I come back to the city I grew up in after half a year away, and find another handful of cinemas closed to make a total of, I think, 21 in the last two years. Seeing a film at home, on a TV or computer screen, is not the same thing. The big screen is a different experience, especially when the theater is crowded. The emotions, especially in a comedy, rise with the collective breathing.
Producers are going to great expense to attract people to the cinema with 3D, new space-age sound systems and the like. I have nothing against spectacle, but some stories are buried under the squandering of technical effects. If The Great Gatsby had been filmed with Gatsby readers in mind, it would have ended up in small art cinemas. And if a director had proposed a cheaper adaptation of the novel, he would never have found a producer to finance it.
To bring in a mass audience you need a three-dimensional experience, photography that shows up the difference in brilliance between glass and real diamonds, hysterical camera-trick directing and high-tech special effects. How do you explain to young people brought up on this stuff that a John Ford film, though devoid of these gimmicks, is also better on the big screen?
How do you explain to young people that a John Ford film is better on the big screen?
There ought to be resistance cinemas to keep good taste alive. In any case, television is doing undeniable good work in saving cinema projects the industry has turned its back on. Look at the case of Steven Soderbergh, a big-name director who tried and failed to find money to film his Liberace project, about the kitsch pianist and his affair with an aimless young man. He could not find a distributor, and finally the HBO network snapped it up. The other night in New York I attended the grand premiere - on a TV screen at home (which used to be considered a humiliating venue for B products).
The audience ratings were huge. The movie had raised the same sort of expectation as a cinema premiere, with press articles about the characters in it: personalities of the kind only reality can invent. Liberace, a camp-kitsch virtuoso, was on top of the world in the 1970s. It is amazing, now, how innocent the silent-majority public of those days could be, when this outrageous gay's agents invented tales of his romances with women - which most of his admirers seem to have swallowed.
In the film, Michael Douglas's acting is of a high order - he is not just an actor playing an extravagant homosexual, but a human being putting his own physical decadence on display (he has recently had cancer). And the poor drifter he seduces is Matt Damon, who plays a quiet, closet gay boy, whom the aging queen proposes to adopt, with sex rights included.
The film is based on Behind the Candelabra, the autobiography of Scott Thorson, that teenager, now 54, who has spent many of the intervening years behind bars for various crimes. He is now re-living some of the reflected glory he enjoyed when he used to appear on stage, driving a Rolls-Royce from which Liberace emerged. The pianist wanted to re-mold the youth's face in his own image, so the boy underwent several cosmetic procedures on chin, cheekbones and nose. These two strange beings, 40 years between them, shared many an hour of sexual complexity in a bed overarched by a bizarre version of the Sistine Chapel, in which one of the cherubs had the face of Liberace.
But the film is more than a catalogue of decorative atrocities: though wallowing in banality, it is not banal, for the director endows his characters with human complexity. There is humor, but not mockery. Perhaps this is the future that awaits us: spectacles such as a camp travesty of the Sistine Chapel, on the small screen. All to the good, if it helps cinema survive.