At the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, I got up early for a public screening of I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, a horror film whose title reminded me greatly of some of my favorite Shirley Jackson books.
I hadn’t heard any buzz about it, but I knew it was directed by Anthony Perkins’ son Osgood, starred Ruth Wilson (loved her on Luther) and was horror, so all those three together sealed the deal for me. But as I watched this gauzy, sensual masterpiece, I sat straighter in my seat, trying to remember specific lines from the very literary voice-over, straining to catch little bits and pieces of the precise production design through the purposely blurred cinematography, listening intently to the subtle but incessant sound design that wrapped the whole movie into a chilling package.
So I walked out of that theater a changed woman, filed my review and moved on. I’d seen that the film was a Netflix production, so I knew it’d hit streaming but assumed that because of the artistic nature of the film — which requires a big screen and big sound to soak up every detail — it would hit theaters first. Not so.
Imagine my disappointment when Netflix announced it’d have a lackluster Oct. 28 release. I’d spent more than a month telling friends, family, strangers at dinner parties that this, this, above all other films is the one they should see, but I was wary of how it would play on a person’s laptop, with a glare on the screen obscuring one of the faintly shimmering ghost sequences.
So I queued up the film on Netflix and projected it on my wall with my sound system cranked all the way up, and I was … disappointed. All the grandeur and mystique I’d seen in the warm blanket of that theater was stripped down to a pixelated, blandly colored, just-OK movie. I immediately checked Rotten Tomatoes to see the reviews and was again disappointed; it got a paltry 60 percent “fresh.” Even the fart disaster that was Swiss Army Man got a higher score than that. But I noticed something else: If you took only the scores from the top critics — those most likely to have seen the film in the theater in Toronto — I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is at 80 percent, a far more fair assessment in my eyes. But if you’re watching this movie on your laptop, I’ll concede that you might find it boring. As I said in my review: The devil is in the details here.
But this begs the question of whether we’ve come to a time when we need to classify cinema that screens digitally differently from traditional cinema. Is it truly fair when a cinematic film is viewed on a tiny screen and then given a poor review? Conversely, how well would smaller, more dialogue-driven films fare in a theater that demands some kind of huge beauty?
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What’s really tragic is that filmmakers are being forced to think about how their movies will look when streamed on a tiny screen, which means only a handful of directors who are guaranteed theater distribution get to think about those gorgeous, subtle choices that make cinema what it is, while the others feel the need to strip things down and make everything as obvious as possible.
Just the other day, I saw a known indie director discussing online whether everyone else was also thinking that they had to shoot their films in the 16:9 aspect ratio (most common for television) to accommodate streaming services. General consensus was that only those guaranteed that sweet, sweet theater distro deal (i.e., Michael Bay, et al.) should entertain the idea of shooting for big-screen dimensions.
Reading through this thread made me sad. There’s nothing wrong with 16:9, but what cinema has always had over television is that it could create a sense of co-presence — the feeling of really being there — on the big screen. (And science supports this big-screen co-presence assertion). With movies designed for the smaller screen, it feels as if we’re not even going to try to make the experience immersive anymore. Hell, we’re not even seeing movies with a group of people at this point; we’re just single-serving creatures, separated from the communal experience and totally detached enough from the story that we can watch a movie on our laptops while checking Facebook on our phones. (I’m guilty too.)
The problem, of course, is that streaming outlets such as Netflix are the only entities willing to back risky, adventurous films. Luckily, Netflix is pushing for theatrical releases of a handful of its titles (for awards eligibility, but still). But I can’t help but wonder what we will be losing if people stop making movies for the theater. Maybe I’m just being nostalgic, but I think it’s something we should look at when an art form is pushed to become more limited than expansive. For I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, I offer my sincere regrets to the movie-watching world that they’ve seen only a fraction of what’s there.