Farewell to the Movies

I went to a movie for the first (and probably last) time since I sustained a TBI. I have been feeling better in a lot of ways and the return to normalcy has almost been insipid. Until I stepped through the theater doors I had almost forgotten the various ways I’ve altered my life to accommodate my various needs.

On the other side of the double doors a screen just feet short of IMAX proportions loomed. Images flashed in bright colors. I wished I’d brought my sunglasses. By the time the previews started the theater shook with sound. I couldn’t discriminate between background music and sound effects. It was so loud I started to have a panic attack.

We almost left the theater but, thankfully, the actual movie was quieter. To be fair, I expected some sensory overload. I mean, we did elect to see Captain America: Civil War. But as I sat there, I began to wonder–was I really more sensitive to the movie-going experience or had something changed?

A cursory google search suggests I’m not the first person to have an issue with noise at the theater. I think what fascinated me more was thinking about why movies are louder, brighter and more visually stimulating–are we really in need of these extreme sensory experiences to feel stimulated?

According to industry guru Randy Thom, the answer is no. In an article for FilmSound.org her writes:

The problem seems to me to be an aesthetic one, not a technical one. If I as a sound editor or mixer am presented with thirty solid minutes of visuals involving gunfire, vehicle chases, screaming people, explosions, etc., what am I supposed to do? Play it all quietly in deep reverb as if it were a dream?

Badly designed films are unrelentingly loud. Badly designed films don’t take advantage of dynamic range. They are as silly as a newspaper would be if it were printed entirely in capital letters. Great roller coaster rides last a few minutes (not thirty), and set up each fast moment with a slow one. They bring you back to where you started, but with a new perspective. Film makers who resort to screaming at the audience continuously for two reels are desperate film makers grasping at straws.

One of the rationales (excuses) one often hears for designing long film sequences with non-stop in-your-face action is that the so-called “MTV generation” demands it.

Wrong. Young people today demand what they always have: something worth spending their time on, something interesting.

I couldn’t agree more. On a recent episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour where they discussed Captain America, these sentiments were echoed when they addressed the simple yet compelling tension created by characters arguing. I don’t know about you but I experience various sympathetic nervous system reactions during an argument, not unlike the ones film makers are trying to create when they blow up buildings and choreograph impossible car chases. My mirror cells were firing during this argument–my blood pressure rose, my skin was hot–and the experience was very satisfying (it seems law dramas figured this out a long time ago). It makes me think the movie industry is trying too hard to capture my attention.

And yet, the interesting movies, the ones often lacking fight scenes and special effects, I’m not compelled to watch in a theater. I can’t justify the expense, and my sweatpants are too damn comfortable.

I admire movie-makers. I’m married to one. I appreciate the countless hours that go into making a film. But I think from now on I’ll be appreciating movies from my modest and delightfully muted TV screen.

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