At Home Movie Screening: The Death of Theater and the Birth of Digital Spectacle

"New York Movie" - Edward Hopper (1939). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ethan Yu

Staff Writer

“The spectator’s consciousness, imprisoned in a flattened universe, bound by the screen of the spectacle behind which his life has been deported . . . The spectacle, in its entirety, is his ‘mirror image.’” – Guy Debord, “The Society of the Spectacle” (Thesis 218)

“A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.” – Soren Kierkegaard

As the COVID-19 pandemic forces us to stay indoors for long durations of time, the constant stream of infotainment in our daily lives has amplified. Through technology and the Internet, you can easily consume bite-sized clips of Trump or your favorite Youtuber online, tweet your thoughts to the world, then share TikToks with your friends with the press of a button.

And now … you can watch “Trolls World Tour” or “SCOOB!” instantly on your smartphone or laptop through a number of streaming services instead of having to wait for it to come out in theaters and buy a ticket.

For a while now, the relationship between the movie producer and the theater distributor has been slowly deteriorating. In the 1930s to the 1950s, movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Casablanca” were annually broadcasted on one of the three TV channels available, making the theater mainly the only place to watch new and old movies.

Since then, the introduction of the video cassette recorders (VCR), BlockBuster rental stores, the Netflix website, and more have brought the movie-theater experience closer and closer to home as the years go by.

But one thing that has allowed the antiquated economic model of the theater – with its overpriced tickets and ridiculous prices on popcorn and snacks – to exist in this modern age was its monopoly on making movie releases into financial and cultural events.

Not only do most theater chains like AMC Entertainment and Regal Cinemas usually have a contract deal with production companies to have exclusive access to premiere films before they are available on DVD or online, but theaters also utilize hype culture and fandom culture to get large crowds waiting in line for hours on opening day of the latest summer blockbuster.

Through the culture industry’s churning movie releases like “Star Wars” or “Joker” into pseudo-Kairotic moments of pop-cultural significance in the lives of the daily’s masses and the die-hard fans, I wonder whether we are caught by the effects of the current pandemic to realize that the movie industry was already dying a slow death before everything happened so quickly.

How will theaters survive during, or even after the pandemic? Studies show that even after the pandemic is “over” (if it ever does), most people will be reluctant to enter a theater and watch a movie out of fear and worry. With the few theaters across the nation opening up, they are only able to hold roughly a quarter of their initial capacity to prevent the spread of infection.

With digital video on demand also proving to be somewhat successful for production companies – with 80 percent cuts to movie studios from streaming sites compared to the average 50 percent commission from brick-and-mortar theaters – we are forced to ask a more serious question: what is the role of the cinema in the age of digital reproduction?

In the 1930s, cultural theorist Walter Benjamin lamented that an actor’s loss of aura was due to the growing popularity of the movie theater since he or she was no longer in front of the audience. The actor could no longer physically feel the emotional response of the audience members and vice versa; instead, the actor became another prop to the gaze of the camera and the audience slaves to the vision of the camera operator or director.

While Benjamin didn’t believe at the time the cinema could hold something of an aura itself, it seems that today we are even further removed from the work of art despite how close it is to us on our electronic devices.

No longer within the sacred space where the lights dim and the “shower bath,” as Wittgenstein called it, of the film projector wash away the banality of life, we are condemned to binge “Tiger King” in the comforts of our homes.

Just as churches are closed and we are limited to the kinds of religious services we can attend or perform due to social distancing, the closing of the theater has shut off a kind of ritual zone: a space of liminality where one suspends their belief and attachments to the outside world and blisses out into the story and allows the movie to work its magic.

To continue with Benjamin’s line of thought, the work of art in the age of digital streaming has only further delocalized the presence of film and TV both spatially and temporally.

No longer does the whole family or group of friends need to plan out a time and day in the week to go to the mall or plaza early to find parking and get the best seats. Now, I can easily watch “The Irishman” in my sweatpants on my couch and pause or play the movie whenever I want to.

Although no one has cried out for the old days of “appointment TV” lately, it could be argued as a necessary death for the rise of the “Golden Age of TV.” This itself has also experienced a death of its own by today’s “streaming wars.” I am not so sure whether the death of “appointment film” will go out in a whimper or in a bang.

Surprisingly, after the 1918 Influenza pandemic, many theaters opened with great success. Historically, this can be attributed to the development of the movie palace in the 1920s and the cultural tunnel-vision of WWI.

However, it seems unlikely that new innovations in the business model of movie theaters or the never-ending circuits of news, social media, and all the other freaks and carnies out there in the world will be able to attract us back inside the theater anytime soon.

An air of suspicion has haunted the cinema-grounds for a while from the fear of being trapped alive in a burning theater, to being gunned down in the dark by another white-male loner type, now it is the fear of being infectiously suffocated by the very air you breathe. The infernal, mental, viral, and other epidemiologies of modern existence have kindled a fire in the backstage of the theater.

A clown may come out and warn us of the looming economic, social, and existential catastrophes around us, but we are too stuck to our “black mirrors,” so plugged into our endless streams of empty content to even know of the fire that surrounds us. We’ve all been watching the digital spectacle for so long now that we don’t even remember what the spectacle used to be.


    • Hopper is getting pretty popular again with COVID-19 re-creating the same urban anxiety he captures in masterful paintings. Was it not Derrida who once said, “[The statement] ‘I owe you the truth in painting’ can easily be understood as: ‘I must render the truth to you in painting,’ in the form of painting and by acting as a painter myself” (The Truth in Painting, 8).

Comments are closed.