The Netflix age

Films are dead, long live films

July 08, 2017 04:05 pm | Updated 06:23 pm IST

I have long believed that the magic of films was not just in their content but also in the space in which they were watched. Watching a movie on a big screen in a theatre is qualitatively different from watching it on a TV. The experience of a film lies in the special quality of seeing images larger than life and in front of you, and to hear the sound submerge you. The evolution of movies has been as much about the technology and craft of the film as of the technology of viewing.

So, I resisted watching films on TV screens. The height of pleasure was to sit in the middle of a large auditorium with very few people around and watch a film. When TV became the favoured medium for movie-watching, there were also corresponding changes to the grammar of the film and to the grammar of viewing itself.

A matter of process

Then, the next revolution took place. From watching films on TV, we moved to watching films on computer screens. As the sizes of laptops, and screens grew smaller, so did my interest in watching films on these screens. And then the worst insult of all was when people started watching films on tablets and smartphones. This made me lose faith in the power of films. How could one ever think of watching films on these miniature screens? I wanted to tell these people, size does matter.

It was not just the size. Watching films on these gadgets changed another important facet of movie-watching. The process of watching a movie is one of collective viewing, of being socially bound in a unique way. It is almost as if we voluntarily agree to be locked together in a room to watch and hear the same thing. In the cavernous cinema theatre, we were slaves to the filmmaker, having little of our own thoughts left when we were in the middle of watching the film.

The collective viewing of films also meant that we couldn’t watch a movie just whenever we wanted. We had to wait for the movie shows, stand in line and get tickets. Watching a movie was a lesson in social behaviour and responsibility. We also learnt the most essential lesson, that there cannot be instant gratification of individual desires. The process of watching films in theatres taught us was that we are under the control of films and not the other way around.

Watching these films on a laptop, smartphone and other personal gadgets destroys these aspects. We watch what we want, when we want. We watch by ourselves, in all kinds of spaces and postures. And sadly, we are no longer under the control of the film.

Rather, the film is in our control and like the story of monkeys with a remote in their hand, we fast forward when we want, mute it while we speak on the phone, turn it off somewhere in the middle so that we can come back to it later. There is no greater violence that we can do the art of films than when we treat them in this cavalier manner.

Small luxuries

And then came Netflix. When the young things said that this was the next great revolution, I desisted. I refused to watch films on these gadgets or on TV. I wanted the luxury of ‘pure’ watching on a big screen.

But… I must confess that I have finally succumbed. I feel sheepish and don’t want to acknowledge this easily. I am caught in the net and I can see what it has done to me. I feel like a master of the world with countless films at my fingertips. Even though I recently subscribed to it, I can see the seductive power of watching countless films and TV shows at my convenience.

I don’t think youngsters realise how much Netflix has changed or will change the way they perceive the world around them. They didn’t realise how much this immersion in films on these small gadgets would change the logic of their perception, where everything would be reduced to something smaller and tinier. Where there is a real danger that the visual world will become dominated by the spoken word.

Immersed in this mode, the world outside becomes little more than images on a computer screen. The way we see the world and the future will be irrevocably changed in the age of Netflix and I can only rephrase the famous Phantom slogan: Films are dead, long live films.

Sundar Sarukkai is professor of philosophy at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

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