Sizing up the many private pleasures of the smaller screen

By Ty Burr
Updated February 24, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

Regrets? I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention in a fifth-anniversary issue.

Well, okay, I do have a beef about being this magazine’s chief video critic: The gig has no sex appeal whatsoever. I mean, look at Owen and Lisa over there in the movie review section. They get to go to special previews. They get to sit in comfy screening-room chairs. Me, I catch a movie at the multiplex, and then, six months later, I watch the cassette at home. About the only upside is that I can review movies in my Skivvies if I so choose.

While a movie reviewer captures the glamour of movies, a video reviewer captures their function. And that goes to the heart of the difference between the two media: One’s a big social event shared with strangers; the other’s a small domestic pleasure shared with intimates. The fact that Hollywood makes more than twice as much money from home video as it does from theaters doesn’t change a thing. We may watch movies at home, but we want to know about them when they first appear on the marquee.

When I first started reviewing videos for this magazine in 1990, though, I quickly learned one thing: If a movie review is about first impressions, a video review is about second thoughts. In a sense, I’ve got the easier job, because I get to play Monday-morning quarterback half a year later, using the longer perspective to measure a movie’s aims against its commercial or artistic results. You can hear yourself think once the ballyhoo has died down; you can also, perhaps, see a little more clearly.

Two cases in point: The Godfather, Part III was roundly panned when it was initially released to theaters in 1990. Come video time, and seen in one sitting with the first two in the series, it became obvious how deeply personal this belated third film was to Francis Ford Coppola, how wrapped up in his own sense of family. Conversely, Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy looked like a wee afterthought to its marketing campaign: all primary colors and self- congratulation.

Sometimes the emperor turns out to be buck naked. That’s how I felt about Barton Fink and The Age of Innocence on video. Sometimes a small, vital, overlooked movie can be pushed toward the audience that eluded it in theaters (try Pump Up the Volume or The Tall Guy). Sometimes whole new connections can be made: Who knew that Thelma & Louise is actually the secret sequel to Easy Rider? And those direct-to-video movies, filling the gap left by the demise of the drive-in, offer cheesy pleasures that first-run critics never get to see.

Meanings proliferate, too: You can find the same movie in R, NC-17, and unrated versions. You can view the original ending of Fatal Attraction or a musical number cut from The Wizard of Oz. You can even own a movie, and that’s as far from the bijou experience as can be imagined.

Does that mean that video will eventually kill off movie theaters? Of course not: The lure of communal dreaming is too strong. What video does is domesticate the dreaming, repackaging it to be opened at our leisure. Some grandeur gets lost, yes, but it’s offset by the way in which we’re allowed to choose when we watch, where we watch, how we watch. Movie reviewers get the comfy chairs, but video puts us in the driver’s seat.