FIVE-YEAR-OLD SON (on encountering the peacock that roams freely through the zoo): Is that a real peacock?

Dad: No honey, don't worry--it belongs to the zoo.

Marcel Ophuls' heartbreaking The Sorrow and the Pity lies in wait all over town. Don't worry, though, it's not a real movie--it belongs to Hollywood Video. It's been captured; you're protected from its sleek and troubling beauty--unless, that is, you make the substantial choice to meet up with the beast on its home turf, projected from a brilliant, newly struck 35mm print onto the big screen. Then all bets are off.

The circumstances under which art is encountered are of utmost importance. If you've never stood before a Cézanne still life, then you certainly have no idea what it's like to see a Cézanne still life, because the reproductions, no matter how accurate, are fundamentally irrelevant--the original is talking in and about paint, and the reproduction doesn't speak that language. Great films speak in and about film, and must be seen in a theater or not at all. A work of art, no matter how beautiful, will remain mute, a conversation waiting to happen, unless and until interviewed in the right circumstances by a thoughtful observer. The "work" in a work of art must be performed by all concerned.

Both film projectors and VCRs can be understood as oracles--revealing to us what only they can see--and yet what different soothsayers they are. In a theater, our relationship to the oracle is, properly, one of supplication: We sit quietly in a darkened room, awaiting the decision to speak. To command revelation, as you do when you pop a tape into your VCR, is to risk being struck down by one or more angry gods. The choice is yours, and you had best think it through carefully.

Does it matter that film and video are tangible in very different ways? Well, the most important decision for a film director is the cut: which frame to put next to which frame. This decision is made flesh in a film print, whereas a videotape offers no such physical evidence, and it seems to me that it must be the case that this difference is felt by the viewer. These editorial decisions have moral implications--they both reveal and explore what kind of person inhabits the film--and the argument can be made that a videotape, in erasing all physical traces of such decisions, removes both the exploration and the revelation, leaving us with only the end result. If ever a film was meant to be seen with its cuts "intact," not erased, it is The Sorrow and the Pity, as director Ophuls has attempted to reveal and explore the moral implications of the choices we make, and how these choices lead to end results.

Is it incidental that a film in a theater cannot be stopped? Certainly not. To the director, the inexorability of film is as fundamental a factor as whether the film is to be shot in black and white or color.

In all great movies, the lesson that Film as composed object presses on us is the same lesson that the films' subjects must learn: Character is determined by the choices we make. If The Sorrow and the Pity has any heroes, it is certainly the brothers Alexis and Louis Grave; these simple farmers knew what they were Resisting and why, because they had done a good job of thinking it through. Most of the others that we see are guilty, not of murder or rape or treason, but of poor thinking and bad choices. Ophuls makes it clear, through the slow accumulation and juxtaposition of evidence and anecdote, that the Occupation presented the French with complex questions--questions which, like works of art, present a soul with three options: think us through badly, well, or not at all. What kind of relationship with morality, or with art, do you want to have? The choice is yours, and as the film print makes devastatingly clear, your choice makes all the difference.