Tuesday, June 7, 2016

William Paul's "When Movies Were Theater"

William Paul is Professor of Film Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of Laughing/Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy (1995) and Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy (1983). In an earlier life, he was a movie reviewer for Rolling Stone and The Village Voice. Since then his writing on film genres, technology and movie theaters has appeared in academic journals and anthologies on film comedy, horror film and film exhibition. He has also provided a video essay for the Criterion Collection disc of Design for Living.

Paul applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, When Movies Were Theater: Architecture, Exhibition, and the Evolution of American Film, and reported the following:
When Movies Were Theater: Architecture, Exhibition and the Evolution of American Film examines the surprisingly varied ways in which the film image was situated within architectural space over a roughly eighty year period, from the earliest showings of short films in vaudeville theaters in 1896 to the Cinerama presentation of 2001 in the late sixties. Does context help determine content? That is the key animating question for this book, with context defined as both physical in terms of architecture and aesthetic in terms of exhibition practices. Page 99 introduces a key turning point in theater architecture with the 1914 opening of the Strand in New York, often taken as the first movie palace and a key influence on subsequent theater building. The earliest film showings in the United States were chiefly in large-scale vaudeville theaters, presented as one element in a variety show of discrete acts. In 1906, the popularity of films, and most especially dramatic films, gave rise to a new architectural form, the store theater, which had its dimensions limited by the lot size of an urban store, not unlike the auditoriums in early multiplexes. By the early teens, architectural writers defined the long and narrow shape of the store theater as most suited to the optics of the movie image. And yet the movie palace that would become the dominant form in the teens and twenties ignored that insight much as it also rejected the form of the late nineteenth century vaudeville theater.

With the emergence of the feature film as a dominant entertainment in the teens, an often heard claim was that movies democratized theater. They did this literally by making dramatic entertainments available to people who could not afford the prices charged by live theater. But, following a common understanding of the period, they did so in a more specific way: regardless of where viewers sat in the theater, the camera guaranteed that all shared the same perspective on the spectacle. To the extent that we can easily perceive a rationale for differential pricing in live theater, we can see that theater inevitably creates a hierarchical sense of space. But it was precisely in this regard that the Strand and subsequent movie palaces offered their most radical departure: they sought to embody the democratic nature of the film image in their architecture.

Architectural innovation was used to convey the impression that every seat was a perfect seat, but was this an accurate impression or more of an illusion? In writing about architecture here, I have not dealt with the other context I indicated above, the exhibition practices. Briefly, the important thing to keep in mind is that movies in the U.S. first appeared in vaudeville theaters, the store theaters were themselves like mini-vaudeville theaters on film, with a series of different films generally chosen for their variety, while the movie palaces throughout the silent area always featured live-performance entertainment alongside the film attractions. The movie palaces, then, were always dual-purpose theaters, with the differing functions of live and filmed performances placing limitations on how each was perceived. By the late 1940s, as only a small number of theaters in the biggest cities continued to feature live performance, the trade press wrote more explicitly about the problems of viewing movies in palaces. The exuberant decorations of these vast spaces has granted them a nostalgic aura, but truth be told they were not ideal for movie viewing. This fact leads me to my final concern with context: how the architectural space of the palaces contributed to the development of an American film style which sought to compensate for the spaces in which its images were shown.
Learn more about When Movies Were Theater at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue