I saw the new Wizard of Oz movie. I went last Thursday, the night before "Oz the Great and Powerful" was officially released, to a "preview" that was open to the public.
I got there five minutes before it began. There were nine people in the theater. I spent two hours behind 3-D glasses watching a $200-million spectacle.
Don't misunderstand. It was terrific. Colorful, ambitious, visually stunning and ultimately satisfying, at least in my view, with good triumphing over evil and the Land of Oz safe at last.
But what I saw on that 40-foot screen can't compare with what I watched as a kid on a 14-inch black-and-white TV.
"The Wizard of Oz is coming!" we would scream when a commercial trumpeted the annual airing of the 1939 classic starring Judy Garland. That's right. Annual. As in once a year. My parents would buy special ice cream. My grandmother would line up her rocking chair. It was an event. A big old deal. The network (CBS back then) actually had hosts for the broadcast (I remember Danny Kaye warning kids not to be afraid when the MGM lion roared) and you got the feeling all of America was sitting down to watch the same magical story.
For a very simple reason.
You only got one chance to see it.
Or you had to wait until next year.
This, of course, is fundamentally different from how we entertain ourselves today. Today, whether it's "The Wizard of Oz" or "The Bourne Identity," you can buy it, rent it, stream it, save it, DVR it, download it, borrow it or steal it. Who on earth would plan an entire week around watching one movie on TV?
But that's exactly why there is nothing as special as "The Wizard of Oz" broadcast once was. Young people reading this, try to imagine a world without recording, without downloads, no way to preserve a showing, no stores selling copies, no amount of money that could bring a movie into your home.
Try to imagine if you wanted to see something, you had to clear the time to watch it. One show only. No rewinding. No pausing. No transferring to a portable device to view on an airplane.
I know, kids. Horrifying!
But believe it or not, those of us alive in the 1960s remember a world just like that. We remember when watching "Peter Pan" with Mary Martin was a big annual deal, or "Cinderella" with Lesley Ann Warren. Most of all, we remember Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion. We remember their shining moments and their famous lines, even though we only witnessed them once a year.
We remember the munchkins singing, "We represent the Lollipop Guild!" and the Cowardly Lion asking "Whadda they got that I ain't got?" (answer: "courage") and we remember Dorothy exclaiming, "Oh, Auntie Em, there's no place like home."
Today, there's no need to remember. Just go to YouTube and search for the part of the movie you want to see. Chances are, you'll be watching it 30 seconds later.
Consequently, there is nothing important about when you watch something today, unless you like to be the first to everything.
Otherwise, whenever you want to see it, you see it. You can wait until it hits pay-per-view. Wait until it hits Blu-ray and DVD. Wait until Apple TV rents it to you for $3.99 or Netflix eventually shows it for free.
Maybe this is for the best. I don't know. Movies are art, and part of me says, "Why not have great art available at your fingertips?"
On the other hand, there was something magical about the once-a-year viewing, kind of like the circus coming to town, or a musical star finally playing a concert in your city. You made time for it. You savored it. You didn't just throw it on a pile of "things I gotta watch."
The new Wizard of Oz film dwarfs the original in terms of special effects, color, sets, costumes. It's in 3-D!
But when it ends, there's the same feeling you have with all films today. Maybe I'll buy it on DVD. Maybe I'll stream some clips.
What's missing are the empty bowls of ice cream, the rocking chair moved back to its place, the farewell from a TV host and the dancing dreams of children wondering how long a year is, which is when they'll see the Emerald City again.