I was out for dinner this week with a group of friends, and movies came up in conversation, as they so often do. When asked about what is good in the cinema, this is often a futile exercise for I’ll recommend films with the upmost conviction and they’ll still never actually go and see them. But I suggested the new Coen Brothers feature The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and to my surprise, they’d all seen it. What transpired was an engaging discussion where we spoke of our favourite scenes, what we liked, what we didn’t. With the film launching on Netflix, I realised in that moment what a wonderful thing streaming services are doing to cinema, as without a doubt the most important thing, above anything else, is that films are seen, and thanks to the new means of accessing entertainment, they most certainly are.
This week marks the release of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, and this is arguably the most contentious Netflix endeavour yet, for the film is simply breathtaking on the big screen, it’s an epic masterpiece that is so intimate and personal; it’s the Mexican director’s most accomplished feature to date. Add to that the music, the cinematography, the monochrome aesthetic, it’s a joy to behold in a cinema, no less because there are no distractions by way of our phones or flatmates, it’s a film you need to give 100% to, and in a cinema, of course, that much is a given. So naturally this has led to many film critics, and filmmakers, highlighting the need to see this film in that specific environment, particularly as they mostly had done at film festivals across recent months, and while of course that should encouraged, it’s by no means essential.
Going to the cinema is an expensive evening out (Mary Poppins Returns tickets are on sale in central London at the moment for over £40). Weighing up the costs of the tickets, any refreshments you may purchase, a group of friends going out to the cinema in a contemporary climate is akin to seeing a stage production, or purchasing tickets to a gig, it’s not a cheap and accessible exercise. The cinema is of course the best place in the world, to sit in a dark room and immerse yourself in the lives of others, there’s no better place to be. But even with that in mind, there’s no shame in ever opting to watch films in the comfort of your own home, too.
Streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and CHILI all promote the notion of risk-taking. If you’re going to part with the best part of £20, you’re not going to do that for a film you don’t know an awful lot about. But on a streaming service you’ll just stumble across something, something you may never have seen otherwise, and find your life enriched in a way you would never have expected. Roma being the case in point – it’s got no big names in it, so to speak, it’s black and white and it’s subtitled. While cinephiles may not see any problems with those points (and nor should they), for a wider audience things like that do have an impact, and it’s naïve to think otherwise.
Sean Baker, the director of The Florida Project had this to say about Buster Scruggs, “Love this film and very disappointed that it isn’t getting a proper wide theatrical release. I would have greatly preferred to see this on a big screen. I watch it on a 50” television and it felt disrespectful to the film”. Hmm, you know what is disrespectful to a film of this quality, Sean? People not seeing it. Would any of my friends have paid to see the new Coens at the pictures? Very unlikely, and yet they’d all given a couple of hours at home, at no additional cost, and enjoyed every moment. Did any of my friends go and see The Florida Project when that came out? Sadly not, despite my recommendation. It was too expensive. It didn’t have an all-star cast. They’d never seen any of Baker’s films before. Perhaps a Netflix release would’ve been somewhat beneficial to his film, too.
It’s not a snobbery by the critics of filmmakers when they urge film fans to go and see films like Roma in the cinema. That’s where they likely indulged in it, and having had such a wondrous experience, they just want you to enjoy it in the same way they had. It’s a sincere request, and with the best intentions, but we’re moving into a new age of filmmaking, and streaming services are at the forefront. Plus, think about all of your favourite ever movies – a high percentage of those will have been seen, for the first time, on a smaller screen at home. It’s where I first got into Hitchcock, Kubrick, Allen and Wilder. And it didn’t detract from my sheer adulation for their work.
So look, if you can see Roma on a big screen and feel inclined to do so, then listen to those instincts, it’s one of the best films not just of this year but of this century so far, and you will not regret it in the slightest. But if not, and you watch it at home, then that’s fine too. The most important thing here is that a film like this is seen. So just watch it, however you see fit.