I met a man the other day who doesn’t own a television or a DVD player. He’s been broke for years and can’t remember the last time he went to the cinema, either. But he loves movies and watches a lot of them (all downloaded illegally) on his little old Mac computer screen. He asked me for suggestions. What should he look out for?
Uncharacteristically, I was loathe to give movie advice. I realised it would be a tragedy for him to view these particular films – the ones that have rocked my world and touched my soul in recent months – in such a reduced and tinny form. They’d be ruined. Movies like Paolo Sorrentino’s soulful Italian masterpiece, The Great Beauty, which should be seen in widescreen and with surround sound to get the full effect of a hedonist’s melancholy wanderings around modern-day Rome. Or Richard Linklater’s stunning epic, Boyhood, filmed over 12 years with the same cast, tracking the growth of a boy in fast-forward motion, an emotionally devastating process that should not be interrupted for snacks or naps (though at 166 minutes you’ll probably have to pee). Then there’s Jonathan Glazer’s eerie, seductive thriller, Under the Skin, which must be viewed in velvet blackness to feel its full mysterious effect.
The Internet is a-babble with critics telling us that we’re watching films wrong – whether it’s because our spanking new HD TVs stuff up the picture quality; or because we’re too gutless to sit through ‘difficult’ films. This is not one of those articles intended to make you feel inferior about the size of your screen. Instead, it’s a reminder that some films are truly worth the extra travel and cost of seeing them in the cinema.
Under the Skin is a prime example. Directed and co-written by Glazer (Birth, Sexy Beast), who adapted the script loosely from Michael Faber’s novel of the same name, the story follows an unnamed alien (Scarlett Johansson) who adopts the curvaceous form of a young English woman. In black wig and tight jeans, she drives around Scotland in a van, picking up men by asking for directions, luring them into an inky black fate. Johannson’s performance as a predatory creature pretending to be sexy, is a revelation – and also able to be read as a fascinating comment on her own public persona.
To describe more of Under the Skin would be to spoil the experience. The confusion and the puzzle are part of the pleasure. But it’s not the challenging plot that stays with you long after you’ve left your seat. It’s the engulfing sensory experience of being in the dark alone, a giant screen in front of you and loud speakers all around; of being subjected to the combination of an inventive aural soundscape filled with mechanical rumblings and screeches, as well as a haunting bolero-style seduction score (composed by Mica Levi). Add in the alienating yet naturalistic cinematography, much of it captured in stealth, by DP Daniel Landin, and you’ve got a startling experience that’s in the same league as 2001: A Space Odyssey (but don’t let that put you off if you’re not a fan).
Bigger isn’t always better, but some films will open themselves up to you and pour themselves out in new ways when you see them on a cinema screen. In some cases it’s obvious which films those are – 3D extravaganzas like Gravity, monster movies like Godzilla, the widescreen classics like Lawrence of Arabia and Once Upon a Time in the West, and the works of big screen experimentalists like Terence Mallick and David Lynch. But even some little Australian gems – survival thriller Canopy and horror film The Babadook, have sound design so essential to their storytelling that they’ll give you something special when you leave home to see them.
So, to my friend watching films on his laptop, I’ll treat you to a couple of freebies; show you what you’re missing out on.
Rochelle Siemienowicz is a Melbourne-based film journalist, reviewer and editor.