The Theater Experience

Posted on 24th November 2003 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

Seeing the film “Mystic River” in the Regal Cinema multiplex demonstrates the power of the theatrical exhibition over television’s presentation. With its much larger dimensions, the theater’s screen draws the audience into the film’s action to the exclusion of all else. This world creation through the theater’s visual superiority grows even more enhanced with its powerful multi-directional sound system, which immerses the audience in the auditory characteristics of Clint Eastwood’s world.

Most of the action takes place in overcast settings with dull gray overtones, so when the film switches to a nighttime setting or a brightly lit room, the contrast seems to come off the screen and into the theater. As the theater’s only light source, when the screen goes black, the theater also falls into darkness. The audience is drawn into the film’s shadows, joining the action to experience the film’s tenser moments with enhanced awareness.
Likewise, when the screen goes bright, as in the film’s police interrogation scenes, the theater becomes illuminated. The audience becomes suddenly aware of their own visibility in the theater, self-conscious. They vicariously experience what the suspect experiences under the harsh interrogation lighting and are able to identify with the character’s discomfort. The starkest example of this effect is when Jimmy shoots Dave and the screen goes completely white, enhancing the shock of the moment.

In addition to providing a singular, overriding light source, the increased screen dimensions add expansiveness to certain shots. The film’s many aerial views are all the more breathtaking because they are on a screen some twenty feet wide rather than the twenty-some inches of a home television set. The screen size also enhances the details of close shots. Facial expressions, prison tattoos, and peeling paint are all drawn into sharp focus for the audience‚Äôs examination. These small details draw us further into the filmmaker’s world.

While all of these visual aspects of the filmmaker’s world are enhanced through the large screen medium, the multi-directional sound system, which surrounds the audience also serves to immerse their senses. When Sean’s wife calls him, he notes that he can hear the Manhattan traffic in the background. When we cut to an extreme close up of her lips and the receiver, we can feel her standing at a pay phone alongside a busy street because we are suddenly surrounded with the sounds of traffic, although we cannot see it in the blurry background. This aspect of theatrical sound, which permeates the air, helps to complete the ambience of the world.

In overriding the audience’s two chief senses, the theatre intensifies the audience experience. With its expansive screen size and superior sound system, the theater immerses the audience in the filmmaker’s world, enhancing every detail of it and making it more sensational. Each day home theater systems attempt to mimic the theatrical effect, further emphasizing the effectiveness of the multiplex presentation.

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