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The Evolution of Watching: The Function of Movies Has Changed

The other day, I found myself deep in conversation with someone from my father’s generation, someone well into their 60s or 70s. As we talked, they painted a vivid picture of what it was like to go to the movies back in the 1970s—a stark contrast to our current, on-demand media landscape. It was an era when missing a film like Lawrence of Arabia or Star Wars in theaters meant you might never get to see it again. Before the days of streaming, before VHS tapes, and long before movies could be easily accessed on cable TV, cinema was a rare and ephemeral experience.

Back then, movies were not just entertainment; they were events. Being tied to specific times and places, each viewing was a commitment. This scarcity turned movie-going into a special occasion. People dressed up, made plans, and chose their films carefully because, after all, they only got to see a few each year. It was a time when the act of going to the movies was as significant as the films themselves.

Contrast this with the present. Consider the last Marvel movie release. If you missed its theatrical run, no problem—you could stream it the following week, purchase it on Blu-ray, or even watch the highlights on your smartphone. Today, films are available at our fingertips in multiple formats, ready to be consumed whenever and however we desire.

This shift is profound. Movies once held as prized experiences are now part of our everyday digital noise. We watch them while multi-tasking; cooking, working from home, or scrolling through social media. The need for simpler plots becomes apparent as complex stories lose their impact amidst the distractions of daily life.

The transformation extends beyond cinema to how we consume television. Gone are the days when missing an episode meant waiting for a rerun. Previously, TV shows aired weekly, giving viewers a full week to ponder cliffhangers and theorize about plot twists. Now, entire seasons are devoured in single weekends, with binge-watching replacing episodic anticipation. This relentless consumption dilutes our focus and engagement, often reducing our connection to subtler narrative elements.

This evolution in media consumption has not only changed how we view films and TV shows but has also reshaped our cultural engagement with these mediums. Where once a movie might have been a major talking point for weeks, now films and shows are quickly consumed and just as quickly forgotten.

As we navigate this era of excess availability, one has to wonder: what have we lost in our transition from the cinema of scarcity to the abundance of streaming? The answer, it seems, lies not just in what we watch, but in how we watch it, and what that says about us as a society. In our rush to embrace the future of media, perhaps we've left behind an essential part of our past.

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