I know some people might expect a blow-by-blow Ebertfest diary. But that’s just not my way. There’s a chronology to the bit that’s in the present tense, but once it’s in the past, it all gets jumbled into an impressionist memory with blurred beginnings and ends. It’s left to interpretative liberties. It’s five minutes ago and five seconds right now and five weeks later all at once. My narrative bounces around to accommodate fluid living. I need to relate to something before I can tell the story properly.
Like when Omer Mozaffar asked those of us on the Far-Flung Correspondents panel how we prefer to screen movies. Most panelists said they preferred the large cinema screen. Others said they enjoy big-screen TVs. Some admitted that they don’t mind watching a movie on a computer (which warranted a small but perceptible gasp in the audience). When it came to me, I couldn’t give a straight answer. “It depends on what I’m doing,” I said. “I love seeing special effects on a big screen, but if I’m writing about a movie, I like to toggle between my Word document and media player on the laptop. It lets me pause the movie in specific places more easily.”
I was happy with that answer because it was the truth. But then it occurred to me that the night before, I had a very unique and privileged experience. I got to watch the latest version of Metropolis, and while I did, the Alloy Orchestra played the movie’s score in the pit.
I asked Roger about the Alloy Orchestra the next day, and he said he found them at Telluride. They only perform to silent movies, it seems. Their industrial vibe could have something to do with the fact that their guitarist/keyboardist Roger Miller was once in the post-punk band Mission of Burma.
I’m already a fan of Metropolis, and though a days’ worth of travel made it impossible for me to sit through more than an hour of the movie, I was mesmerized for the full 60 minutes.
A lot of it has to do with the Virginia Theater, where we were fortunate enough to watch all Ebertfest movie selections. Having been restored to its original 1920s resplendence, the Virginia Theater lends itself seamlessly to a silent movie viewing. The details on the gilded mouldings hurl the audience to an era when interiors were carved out of sweat and fancy. Most attendees observed that the ornate balcony had some of the best seats in the house.
I’d never given the cinema space much thought. I can certainly tell the difference between a smaller screen and a bigger one. I owned the Koyaanisqatsi DVD for ages and had watched it several times on a cheap 12-inch TV that was handed down to me by a friend. Like most people who take years to stop living like a college student, I never upgraded until I was in my 30s, when I inherited my friend’s 27-inch telly after he got himself a flat-screen. For the short time that I owned it, I never watched important movies. I was busy. And it seemed to stretch and round out the images. It looked strange. Shortly after, however, the soon-to-be husband unit moved in and upgraded our living arrangements to better suit the 21st century, and just like that, it was our turn to get a large flat-screen TV. So I immediately tested out Koyaanisqatsi.
It was a game-changer.
The movie became so much more than the lesson in non-fiction that had initially introduced me to it. The Philip Glass score started to feel a little less gratuitous and made more sense. The film took on a new rhythm. Ron Fricke’s imagery was graceful despite its weighted largess.
So yeah, a nice big screen makes a difference. It’s not that I didn’t know that; it’s just that it was a given that I’ve come to take for granted. But every now and then, it literally smacks me in the face.
My favourite scene in Metropolis is near the beginning, when the workers toil away at the heart machine. Their movements are choreographed to make it seem like they’re one with the mechanism, like organic extensions of the levers and wheels. The machine itself looks like a pyramid, built to sacrifice humans to nameless, faceless, fickle gods (and the movie will tell us just that a few moments later).
But upon watching it on the Virginia Theater’s massive screen, with the Alloy gentlemen pounding on bedpans and squeezing accordions, a few more things take prevalence. Details I’d noticed before but that are more voluptuous now: the grandiose cityscape that just kind of popped out of Fritz Lang’s head; how Brigitte Helm was possibly the first true film actress that ever was; the subtle prowess of Joh Fredersen, who can disarm subconscious defenses with a raised eyebrow; the flamboyant depths of depravity. And I think, “I can’t believe anyone in the 1920s had the wherewithal to conceive of all this.”
This is the most ideal way to watch Metropolis: at the Virginia Theater, to the beat of the Alloy’s drummers, surrounded by people who are sharing exactly what I’m going through.
Of course, none of this will make me a screen snob. If I can, I’m going to want to refer to a movie I’m critiquing immediately. I’ll want to go Word-AVI-Word at will. I like watching some movies alone in the comfort of my own home. That’ll never change. So really, my answer to Omer is still true. Only now, I’ll think twice before underestimating the benefit of a large screen. I’d seen Metropolis before, at home, on my wee little 12-incher. And now it’s clear just how much I was settling.