Merle Oberon and Franchot Tone in Dark Waters
I experienced an unusual and vanishingly rare cinematic pleasure last week. It occurred during a viewing of André de Toth
's 1944 gothic thriller Dark Waters
, which I hadn't seen in more than 20 years. The time since my last viewing of this film wasn't the unusual thing, nor was the film itself, though I do wish it were better known. The most unusual feature of my home viewing of Dark Waters
was that it was entirely uninterrupted.
The digital age has altered the cinematic experience in countless ways. It has given us high-resolution videography; computer-based, nonlinear editing systems; revolutions in special effects and animation; and many, many other changes. The digital age has also caused seismic shifts in the nature of film exhibition. I'm not talking about digital projection, though of course that's a Very Big Deal, especially for small theaters that can barely afford expensive 2K or 4K projectors. I'm referring to the fact that, now that many of us are surrounded by internet-enabled devices for much of our waking days, filmed entertainment is constantly available to us.
With a few clicks or button-pushes, we can stream a movie to our internet-enabled televisions, or download one to our laptops or smartphones. Moving-image entertainment is closer to ubiquitous than it's ever been; as often happens, that near-ubiquity has led to a state in which we take the ubiquitous thing for granted. Now that millions of movies are almost instantly available to us, it's easy to forget how remarkable that actually is.
Leslie (Merle Oberon) stuck in the middle in Dark Waters
In 1994, when I was in college, my most excellent film professor, Jeanine Basinger
, allowed each senior film student to select a single film that he or she really wanted to see, and rented a 16mm print of it in the name of film education. I'd read for years about the anarchic 1941 comedy Hellzapoppin
, but had never been able to see it, so that was my request. Basinger had to take me aside and apologize to me, because there was no way she'd be able to find a print of Hellzapoppin
. Now, I can find the whole film online simply by typing its name into a search field. Pretty amazing.
When you're dealing with an actual, honest-to-goodness celluloid film print, it's very unusual for it to be paused once the projector starts up. Usually, such an event would occur only in the event of a projector malfunction. Until quite recently in cinematic history, the act of viewing a film was a necessarily uninterrupted experience that spanned the time that it took to project every frame. Today, the ubiquity of digitally delivered film has brought with it the ubiquity of pausing the viewing experience. I'd hazard that we hit "pause" at some point during most
of our modern digital viewing experiences.
The digital age did not usher in the notion of pausing a film midview. The home video revolution that began in earnest in the 1970s brought us the notion of placing a "bookmark" in a film. Hitting the "pause" or "stop" button allowed us to turn off a movie if the phone rang, or if we were getting sleepy and decided to finish it the next morning. But, in the digital age, pausing a film crosses platforms. I can pause a streaming Netflix film on my living-room TV, then resume it, via my phone, at the exact moment of stoppage once I get upstairs and into bed. If we're watching a film via a website, we can just close the browser window and resume viewing by reloading the page at another time.
I am not one of those people who argues that the ability to digitally pause a film somehow "cheapens" it or renders it "less authentic." I do it just as much as anyone else. Even when I'm watching a streaming episode of a 22-minute sitcom, I'm likely to hit "pause" so that I can get a snack or walk the dog or whatever. It's a convenience for which I am often grateful.
Merle Oberon as a tormented shipwreck survivor in Dark Waters
Still, I was also grateful for the recent, completely uninterrupted viewing of Dark Waters
. I was about two-thirds of the way through the film when I realized that I hadn't paused it even once. It was one of those rare moments when neither my wife nor I was hungry or thirsty, when we didn't need to visit the bathroom, when the dog was walked and fed, when our phones didn't ring. So we were able to simply sit back and enjoy the movie, in much the way that the film's original audiences would have done in 1944.
I enjoyed having that connection to audiences of 70 years ago, and I enjoyed being able to see this very good film in approximately the way in which it was intended to be seen (albeit on a much smaller screen). The one and only other time I'd seen this movie was back in that same college classroom, when it was projected from a 16mm print. So I'm two for two with regard to uninterrupted showings of Dark Waters
Most of the uninterrupted screenings that we experience take place, of course, in movie theaters, where someone else is running the projector. Doomsayers have for years argued that the home-video and digital revolutions will kill the movie theater, but I don't think so. Theatrical moviegoing offers two valuable experiences: The first is communal viewing (the canonical explanation here is that comedies are funnier when you see them in a packed theater), and the second is the unpausable nature of the screenings. In a way, there's more at stake
in a theatrical screening because
it can't or won't be paused. Get up for popcorn, and you are guaranteed to miss at least a bit of the film. (I have a strict "no getting up" policy for myself. Once I sit in a movie-theater seat, I'm there until the credits stop rolling.)
As it happens, Dark Waters
benefits from an unpaused screening. The film is about a young woman who survives an ocean-liner disaster that claims the lives of her parents. Understandably shaken by the trauma, Leslie (Merle Oberon
) goes to the Louisiana estate of the aunt and uncle she's never met; there, she hopes to rest and recuperate in the loving company of family. But her bayou visit soon becomes anything but restful. A team of devious criminals, having read of Leslie's dilemma, have killed her actual relatives and assumed their personae; in that guise, their plan is to drive the already-fragile woman to suicide so that they can collect her sizable inheritance.
Thomas Mitchell (whom you might know better as "Uncle Billy" in It's a Wonderful Life) and the great Elisha Cook, Jr., in Dark Waters
It's a dark, creepy, atmospheric film that takes its time in revealing the villains' deceptive plan. In fact, for the first third of the film, the strange behaviors of the phony relatives may be easily attributed — by both Leslie and the film's viewers — to their eccentric Southern "charm." Their plan is revealed piece by piece, and is actually just a little difficult to put together at first.
This essential narrative delay is achieved, in part, by the film's real-time presentation. That is, had I paused the film at some point during its first act, the tension that de Toth so carefully creates would have been less noticeable, and less powerful. Leslie only assembles the villains' true motives over time, and so do we; the temporal unfolding of the film is essential to its central narrative arc.
Though I hardly go out on a limb in saying it, I'm certain that most films benefit from uninterrupted viewings. Most people watch films to enjoy their narratives, which have been constructed and arranged with great care. If you enjoy watching films for their stories (or, indeed, for other reasons), you'll probably get more out of them by watching them without interruptions. The next time you're sitting down to watch a film you've been looking forward to seeing, try minimizing distractions and resisting the urge to hit "pause." It might add to your enjoyment.
Family dinners are always so uncomfortable.