“Normalcy is not interesting.”
Hallelujah! 2021 has arrived, perhaps a bit more slowly than any of us would have preferred. And with it comes a very slight degree of optimism. Many believe that things could not get much worse, but that remains to be seen. Vaccine distribution has signaled a possible return to life as it was a year ago, but alongside signs of hope are some hidden warnings that our behaviors have forever changed.
For me, one of those warnings is apparent in how I get my entertainment fix these days. Being an avid movie fan, I have the opportunity to indulge in classics from years gone by and view previously undiscovered gems of the silver screen, all from the comfort of home. Meanwhile, I can devour whole seasons of worthwhile or escapist television in just a few sittings.
I am fortunate. When our house was being built, I was able to tailor the man-cave to my own preferences, which included keeping the MartinLogan speakers that I have had for about thirty-five years. They still provide the most natural sound to my ears, and they have enough heft to keep the neighbors thinking that a conflagration is starting up next door. A recent acquisition was an excellent flat-screen monitor to enhance my viewing experience.
With about ten streaming services and my collection of DVDs, not to mention all those CDs, I could practically live down there, only to emerge when the culinary gods demanded a meal. In addition to creating new recipes, I have kept busy writing and editing my next book, as well as preparing scripts for my two radio shows.
In December, I noticed indications that even if we all get back in the swing of things, nothing will be the same. This realization started to set in when I learned that Warner Brothers decided to release all of its 2021 films in theaters and on HBOMax simultaneously. The Christmas Day rollout of Wonder Woman 1984 would be the opening flourish to WarnerMedia’s distribution strategy. Having enjoyed the first Gal Gadot feature, I was looking forward to this new blockbuster with a certain sense of anticipation.
But I wondered about the efficacy—did anyone actually use this word before the pandemic?—of the simultaneous release. Not that there were all that many movie palaces open anyway, but what was the point? Oh, I get it. Loans on big-budget spectaculars were coming due and revenue was nowhere to be found. Understandable.
Then there was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the film adaptation of the Langston Hughes play with star turns from Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman. This was on Netflix, which continues its amazing run as a competitor to the big studios of yesteryear. But why release this in select theaters and at home? Oh, I get it. In order to qualify for Oscar contention, a film had to be released before year’s end. Understandable.
I watched the pictures, not really caring for the first and admiring the second (although I felt that it might have benefitted from a better adaptation of the play for the big screen). This provoked the one overriding question that went beyond studio politics, at least for me. Would I have gone to the theater to see either of these upon release, as opposed to waiting for them to become available for home viewing?
Wonder Woman was a good test, as more than likely, seeing it on the big screen with enough decibels to stun an elephant would have been my preferred manner of experience. Perhaps if I had viewed it in the theater, I might have had a more favorable impression. From my vantage point at home, it just didn’t work on pretty much every level. I would not venture into the theater to see it a second time.
On the other hand, Ma Rainey was a film with a compelling storyline, great cast, and fine musical score. In a normal situation, I would have gone to the theater to see it and then, possibly, watched it a second time at home. My behavior would have been analogous to going to a recital and then getting the recording of the program and listening to it later.
This dilemma—we can call it “Is it live or is it Memorex?”—was brought into my own musical world with a discussion that was beginning online and in newspapers. Over on Slipped Disc, Norman Lebrecht’s popular website, a blogger wrote about the changes she has experienced as the months of isolation have continued, and what impact this has had on her musical life. Here are a few examples from readers’ comments to the post “COVID Has Killed My Desire for Classical Concerts”:
Pre-Covid I would usually be out 4 nights a week for live performances and at weekends the norm of 2 shows in a day. I will not be returning to this. Not because of any fear but because I’ve started to enjoy my free time at home. I’m getting my fix from live and recorded performance on the radio. Never thought I would say that. I will still attend the things I want to see but will be much more selective.
The same here. I was addicted to playing and was out 2 or 3 nights a week with different ensembles. I would spend hours a week practicing. Then add in the concerts I would attend. All gone. But I’ve rediscovered my collection of great CDs and have had more time for hiking, bicycling, and cooking. When, if, things ever get back to normal I’m going to select one orchestra to play with and recover my life!
I felt that way [miserable without live concerts] for a few weeks, but I have adapted. I also have figured out how much money I was spending on trips to Boston, Montreal and Ottawa. Tickets, gas and car maintenance adds up.
Everything needs training. You may believe that, not having been to concerts for a long time you would rush at the first opportunity. But the sad truth is, the less you go, the less you want to go.
This is pretty stunning. We went from talking about how much people were looking forward to returning to normal, to changing the norm itself. What happens if our audience’s appetite for attending live performance is altered to the point where we only see them once in a while? Could it be that experiencing the performing arts will consist of going to a venue as well as watching and listening from the comfort of home?
If we go through a period of severe belt tightening, I think that the stay-at-home culture will prevail. It may be too expensive for a family to justify the benefits of live experience, having to spend around fifty dollars for tickets to Wonder Woman, or much more for a live performance of Pictures at an Exhibition. Also, some would rather watch and listen from their favorite chairs, take bathroom breaks whenever they need, and make their own snacks for substantially less money.
Art museums must be asking themselves the same question. It may not make a difference to some people if they view a masterpiece in person or have a virtual experience on their screens at home, along with access to every piece of information about the work of art on the internet. I suspect that all of you who are reading are fervently hoping that most everyone will continue to want to experience art in person.
However, we cannot expect the same devotion to live experience among the next generation of patrons who have grown up with digital devices. Change is now inevitable, and although we might mourn the passing of traditions, we cannot force younger folks to stay the course, as much as we might wish it. With any luck, however, perhaps they will embrace how we used to experience the arts, and leaders of business and industry will respond accordingly.
So here is an early toast to what was, as well as the hope that we will be back in the theaters and concert halls in a way that protects the conventions of the past, while looking to the innovations of the future.
Pass me the Milk Duds, please.