The Trapped Bird

As with every discussion that tries to adjudicate the pros and cons of the theatrical-vs.-home viewing experience, what I’m about to discuss is wholly subjective, steeped in nothing more than personal preference, even if others might relate to the feeling.

As a devout moviegoer and not moviehomer (moviestayer?), the age of Covid has been a crash course in what it’s actually like to watch a flick at home in 2020. Though I grew up in front of the boob tube educating myself on film past, I’ve spent scant time on my couch since moving to New York City eleven years ago (over a decade?! Gee willikers, I’m old), for some of the reasons explained here, but also because of the big malus domestica‘s (sad face; once-) thriving theatrical ecosystem, with more titles, new and old, on offer simultaneously than any solitary corporeal body could ever dream of seeing.

Though learning how to engage fully with art in my living room has required some self-training on my part, a recent masked MASKED MASKED!!! MASKED!!! MASKED!!! MASKED!!! return to a movie theater reminded me of the attributes of public consumption that cannot be replicated in a humble, or even opulently palatial, abode. One such fundamentally-unchangeable characteristic has to do with control, made all the more evident by the out-of-control movie that is The Painted Bird.

No matter how much your tricked-out setup might rival a “real” theater, the viewer is still in control of the remote. When it comes to the three-hour, relentlessly and ruthlessly disturbing Painted Bird, there’s an inherent sense of safety knowing you can always pause the misery or fast forward through the gore. Now, for the more sensitively-inclined, this remote-distance (see what I did there?) has its advantages; the easily-triggered should derive more comfort from the knowledge that they’re not at the mercy of a potentially cruel artist.

But for the throngs of us emotionally-stunted who seek out art that makes us feel something, the remote ruins the immersive effect; a nightmare isn’t as scary if you’re aware that you can wake up at any moment. In a theater, we’re enveloped, but not ensconced. And though looking away from the screen is always an option, or even walking out, doing so means missing something that the filmmakers self-evidently believe is worth witnessing (turning away from the world’s suffering is thematically central to The Painted Bird).

But by buying a ticket and walking into that theater, we hand ourselves over to the storytellers’ whims. We’re forcibly dragged into hell and beyond with the boy, struggling to comprehend the master plan — is there one? — of whoever/whatever created this madness (religion plays a prominent role throughout). The Painted Bird‘s poster seems to symbolize this indenture; the movie shovels grimy dirt upon grimy dirt onto the audience, burying us under the weight of the world’s horrors (which crows have long represented), with little recourse to escape. The remote is the rope unavailable to the entombed.

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