Watching Big, Or Watching Small? Our Film Critic Weighs In

Apr 26, 2019

A few weeks ago, I did a report for NPR on a film that came and went in these parts in just a week. It’s an astonishing movie from the Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke, called Ash Is Purest White. It takes place over 17 years in the lives of two people in the low-level criminal underworld of China. Qiao, the woman, swaggers with arrogance through a disco and mahjong club, while Bin-ke, her guy, lords it over other low rent crooks. It’s temporary.

For the director, Ash Is Purest White is about how the sudden economic expansion in China has obliterated things like personal codes of honor and loyalty – and also actual physical proofs of China’s ancient culture. Qiao rides on a ferry on the lake made by the infamous Three Gorges Dam, which has inundated villages 2000 years old.

I didn’t see Ash Is Purest White at a festival, so I had to watch it on a computer screen by way of a link, which has become too common in the past two or three years. My editor and I did the report, which I think came out pretty well. I generally figure that I have enough experience to compensate when I have to watch a film on a smaller screen than the filmmaker intended.

Then I had the chance to see Ash Is Purest White on an actual movie screen, and I realized that while I didn’t misunderstand the movie, I would have understood it better, richer and a bit differently if I’d seen it big right off the bat. One of the things the film is getting at is how Chinese society is in a big rush – but the question is to where. And there it was, right on that big screen, expansive shots of a Chinese bullet train zipping across huge barren landscapes, and never coming to a stop in a station. These are magnificent images of a country able to move at tremendous speeds, but clueless about the question of direction. And seeing Ash Is Purest White small is really seeing the movie diminished.

You lose the same sense of scale if you watch a John Ford western on a laptop – or worse, a phone. Ford made long shots of stagecoaches and horsemen riding across Monument Valley to show how puny human beings can be in the immensity of nature. You simply can’t see that on little screens. You may get the idea, but you won’t feel your innards sizzling at the sight.

The recent Icelandic film A Woman at War, about a woman taking down high-tension power lines in wilderness areas is one thing on your laptop, but it’s an experience of another dimension seen big, when the sheer size of Iceland’s tundra takes over your entire field of vision. And when a band of musicians suddenly appears on the landscape – on a big screen you feel fully the delicious absurdity. My film classes take place in a theater, and over and over students say that they’re surprised at how it changes a movie to see it big, when they’d only seen it small before. 

More and more, we seem to prefer staying in the comfort of home – and frankly the movie theater experience has been fouled by texting, talking and rudeness. But staying at home, you lose the fascinating experience of the outside world, the surprises that come from leaving the familiarity of home. And in the movies, we lose both community and the sense – the possibility – of grandeur, the chance to see something that could inspire awe.

In 1919, the city of Toledo, Ohio had a population of about 250,000 – and for those people there were about 55,000 movie theater seats. Because there was something big and impressive to see. By that measure, Colorado should have one and a quarter million seats, which it does not.