I recently journeyed out to the Moolah Lounge here in St. Louis to check out a holiday classic, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, on the big screen. It’s a movie that I first saw in December 1989 when I was 13 years old. I have seen it countless times since on television, as it has become a December staple on multiple networks through the years. But I hadn’t seen it on the big screen since 1989. This time, I found myself enjoying it in new ways that I had never enjoyed it before, not even in 1989. It was the hap-hap-happiest viewing of that movie since Bing Crosby tap danced with Danny fuckin’ Kaye. And this led me to wonder–how much of the movie experience gets lost in translation when you’re watching at home instead of in a theater?
The reality is that there’s such a huge gap in the experience. No matter how large your TV, no matter how dark you can make your living room, no matter how high the resolution is on your television, it’s impossible to immerse yourself into a movie in your living room the same way that you can in a theater. Most importantly, a theater eliminates any and all outside distractions. In a theater, I’m not worrying about my quarreling neighbors. If someone calls or texts me in a theater, they aren’t going to reach me because the phone is off. I’m not going to pause the movie because I forgot to do the dishes or balance my checkbook. When you’re in a theater, you’re into the movie 100% and nothing else is going to distract you. It’s an attention vacuum.
By being immersed, you also notice more things that went into the making of the movie. You can pick up on the nuances of the screenplay, noticing certain plot points and the way they echo each other. This is especially valuable with comedy. You find ways the film was edited, places where the foley artist stepped in, and generally the direction the film’s makers wanted to take the viewer. And after all, the theater was the director and studio’s intended viewing place to begin with. By seeing a movie in the theater, you’re seeing it in its ideal setting, arranged for optimal enjoyment.
Moreover, there’s so very much more to see on the much larger screen. As I said, I’ve seen Christmas Vacation tens of times. But I’d never noticed the giant pears and other large food items that adorned Clark Griswold’s office, where he works as a Food Preserver. I had never noticed the box of Nut n’ Honey sitting on their breakfast table, a cereal that I’d forgotten even existed. I never picked up on the flat front wool pants that the elderly relatives wore. I hadn’t noticed the snot matted into Snot’s (the dog) fur. I hadn’t realized that cousin Eddie was wearing the same golf shoes from the first Vacation movie while inside the Griswold home, or that Uncle Louis and Aunt Bethany made an appearance in the saccharine home video screening that Clark held while held captive in the attic.
By watching in a theater instead of at home, you also pick up on the vibe of your fellow theater patrons. It’s a lot easier to laugh when you’re in a room full of a hundred other people who are also laughing. Tension in scary movies becomes palpable when others around you are whisper quiet and glued to the screen. It’s a unified experience that you share with a room full of strangers.
I should probably clarify that I’ve always enjoyed Christmas Vacation, so it’s not as though I found myself loving a movie I’d never liked before. I just enjoyed it more this time. It was a remarkably similar experience to the one I had when I saw An American Werewolf in London on the big screen just before Halloween. I’ve been meaning to see more classic–or at least older–movies on the big screen for a year or so now. It’s the way they’re intended to be viewed and the big screen provides the best chance for maximum enjoyment. And my residence in a major metropolitan area offers me many places to see classic movies on the big screen. Since there are only a few short weeks left in 2011, I think I’m going to set my New Year’s Resolution for 2012 right now. I vow that in 2012 (and beyond), I will be watching as many older movies as I can from the comfort of a theater seat. And I will therefore enrich my movie-watching experience a great deal. I’m even going to get an early jump on it by going to see Santa Claus Conquers the Martians at the Moolah this coming weekend. Hallelujah, holy shit, where’s the Tylenol?