the right environment. If you don’t, you are not only likely to be bored, you are very likely to miss the point of them entirely.
L’AVVENTURA, for instance, is the story of a group of very shallow, self-absorbed people who make a game out of searching for their equally shallow friend who has gone missing. They are rich, they are beautiful and they are empty inside.
The reason you need to see it on a big screen is that Antonioni tells you this as much through his images as he does through dialogue or character action. The image is essential to understanding who these people are and why they might be like that.
This is an incredible accomplishment to witness on a theater screen. However, it is also what makes them virtually unworkable on a television screen. On a television screen you are left with a bunch of obnoxious people surrounded by some very cool architecture and that’s about it.
In truth, I actually do watch these films at home on DVD. They are not nearly as powerful that way. More importantly, I am coming to them after experiencing them on the big screen first and, at least in part, somewhat understanding how Antonioni used the images.
If you never see these films on the screen, the way they were meant to be seen, you will never really understand what you’re even watching.
Don’t believe me? Go try it.
I know there are a lot of people that can’t bring themselves to watch a Woody Allen film, these days. Especially one featuring him as a middle-aged man having a relationship with a girl still in High School. I get it. Understood.
However, if you don’t feel that way or can separate the work from the person that created it, I highly recommend MANHATTAN…..If you can see it on a big screen.
Honestly, it still kind of works on a television screen. The images are still pretty. The jokes are still funny. However, it’s a shell of itself seen large.
The film came out in 1979 following INTERIORS and the hugely successful ANNIE HALL. Woody Allen was already famous. This period was his chance to strive for something else.
He wasn’t just trying to make good films. He was trying to make great ones. Films worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as those of his idols like Ingmar Bergman and Jean Renior. An ambition that propelled him to make MANHATTAN.
MANHATTAN is about looking at life as an urban fairytale. One where New York City is larger than life. One where the air is filled with fireworks and the sounds of Gershwin.
Allen, and his cinematographer Gordon Willis, very successfully created that magical version of New York for the screen.
The black and white images are not only stunning, they are other worldly. The New York depicted takes on an epic scale. It is no longer a city but a dreamscape. It is a mystical place that the main character is constantly in awe of and inspired by, even when day-to-day reality reminds him otherwise.
It is that same struggle to reach the magic world beyond the practical and mundane that also drives him in his love life. So much so, that his young and (supposedly) naive girlfriend ends up with a much more mature and realistic view on their relationship than he does.
The larger than life world the main character loses himself in is absolutely critical to understanding him, his viewpoints and the reality of living with those viewpoints. And, spoiler alert, guess what? That larger than life, epic world looks a whole lot smaller and less grand on a television.
On a big screen, the way it should be seen, MANHATTAN isn’t just a place but a state of mind.
So, there you have it. Seven movies you should never watch on a television. Or, at the very least, see on the big screen, in a theater, at least once.
In these particular cases, it won’t just make the movie better, it may make you understand them differently. They were meant to be seen a certain way. In a theater, in a darkened room, with great sound and a huge screen.
That’s why they call it cinema.