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Home Theater as Revival House

With the rise of home theater, revival houses have almost completely lost their appeal and reason for existence.

Home Theater as Revival House

May 17, 2010 10:03 AM,
By Jason Bovberg

Over the years, I’ve lamented the fact that revival theaters have gone the way of the Dodo bird. As a kid, I remember attending showings of classic films at local art houses and even in auditoriums at the multiplex. (Imagine that!) Revival houses are still out there, but they’re pretty rare—about as rare as the drive-in theater now. And while the gradual loss of the drive-in in America is arguably a tragic loss for our communities (if not for film lovers who value strong AV presentation), the loss of the revival house is really no big deal. After all, the home theater is the ultimate revival house.

I have strong memories of catching such films as Gone with the Wind, Spartacus, Lawrence of Arabia, Vertigo, Dracula (1931), Dial M for Murder, the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns,and of course The Rocky Horror Picture Show at revival houses when I was growing up. There were many more. I was a film freak at a very young age, and I can recall scanning the newspaper for upcoming engagements of the classics. I had my favorite venues, from the local college to miniscule art houses near the beach. I suppose I’ve always had the urge to seek out little-known gems, whether those gems are in film or literature or music.

The best revival houses made every effort to find the best prints possible for their engagements. Sometimes, a particular film might have been specially restored for the revival, as was the case with Lawrence of Arabia and Gone with the Wind in the 1980s. More often, theater owners searched high and low for passable prints, striking gold on occasion but usually settling for a deeply flawed, scratchy thing that was barely watchable. I remember watching a hideous print of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, only to see the film stop after 20 minutes, the house lights come up, and the red-faced manager apologize to the audience and offer refunds.

With the rise of home theater, revival houses have almost completely lost their appeal and reason for existence. I say “almost” because there is a sense of community that is undoubtedly lost (although it’s not as pronounced as that of the drive-in theater). The best revival engagements from my youth involved auditoriums filled with like-minded film lovers, laughing at all the right moments, savoring the performances, sharing the experience of a work of art. There was rarely any direct engagement with these people, but rather just the knowledge that I was connecting almost psychically with them. I would argue that a variation of that sense of community still exists with the “home theater as revival house” notion, except now that community is virtual.

My home theater, I could argue, is a premium revival house, the likes of which I could only dream when I was a kid. DVD and now Blu-ray are bringing classics and forgotten gems to screens like never before. It’s as if I have permanent access to an impossibly perfect revival house—any movie I want in absolutely fine audio/visual quality at my fingertips to enjoy whenever I wish. Seriously, today’s film lovers never had it any better, and I have the feeling we take this new accessibility to quality for granted every single day.

We all know about the explosion of DVD a dozen years ago, and how it brought about a revolution in home theater. It was eye-opening to me, too, but something perhaps forgotten in the midst of this revolution was the newfound accessibility of older films. Movies that some assumed had been lost forever found new life on the new digital format. Or movies that were once prohibitively expensive on VHS and laser disc could now be found for $5 on a far-superior format. Suddenly, nearly every film ever made could be purchased cheaply and enjoyed forever at home.

Every week brought a new “classic” release for which some nice film group went ecstatic with joy. Heck, my library is packed with 1950s-era films noir that I only discovered in the past eight years. I managed to assemble the complete Alfred Hitchcock filmography and watched it in chronological order. A friend of mine has assembled his own library of Akira Kurosawa films, care of the meticulous Criterion Collection. Another friend has gone to great lengths to collect all of Ed Wood’s films—down to the weirdest cross-dressing obscurity. And let me tell you: The cost of owning these films is far less than it would’ve cost to catch these movies at revival houses.

That’s true of even the high-def era. From The African Queen to Doctor Zhivago, we’re getting some of the greatest older films in cinema history, in outrageous detail and vibrancy, for an absolute steal. One of the first films I bought in high definition—an HD DVD of Casablanca—is stunning in the home theater, its restoration of the highest caliber: fabulous detail, crisp contrast, and accurate sound reproduction. There’s an emotional heft to the purity of the image, almost as if the care that was obviously given to the film makes it more inviting, easier on the eyes, more seductive, but of course, these are pure film-nerd terms. But it’s as if the community aspect I mentioned earlier has been replaced by something more intimate, more personal. The films have become more for the individual, or the family, than for the mass audience.

I recently purchased the Blu-ray disc of The Wizard of Oz and was able to share it with my children in a way that I had never been able to experience when I was a kid. In my youth, I watched the film perhaps a dozen times on commercial TV, edited for time, interrupted by advertisements, colors and detail muted and smeared with age, audio rendered tiny by time and technology. Today, I can show my kids The Wizard of Oz on a big screen with remastered picture and sound, and it probably looks better than audiences in 1939 saw it. The projection/reproduction equipment we have in our 21st century homes far exceeds what was technologically possible 70 years ago. My kids have it better than the audiences who first saw the film!

That’s right: To my kids, to the next generation, classic films will always be as accessible as any other film—a NetFlix order away—and they’re of the greatest quality imaginable. Here’s hoping they don’t take that for granted!

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