“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small,” famously declared the bitter, delusional ex-silent screen star Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Boulevard. For Norma — or Gloria Swanson, as for many the two appeared to be the same character — the advent of sound was a gimmick which would spell the end for the movies. When the film was released in 1950, her anguish, her pathological melancholy, had resonance but for quite different reasons: the industry was again full of foreboding, as the grandeur of the so-called Golden Age waned, and television cut into cinema audiences, reducing them by half in less than a decade.
Norma meant of course that the epic glamour and adventure of her movie age had shrivelled. What she couldn’t have imagined was just how small, literally, the pictures would become. Small enough for your TV screen, even smaller for the back of an aeroplane seat, and now, six decades on, small enough to view in the palm of your hand as you sit on a crowded commuter train. How many deaths has the cinema faced in those years and yet somehow come back from the brink? In the mid-1980s, city analysts looked at the UK’s attendance figures — then bumping along on a measly 54 million admissions a year — and declared that the game was up for traditional cinema-going, with the new-fangled home video industry supplying the nails for the coffin. It seemed a completely logical conclusion at the time, but was to prove totally wrong. From this low point, audiences actually began slowly to rise again, as video had the effect of making younger people interested in film and therefore eager to go to see the new releases. Now, cinema attendances are back up to roughly the same level as 40 years ago, and this at a time when millions of households have huge plasma screens and their own small libraries of DVDs, favourite films which they think it quite natural to want to own.
It is also true, however, that we have become depressingly obsessed with the methods of delivery. We want things sharper, hyper-real, instantly stoppable and replayable, all the time mistaking gadgetry for quality. We are in complete control in such a situation, something which we’ve been told is what we want. And it is the reason why the experience of watching a film on the big screen is still unsurpassed. It is not just that it represents one of the few remaining collective experiences, for with current levels of anti-social behaviour in public places even this is being put to the test. It is because on one level we still have to surrender to it — to the darkness, and to the enforcement of concentration. And even the most recalcitrant respond, their patience unconsciously stretching through moments when otherwise they would be flicking around, taking a call or skipping through a longueur with the remote.
On this basis, many older films, made at a time before concentration began to contract, would be a revelation to movie fans if viewed on the big screen. And I count myself among them; as a critic I might have seen thousands of films, but many of the great classics came to me originally via the TV set and even now, in their super-deluxe all-singing all-dancing DVD editions, have stayed obstinately at that size. I have still to see Citizen Kane in the way that it was intended.
Fortunately, there are signs that the appetite for big-screen reissues is growing and some of the smaller distributors are responding. Just released is the 40-year-old The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich’s elegy to small-town 1950s America, and mid-May sees the reissue of Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 drama of paranoia and urban alienation. Originating from an era which has been called Hollywood’s second Golden Age, both films have been deemed worthy of registration by the US Library of Congress.
Other than an air of unease typical of their time, and the coincidental presence in both of the actress Cybill Shepherd, they have little in common. Taxi Driver I have viewed countless times, and yet watching it on the big screen revealed so much more: the bloodshot cinematography of Michael Chapman, the theatricality of the set-ups, the bigness of its themes. For younger generations, Robert De Niro is a figure of intentional fun in mainstream comedies such as Meet the Fockers; but here, as Travis Bickle, the insomniac would-be assassin, disgusted by the decadence and decay of New York in decline, they have the chance to see him before he started to spoof himself — urgent, dangerous, physically slight yet filling the screen.
The violence of the climax still shocks simply because the tension has been allowed to mount and is all-enveloping; modern film-makers would be discouraged by fearful studios from taking their time in such a way, and television by its very dimensions simply cannot sustain suspense in the same way. Neither can the small screen deal easily with what seems like a lack of narrative drive. The Last Picture Show, shot in nostalgic black and white, its only soundtrack emanating from what we hear on the car radios in the dusty Texan town in which it takes place, ambles from one small incident to the next, yet by the end its portrait of youthful sexual beginnings and middle-aged disappointments amounts to something far richer, all the more so for the complete absence of the sort of sentimentality which would undoubtedly be ladled on today in a quick grab for a short cut.
The best movies of the 1970s had not “got small”. How we generally experience them has. Look out for these releases, and experience what cinemagoing used to supply us with — a sense of occasion.