Disgusted by decadence: Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in the original 1976 poster for "Taxi Driver"
"I am big, it's the pictures that got small," famously declared the bitter, delusional ex-silent screen star Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's classic Sunset Boulevard. For Norma — or Gloria Swanson, as for many the two appeared to be the same character — the advent of sound was a gimmick which would spell the end for the movies. When the film was released in 1950, her anguish, her pathological melancholy, had resonance but for quite different reasons: the industry was again full of foreboding, as the grandeur of the so-called Golden Age waned, and television cut into cinema audiences, reducing them by half in less than a decade.
Norma meant of course that the epic glamour and adventure of her movie age had shrivelled. What she couldn't have imagined was just how small, literally, the pictures would become. Small enough for your TV screen, even smaller for the back of an aeroplane seat, and now, six decades on, small enough to view in the palm of your hand as you sit on a crowded commuter train. How many deaths has the cinema faced in those years and yet somehow come back from the brink? In the mid-1980s, city analysts looked at the UK's attendance figures — then bumping along on a measly 54 million admissions a year — and declared that the game was up for traditional cinema-going, with the new-fangled home video industry supplying the nails for the coffin. It seemed a completely logical conclusion at the time, but was to prove totally wrong. From this low point, audiences actually began slowly to rise again, as video had the effect of making younger people interested in film and therefore eager to go to see the new releases. Now, cinema attendances are back up to roughly the same level as 40 years ago, and this at a time when millions of households have huge plasma screens and their own small libraries of DVDs, favourite films which they think it quite natural to want to own.
It is also true, however, that we have become depressingly obsessed with the methods of delivery. We want things sharper, hyper-real, instantly stoppable and replayable, all the time mistaking gadgetry for quality. We are in complete control in such a situation, something which we've been told is what we want. And it is the reason why the experience of watching a film on the big screen is still unsurpassed. It is not just that it represents one of the few remaining collective experiences, for with current levels of anti-social behaviour in public places even this is being put to the test. It is because on one level we still have to surrender to it — to the darkness, and to the enforcement of concentration. And even the most recalcitrant respond, their patience unconsciously stretching through moments when otherwise they would be flicking around, taking a call or skipping through a longueur with the remote.
On this basis, many older films, made at a time before concentration began to contract, would be a revelation to movie fans if viewed on the big screen. And I count myself among them; as a critic I might have seen thousands of films, but many of the great classics came to me originally via the TV set and even now, in their super-deluxe all-singing all-dancing DVD editions, have stayed obstinately at that size. I have still to see Citizen Kane in the way that it was intended.