The Terminator and the Cinema

In the last ten minutes or so of The Terminator, the eponymous antagonist—a time-traveling cyborg—sheds the Austrian bodybuilder suit it’s been wearing all along, and jauntily advances into a Ray Harryhausen techno-industrial nightmare. It’s chasing (protagonist and mother of future resistance leader) Sarah Connor into a factory of automated machinery. Let’s be clear, it’s choppy, it’s relatively low-budget, it’s dimensional stop-motion. In this finale, the curtain is pulled back and the process of creation takes hold. One can see James Cameron’s vast vision butting against budgetary and technological constraints, with chin held high, and the director’s Roger Corman tutelage worn proudly on his sleeve. The dynamic and style of the film changes, and the tech-paranoia parable effectively compounds itself as the real world progression of technological advancement is laid out—the choppy aesthetic and the desire to paper over it dictates how the action is framed, pinpointing where special effects technology sat in the film world of 1984 and designating a course for improvement to present. This thematic stacking is a nifty, inadvertent consequence of limitation. In the franchise itself, this progression is clear—The Terminator was a B-movie with a blockbuster heart and its excellent sequel T2: Judgement Day is the opposite, setting the template for future installments, including one this week—Terminator Genisys.

With the benefit of hindsight, The Terminator foretells quite a bit about where James Cameron was heading—treatises on human folly, dissections of the military-industrial complex, large-scale, benchmark setting special effects, self-aware action blockbusters, clunky but well-meaning romanticism. But, The Terminator started things off on more modest scale—its budget (an estimated $6 million) was not paltry, but certainly not enough for the grand tech-noir vision originally conceived, and situated the film in a mode of production much different than many remember. Seven years later, the groundbreaking sequel cost roughly $100 million, setting a record at the time, and incorporating many ideas left on the table for the first picture. In the ensuing decades, many forget that The Terminator was a surprise success, a small film with a modest budget that overachieved. It’s a classic case of the sequels and franchise mentality rewriting the origin story. Now, the whole of the series is viewed as a succession of boundary pushing, blockbusting operations. In the current state of franchises, things start out huge and only expand as the installments and spinoffs mount.

I caught a screening this week of the original Terminator movie and it was an interesting experience, one that said a lot about modern film-going and the way perceptions change markedly over time. It was a very nonplussed crowd that gathered on this evening, one looking to imbibe the singles and not think too much about the deep cuts. For the duration, two women next to me and two behind me snickered every time they saw Arnold, every time there was something noticeably dated, and every time a special effect was slightly unwieldy. More than halfway through, someone fell asleep and was snoring. People naturally began commenting on this and chuckling in response. Then, in classic form, someone’s cell phone went off multiple times, which ultimately enticed a do-gooder to loudly chastise them to “turn it off!” (which, to be fair, is perfect for The Terminator since this exchange is an exemplary modern case of machines v. humans). It was an odd experience to be sure. I was persistently totally detached from the film and my experience was altered irrevocably. But, in this complacency I surmised a powerful mirror reflecting what we expect from the theater now, what we bring to the proceedings, and how it fits within modern society.

In all this commotion, I was treated to a variety of diverse perspectives just by virtue of short bursts of persistent annoyance. I was made uncomfortable and more aware of my own perspective. That’s the frustration and the beauty of what it means to while away at the theater—you have to deal with other people’s reactions, and sometimes they will counter yours, and in rare cases they will undermine yours. In this frustration there is a real push-pull of attention that creates something new, and augments one’s relation to the text. We have strayed from this dynamic over the last 70 years—since the inception of television, at the least—and it has changed our relation to film, our expectations and our feelings toward the medium, and how we think about it individually and collectively. The place of the cinema has changed drastically over the years; it is not the bastion it once was, having been chiseled away over time, and exploded at random intervals. We are deep into the long-held movie industry nightmare—the majority of films are watched either through television or a computer. What does this mean for our collective association with the cinema and with film in general? Have we sought comfort and solace in easily digestible texts and cozy environments?

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a new release from here on out as rough around the edges, and sincere in its limitation, as The Terminator. Maybe this is a luxury that can no longer be afforded or abided—verisimilitude is a foremost concern and the active, transparent process of working out the kinks in new styles and techniques is muted. This is just not a part of filmmaking, especially mainstream filmmaking, in the modern industry. Films are squeezed, buffed, and polished at both ends—mainstream films go bigger, making the impossible passable and believable with ever more incredible technological innovations and intricately arranged moving parts, and indie films are increasingly able to gloss over limitations and constraints. Are we ever likely to see a film where the vision of the concept so far outpaces the available technology to present it feasibly? Or, at least a film with the inherent faith in an audience to fill in the gaps where necessary and not totally disconnect from the experience? Films occupying this end of the spectrum tend toward categorization within avant-garde and experimental circles. Is it possible that over the course of three decades The Terminator has mutated from a mainstream action film into an exercise in avant-garde experimentation by virtue of changing perceptions and shifting audience response?

What do we expect from films from the past? Should we hold them to the standards of today? Does this make any sense? This argument could go either way or both simultaneously: considering films in their original context is crucial, but, exploring the particulars of our modern disconnect from these time capsules is immensely instructive, providing insight into how expectations have changed, how our experience and engagement with film has transformed, and how the industry has guided our response over time. To properly gauge these changes and fluctuations and manipulations, it remains essential to experience something with an audience, to retain relatively controlled conditions over time to provide accurate, reliable measures.

The Terminator finds itself climbing a steeper hill than did movies in the past. Technology has jumped to the forefront as a benchmark and a critical category since the late 1970s when the blockbuster format fully took hold. Since then, discussions center on concepts such as dated styles, clunky motion, and the believability threshold. With all this swirling around, the bar for accessibility, appraisal, and critical success is raised impossibly high, and is always getting higher. It makes me long for a time of suspended disbelief, where going along for the ride and giving the benefit of the doubt deepened the overall experience of letting go in a crowd. We’ve embroiled ourselves in a zero-sum game of aesthetic dissection approaching an arbitrary asymptote. This is good and bad—it garners more discerning and attentive viewership, as well as more sophisticated audiences, but, it stifles variability and the necessity of fostering multiple modes of watching.

Critical distance and a sense of context create even more complex viewing experiences, and the ability to slip into different modes and models of viewing according to the particular text will allow a more chameleonic viewer, one that has the complex ability to don the particular vantage of a target audience, and intuit the particulars of the targeting in the process. Often, this is revealed best in a communal theater setting, so tempering at-home viewing with some uncomfortable, diverse, revealing theater experiences remains a must for ardent movie thinkers. Discomfort in healthy doses can be highly productive. Comfortable movie-going breeds uniformity—we applaud when Arnold says “I’ll be back,” content not to dig deeper and crack into less celebrated threads. Texts get fossilized in amber and placed on a shelf, crystallized in an unerring discourse, rather than remaining malleable and organic. It’s important not to lose sight of this as we move into a future sure to provide us with mounting technological treats designed to make life easier, more efficient, and more contented, dulling the rough edges and rewards of difficult, contentious experiences.

Despite the low lighting, the fixed position, the uniformity of the theater, it will never be a vacuum of experience. That’s the paradox of media experience in the modern age—in the theater, where we all pay a uniform price of admission and the set-up is designed to curate your viewing, a plethora of other factors inevitably creep in, whereas in the home theater, the variations between viewing experience is greater, but the set-up more enables a comfortable, controlled experience, tailored to one’s liking and specifications. Many condemn the poor etiquette in theaters, writing think-pieces about how morality and decency and society are crumbling around us—“it didn’t used to be this way,” they’ll say, “people used to be courteous and conscientious.” I propose three responses: 1) your memory or research is lacking, 2) why tamp and cordon collective experience, and 3) bourgeois notions of decency be damned. Embrace the disconnect for the moment and appreciate their ineptitude. Realize they came to the theater with entirely different preconceptions, and with an entirely different mentality about the experience and what the rules are. At these extreme junctures of poor taste and common curtesy the theater thrives and remains relevant.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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