Is Moviegoing Undemocratic?

I saw “Memoria” during the New York Film Festival, projected on a screen in a room somewhere other than my house. It’s a strange, captivating movie, graceful and elusive, with a distinctive pedigree. Starring Tilda Swinton and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who is from Thailand, “Memoria” was shot in Colombia and will be that country’s official selection for the Academy Awards. At once emotionally resonant and tricky to describe, it’s the kind of challenging movie that critics embrace in the hope that it might find an audience beyond the festival circuit.

It will have that chance, though not in the usual way. On Tuesday, Neon — the art-house distributor that brought the Cannes prizewinners “Parasite” and “Titane” to North American moviegoers — announced plans to release “Memoria” later this year. As first reported in IndieWire, Neon will open the film in New York in December, after which it will move “from city to city, theater to theater, week by week, playing in front of only one solitary audience at any given time.” No itinerary has yet been released, but one place you will not be able to see Weerasethakul’s movie is in your living room. According to IndieWire, “it will not become available on DVD, on demand, or streaming platforms.”

Never? I suspect there will be a Criterion Blu-ray one of these days. In the meantime, Neon’s news caused a predictable kerfuffle on film Twitter, whose denizens like nothing better than a heated argument about a movie very few people have seen. The set-to in this case was between those who applauded the “Memoria” strategy as a defense of the aesthetic superiority of going to the movies and those who scorned it as elitist and exclusionary.

Here we go again. In general, I take a noncombatant position in the streaming wars. I’m in favor of people seeing movies in the best possible conditions, and I’m aware that sometimes those conditions will be fulfilled on the home screen. If you can’t make it to the cinema, the cinema can come to you. Clear sound, full screen — can’t lose.

I also think that the terms of the streaming vs. theater debate are misguided. How is it that a quintessentially democratic cultural activity — buying a ticket and some popcorn and finding a seat in the dark — has been reclassified as a snobbish, specialized fetish? The answer, I think, is a form of pseudo-populist techno-triumphalism that takes what seems to be the easiest mode of consumption as, by definition, the most progressive. Loyalty to older ways of doing things looks at best quaint, at worst reactionary and in any case irrational. Why wouldn’t you put your movie out there where everyone could see it?

Everyone, that is, who subscribes to a given streaming platform or pays retail for video on demand. Netflix is not a public utility. Furthermore, the universal accessibility that is part of the ideology of streaming looks in practice more like a kind of invisibility. If you can watch a given movie whenever you want, you never have to watch it at all. Or you can pause after a few minutes, check out something else and maybe come back the next night. A partially read book can shame you from the night stand, but an unstreamed movie drifts alone in the ether.

That is the fate “Memoria” is resisting. As an object and an experience, it resists the rhythms of home viewing to begin with. Swinton’s character, an expatriate named Jessica, seems literally lost in space and time, experiencing the world in a way that alienates her from other people and her own consciousness. She hears noises inaudible to anyone else and finds companions who may not exist. We don’t know if the explanation is psychological or supernatural, or whether Weerasethakul is dabbling in science fiction, metaphysics or some of each. What we do know is that the streets of Bogotá and the lush slopes of the Andes look beautiful in 35 millimeter, and that the sounds and images cast a delicate spell.

The magic may require a theatrical setting. Abstract, slow-moving films that aren’t propelled by dialogue or plot don’t lend themselves naturally to couch-bound, distraction-prone viewing. Weird movies are best seen in the company of strangers. Did you see what I saw? What was it, anyway? The algorithm won’t help you.

“Memoria” is hardly alone in demanding a different kind of attention, and it’s unlikely that the week-by-week, one-theater-at-a-time release strategy will become a widespread business model. But there is something beautiful, even utopian in the idea that another way of looking is possible, that habits can be broken. That we might have to go find movies out in the world, where they are looking for us.

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