Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece's "The Optical Vacuum"

Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece is Assistant Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Optical Vacuum: Spectatorship and Modernized American Theater Architecture, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Optical Vacuum contains something uncharacteristic of my typical verbosity: besides three lines of text, a footnote, and a caption, over ¾ of the page is taken up by an illustration republished from the June 1952 issue of International Projectionist. The advertisement is for Ben Schlanger and William Hoffberg’s RCA Synchro-Screen, “the perfect stage setting for motion pictures,” which promised a softer projection image, enhanced beauty and realism, the illusion of a bigger picture, and the elimination of eye strain and fatigue. That’s a tall order for a piece of equipment – but those kinds of misplaced, even bizarre hopes were common in American film exhibition at midcentury. What they tell us expands past the boundaries of the screen into a story of how theatrical architecture, Hollywood and the industry, patterns of American transportation, and even the ways in which we understand citizenship bind together via one of our favorite pastimes: going to the movies.

While most of the Synchro-Screen’s professed appeals are fascinating avenues for considering changes in movie theater design, the spectrum of comfort and pain was an obsession for Schlanger and other industry professionals. The balance between the two – a spectator who is neither so uncomfortable that she blames the movies nor so at rest that she falls asleep – was a sweet spot for midcentury exhibitors, who sought to construct a perfect setting for a perfect stilled viewer. And it’s this combination of utopian thinking, hubris, and futility that I find so intriguing in twentieth-century movie theater designs.

Ben Schlanger, a New York-based architect, designer, and writer, worked on modernized movie theaters from the mid-1920s until his death in 1971. He was witness to and instigator of massive changes in the industry, from the ornamented movie palace to the streamlined “neutralized” theater, and urged a new relationship between spectator and screen that could be delivered by minimal and directional design. One of his (countless) fixations was seating and its relationship to viewing. For Schlanger, all spectators should have an unblocked image of the screen requiring minimal head movement, while chairs should maintain postural alignment and immobility. If a proper bodily balance could be struck, then viewers might achieve a great cinematic…. something.

We’ll never know what that something might be, of course, because Schlanger’s ideal spectator never really existed. Like many great modernists, Schlanger placed an impossible burden on technological design and discounted audiences’ heterogeneity. But his continual efforts to construct a transcendental subject via space and screen are a mesmerizing decades-long narrative of effort and failure that has silently shaped our contemporary relationship to film. Such a dream of relaxing the body to release the mind is, to me, an illustration of the historical limits of transcendence, and a story of the American romance with the movies that tells us about where we came from as well as who we are now.
Learn more about The Optical Vacuum at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue