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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Movies On-Demand and the Sovereign Self

Tell me this. What is your ratio of movies watched in a movie theater to movies watched in some other format (i.e., on your television, laptop, or smart phone)? I would guess that my own ratio is something like 10:1, the one being the movie I actually drive to the theater to see.

Wonderful, isn’t it? Digital technology has made possible an era of on-demand entertainment. Long gone are the days when a movie would arrive at the movie theater, have its run, and then disappear, perhaps forever, perhaps to reappear one day on television. Right now, if I choose, I can open up my Netflix account and watch any number of movies. I am no longer confined to the new releases that happen to be in the theaters. I can watch just part of a movie and finish it tomorrow—or even next month. Digital technology has enabled me to become more sovereign in my entertainment choices.

But as Manohla Dargis, chief film critic for the New York Times, has pointed out in a perceptive piece, “Out There in the Dark, All Alone,” there is a downside to this rise of the sovereign self. For what we have gained in sovereignty over our entertainment choices we have lost in the communal experience of going to the movies. The movies are less and less a place where the political community gathers to watch images of human beings working out, or failing to work out, their happiness. More and more, the movies are becoming private experience, with at most a couple or a handful of family members or friends huddled around a (relatively) small screen.

Consequently, as I’m sure we’ve all experienced, we are losing our sense of good movie theater manners. Despite the urgings of the theater management before the lights go down, it is rare to get through an entire movie without being distracted by the glow from somebody’s cell phone. Not even The King’s Speech could hold the attention of the young woman sitting near my wife and me, who when Colin Firth and Co. got a little dull for her decided to catch up on her texts.  

One might argue that while the communal experience of watching movies in our culture has changed physically, it hasn’t  changed psychically (i.e. intellectually and emotionally). I may have seen The King’s Speech in the theater. You may have watched it at home via AppleTV or on an airplane, but we both saw the same movie, and so we together are able to talk about it, reflect upon it, and receive its impact just as much as if we had been sitting next to one another in the theater.

This is true enough. But still I believe something is lost when we no longer gather in the same physical space to watch a movie. What could it be? Why does the venue matter? It matters because the on-demand movie-watching experience encourages the thought that entertainment is essentially a private matter, rather than, in the oldest and best of that term, a political one. When ancient Athenians came together to watch a tragedy by Aeschylus or Sophocles, they came together, not as sovereign individuals who, by a stroke of bad historical luck, didn’t have the technology to allow them to enjoy their drama at home. No, they came together as a community to enjoy a work of art that was at once entertainment and commentary on how the community should understand itself and the kind of life it was trying to lead. The same could be said about those who in Elizabethan London walked across the frozen Thames to watch one of Shakespeare’s plays. And, to a point, the same could be said about Americans who throughout most of the 20th century could only watch their movies communally in movie theaters. More than any other art form, the movies have been the communal art of our democracy.   

Although the example is taken from musical theater rather than the movies, I vividly remember last summer when my wife and I went to see a Broadway musical on its summer tour. Neither of us had been to the theater in some while, and we were both struck by the electricity in the experience of coming together in the same room with people who were in an important sense our neighbors and being entertained together.

Dargis writes: “We still commune with others when we watch a movie alone at home — if only in later conversation, online or in our head. But watching that movie with other people is a discrete experience from watching a clip on YouTube and noticing it has 200,000 hits, each a ghostly trace of someone else.”

Digital technology, for all its wonders, bends toward the private. The portability and reproducibility of its products enhance the range of choices to be enjoyed by the sovereign self. There is quite a bit of good in this.

Yet we shouldn’t forget that in its privatizing tendency, on-demand entertainment tempts us into thinking that we are not essentially made to be part of larger communities outside our homes. But we are not made to be sovereign selves, above all, but communal selves. Missing this point, we might not see that, along with the ghostly traces of 200,000 other viewers on YouTube, we too have become ghosts.

On-demand entertainment also tempts us into thinking that watching a movie is a mere evening’s distraction. It causes us to forget that even the most popular cinema is an opportunity for the community to contemplate what it means to live the best sort of life.


  1. I think you are spot on here! People are social animals and I think a serious drawback of technology is that it tends to lead us from entertainment as a component of true leisure in which the needs of the body, mind and soul are met; to just one more mode of distraction that enables us to hide from each other and ourselves. Perhaps the societal angst so rampant today is due to the fact that most people are living an unexamined life...and somehow realize that an unexamined life isn't worth living, but (and this is the crux of the problem) people are not willing to change anything and would rather wallow in their own misery rather than take a chance and "examine their life?" --JCoyle

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