Last Film Friday, I talked about using clips or even single frames from movies to teach film – the way that a single shot can crystallize a particular aspect of a particular movie. Part of the reason this is done, of course, is to reproduce the sight of movies online or on the printed page. But I think it’s important to stress that even in their best, most edifying or electrifying forms, these excerpts don’t communicate the same thing as seeing a movie in the dark, on a big (or biggish) screen, with a bunch of strangers. As a part-time movie critic, I’ve even found this true outside of “real” paying audiences. Though some types of movies (comedy and horror, most often) play best to a less stuffy crowd, the simple math of dark plus screen plus strangers can still add up to a noticeably different experience than the one you got at home, or on a phone, or in a two-minute excerpt that distills a movie’s thesis into a particular evocative sequence.
Take for example the movie Green Room, which is going into wider release this weekend for a final pre-summer push. I saw it with a bunch of other critics (and, okay, one friend, who I brought with me) at a press screening a few weeks ago, and I felt like I’d been put through a wringer in the best way. The movie starts as an indie-rock slice of life, following a punk band on a DIY tour in the Pacific Northwest. After one gig goes bust, they schedule a make-up at what turns out to be a skinhead bar. They want to just play their songs, get paid, and get the hell out, but one of the band members stumbles into a scene of violence, and the club owners insist that they “wait” there for the police to come. You may infer, as the band members do, that perhaps the police aren’t coming to save them, and Green Room eventually turns into a sort of siege film, populated by people who have never, ever been in a siege before.
There are certainly particular shots and sequences in Green Room that play particularly well, and that I remember now. But excerpting them wouldn’t capture the movie’s cumulative power – the escalating tension of the first half and the sustained tension of most of the rest of it. I was sitting there in the relative sterility of a screening room, alongside other hardened critics, and I was damn near sweating. I’m sure streaming the movie will do a fine job showing off how well-made and engrossing it is, but I can’t imagine it feeling more visceral than it did up there on the big screen.
Sometimes that collective experience can redeem, or at least enhance, even a nightmarish experience. Which is to say: Earlier this week, I went to a press screening of the movie Mother’s Day. It is the spiritual successor to director Garry Marshall’s romantic comedies Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve, so you kind of know what you’re getting into. Except you kind of don’t, because I foolishly assumed that this paean to moms might, at very least, not be any worse than its predecessors (then again, I also foolishly assumed this movie would actually be about characters’ relationships with their mothers, while in fact it’s mostly about the absence of mothers from various situations).
Mother’s Day is a comedy, I guess, although considering Marshall’s handle on the composition and delivery of jokes, it might as well be science fiction (at one point, he soft-pedals a pratfall, seemingly afraid that having someone in a comedy actually fall down might be too hurtful). But that led to an unusual experience at a screening room. Critics are usually relatively quiet, especially during deadly-terrible comedies with few discernible laughs. So really, the amount of laughter that Mother’s Day generated was pretty remarkable, and all the more so for being unintentional. It’s hard to make a comedy so bad it’s funny, but Garry Marshall has done it, and a roomful of critics confirmed it.
One of the reasons we often keep quiet in press screenings is basic common courtesy, but like a dysfunctional family meltdown at brunch, Mother’s Day obliterated any sense of decorum. As the movie’s inane attempts at comedy (llama reaction shots) and drama (book-signing author: “Who should I make it out to?” Secret daughter: “Your daughter!”) accumulated, the laughter grew louder and more open. The stranger sitting next to me and I exchanged glances more than once, as if to say: Is this really happening? The simultaneous admission that we were all (or anyway, most; I don’t want to speak for everyone there) mortified, confused, and irritated by this movie actually gave the screening a smidge of something utterly lacking in the movie itself: joy. It was a strangely joyful experience. While I wouldn’t want other critics snidely guffawing through a movie most people hated but I happened to love (and there are plenty), our mutual derision was, in the end, a more effective (and amusing) form of communication than this movie itself. This couldn’t be conveyed in a single shot, or even a clip of the moment where a character says “it’s a karaoke machine!” twice in about five minutes. Sometimes, even if it’s just a movie, even if it’s just a terrible movie, you have to be there.