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I believe in movies.

I say this understanding that I don't really see movies in the way we presume the makers of such movies intend me to see them. More often than not, I'm watching them at my house or at my desk. I have the ability, if not the inclination, to pause them, to stop them, to go back and look over something I have missed.

A feature I've noticed on some of the movies that studios have made available to watch online is the option to play them back at 1.25 times the normal speed. Some film critics might use this to get through some movies faster. But I haven't used that feature, not yet.

This is the time of year when I see a lot of movies under less than ideal circumstances. It's what we in the business of having opinions about movies call screener season, when the studios send out DVDs of films they are promoting for the Oscars and other end-of-year awards. This year there are fewer DVDs and more cyberlinks, which sometimes work and sometimes don't and baffle some technology-challenged critics.

It used to be that the major studios booked theaters and screened films for Arkansas' working critics. Boy Erased was screened here, probably because I went directly to Focus Features to complain that despite the film's Arkansas connections (it's based on a memoir by Arkansan Garrard Conley's 2016 memoir of the same name) the publicists the studio had engaged to promote the film in this region had decided not to make either the movie or Conley available. After I pointed out that there was likely to be a lot of local interest in the film and that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was in fact the largest-circulation daily newspaper in the region, they relented.

We interviewed Conley. We reviewed Boy Erased. Everyone was happy.

Another screening has been for Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, which might be my favorite film of the year. It was my second screening of Roma, Karen and I caught it in late October at the Savannah Film Festival, and I was eager to see it again. It's exactly the sort of movie that people are talking about when they say that movies are only properly seen when they are projected on a wall in a theater. Roma is immersive, transportive and you shouldn't watch it -- at least not for the first time -- on a device.

But most of you won't have an alternative.

Because the movie-est movie of the year is being presented by Netflix, the disruptive streaming service that has already changed the way we watch television. Roma has opened in theaters in New York and Los Angeles and will play in other cities -- possibly even Little Rock, though a Northwest Arkansas screening seems less likely -- before it starts streaming on Dec. 14. It might remain in theaters after that, it might not.

So right now, I'm planning on reviewing Roma in the Dec. 14 edition of our newspaper. Even if it's not playing in local theaters. Even if it opens in local theaters later. Unless someone has a better idea.

For the past couple of years, we've tried to take notice of the way things have been changing. We still put our focus on movies that open theatrically in Arkansas. But we understand that for most of us, "movie night" doesn't necessarily mean going to a theater anymore. So we're writing more about home video and trying to do more with films that premiere on streaming services -- what we sometimes call video on demand.

A lot of these films have the production values and other qualities of real movies. They just aren't showing at a theater near you. For example, unless you were in New York or Los Angeles and happened to look at the right theater marquee at the right time, you didn't have a chance to see Joel and Ethan Cohen's latest, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, in a theater. Netflix put it in a few theaters to qualify it for awards consideration, but they want you to stream it.

I like my home setup; even though it's hardly state of the art, it's worth watching movies on. We watched Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite last week and while it might have been nice to have seen it projected on a wall (it was filmed on location at stunning Hatfield House, a Jacobean country estate north of London), I don't think I would have appreciated the texture of the tapestries that much more. Most movies are fine to view on good equipment in a comfortable living room. And if I put on headphones and scowl away distractions I can feel confident reviewing just about any movie off my office iMac.

But then again, maybe I'm fooling myself.

There's a real difference between listening to streamed MP3s and a live band. Good speakers reproduce sound better than earbuds. While theaters can -- and sometimes do -- screw up aspect ratios and sound, a quality theater experience is still something special. And the very act of getting out of your house and dedicating yourself to the watching of a motion picture is likely to have something to do with your experience too. Being around other people, strangers, has got to be good for us.

I believe in movies. I believe in the theatrical experience.


When I was a kid, movies were just movies, something to do on a Saturday night. (Or, more often, a Tuesday night when we could go for a dollar.) I liked them, because who doesn't like movies? But I gave no more thought to how they came into existence, to who made them or why, than I considered the manufacturing processes of vanilla ice cream or Coca-Cola.

So the precise reason why I looked up Pauline Kael's review of Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris in The New Yorker in Bossier City's Airline High School library are obscure all these years later, though I imagine they had to do with the movie's scandalous nature. I expect I had heard something about Marlon Brando and butter, and the overtness of Maria Schneider convinced me I wanted to know more. In any case, I'm sure I was hoping for photographs.

But I was unprepared for the exotic thing my eyes flushed from the page -- a wild-colored plume of flapping verbiage smacked me in the face:

The movie breakthrough has finally come. Exploitation films have been supplying mechanized sex -- sex as physical stimulant but without any passion or emotional violence. The sex in Last Tango in Paris expresses the characters' drives. Marlon Brando, as Paul, is working out his aggression on Jeanne (Maria Schneider), and the physical menace of sexuality that is emotionally charged is such a departure from everything we've come to expect at the movies that there was something almost like fear in the atmosphere of the party in the lobby that followed the screening. Carried along by the sustained excitement of the movie, the audience had given Bertolucci an ovation, but afterward, as individuals, they were quiet. This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made. ... Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form. Who was prepared for that?

Certainly not me, a 14-year-old who identified more as an infielder than anything else.

It would be years before I actually saw Last Tango, and I didn't exactly see it as a revolutionary moment.

Bertolucci's film didn't strike me the same way it had Kael a decade before, in part because we hadn't seen the same film. It wasn't fresh for me as it was for her; I'd seen paler and more lurid iterations of the film in the meantime, as well as the Mad magazine parody. I had been wised up about Brando and seen One-Eyed Jacks and On the Waterfront and become the sort of person who took movies seriously.

But if I didn't care for Last Tango, I loved some of Bertolucci's other work, especially The Conformist (1970), his story about a weak-willed man who becomes one of Mussolini's goons and is, while on his honeymoon, ordered to kill a long-admired professor. Bertolucci was one of the last libertines, a dreamer who explored (and confused) sex and beauty, politics and morality. The more you came to expect from him, the greater your risk of disappointment when you started to see some glibness, some smugness seeping into his work.

But there was more to Bertolucci than pretty bodies and bold problematic movies. The later film of his I like best is Besieged, from 1998, about a refugee from an oppressive African regime (Thandie Newton) who ends up as more than a housekeeper for an eccentric Englishman (David Thewlis). Some people, notably Roger Ebert, dismissed it as a betrayal of the director's promise. (Ebert, in a funny review, wrote that the movie was largely about whether we'd get to see Newton's breasts.)

I remember it as something more poetic than that.

I guess I didn't see the same movie as Roger did either.


Photo by Image by Alfonso CuarÛn
Yalitza Aparicio was studying to become a preschool teacher and had never acted before her sister encouraged her to attend a film audition. A native of Mexico’s Oaxaca region, she landed the lead role in Roma, one of the best pictures of 2018.
Marlon Brando stars in Bernardo Bertolucci’s still-controversial Last Tango in Paris (1972).
Photo by Photo by Carlos Somonte
The slow motion dissolution of a family, as seem from the perspective of a child, is one of the themes of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, one of those movies which really is best experienced on the biggest screen possible. Unfortunately, many — maybe most — people won’t have the opportunity.

MovieStyle on 11/30/2018

Print Headline: Screen gems: You can watch movies anywhere, but for certain ones there’s nothing like the theatrical experience

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