There's still something about a darkened theater. It's a space that presents a strange mix, a sensational sense of togetherness and isolation at the same time. While you never really forget other audience members are there (they laugh, they cry, some damn teenager gets caught on their date's lip ring) these multiplex multitudes are meant to be ignored as the lights dim. But should they be?
The idea of the 4th wall may be a theatrical concept, but it can also be applied to film. While both screen and stage tend to have a defined space, neither are self contained, and direct address is discouraged in both. The term may only be applicable to the world onscreen, but this recognition of the audience really happens all the time and is generally just as unsettling. The person coughing in the second row can completely ruin what should be a dramatic pause. A group of latecomers knock into your knees, excuse me, pardon me, blocking the screen in the process. Both distractions can alter the reception of a film, and one's understanding of it. There are limits to this, of course, but it's an interesting aspect of the process to consider, and one that has been written about rather extensively (see Rick Altman).
While the extent is debatable, I can attest to ways the screening space can change the film.
I've attended Screen on the Green in Washington, DC once every summer for the past four years. The event is an annual tradition known for its top notch lineup as well as the one minute HBO dance party that takes place before every screening. It's possibly the only show in town where the hundreds of people assembled on the mall will stand up and dance to the HBO intro before settling in for a classic cartoon and the advertised show.
Over the years I've watched the last five minutes of The Apartment walking backwards along the mall, trying to see it to the end while simultaneously hurrying to catch the last metro. My second year, On The Waterfront, we came late, couldn't get seats terribly close, and ended up watching the entire film with a sound delay. It's a lot less fun than it looks in Singin' in the Rain. The third time wasn't a charm with Goldfinger as they had to cut off the film midway through to evacuate during a horrendous thunderstorm. Dodging bolts of lighting actually seemed appropriate, though I prefer my terror remain up on the screen with head slicing top hats.
Even without these added obstacles sitting on beach blankets sandwiched between the Smithsonian Museums, the Capitol, and the Washington Monument adds an extra thrill to any film.
This year I came for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a fun and frothy classic perfect for a summer evening.
While nothing as disruptive occurred this time around, the event is set up in such a way that those around you become more of an attraction than they usually would. The drama unfolding right before my eyes was a blonde other than Marilyn Monroe scanning the sidelines for her boyfriend. I had one eye on the choreography on screen, the other on the graceful way the girl would extend her hands high into the air and wave repeatedly to direct him to their spot. If it were a darkened theater I may have noticed the added laugh on the line about writing your senator or the occasional wolf whistle, but I wouldn't have noticed her high high heels with candy cane stripped ties.
As media becomes more readily disseminated and more easily condensed it is important to remember not just Screen on the Green or even the ipod screen, but the city bus or the rural barn in which the ipod is played. With new audiences for classic films come new spaces in which they can be viewed.
To infinity and beyond.