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When Movies Were Theater: Architecture, Exhibition, and the Evolution of American Film

by William Paul
Columbia University Press, NY, NY, 2016
432 p., illus. 68 b/w. Trade, $120.00; paper, $40.00; eBook, $39.99
ISBN: 9780231176569; ISBN: 9780231176576; ISBN: 9780231541374.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

This is a book that will change our thinking of cinema and that will prove of vital importance to the study of all art forms that are based on a dialectic relationship between an object and a presentation context, with all the material, economic and cultural aspects the latter involves. The starting point of William Paul's book is as simple as powerful: taking its departure from the commonly accepted idea that film has to be studied in the long-term history of the projected image (an idea that is key to the standard work of Charles Musser on the emergence of cinema), Paul focuses his research – a very ambitious rereading of more than 50 years of cinema, from the very beginnings of film till the appearance of widescreen movie theaters in the 1950s – on the influence of this projection context on both form and content of the movies that were produced and shown.

Let me define first what Paul means by this projection context, which he defines as a combination of different elements. First of all, there is of course architecture - that is, the spatial and built environment in which the projections were taking place. Architecture, however, is a very complex and multilayered notion. In this book, it mainly refers to the relationship between exhibition space and screen. It has to do with issues such as the distance between screen and seats, the size of the screen, the angle of vision as determined by the 'good' or 'bad' seat chosen by the spectator, etc. Second, there is the tradition of theater and live shows, the new medium of film appearing within a well-established tradition, that of the vaudeville show, which it eventually superseded while at the same time becoming a strong competitor of more prestigious forms of theatrical entertainment. Yet both vaudeville and elite drama did not take place in an architectural and economic vacuum: Both had their own venues and were part of specific policies and social traditions that film could not ignore. And third, there is of course the element that is so taken for granted that it is systematically overlooked: The very material features of the screen, which is anything but a passive surface, as Paul demonstrates throughout his book. Yet When Movies Were Theater does not only disclose many unknown aspects of film architecture, the common history of film and theater, and the evolution of the film screen as a material object, it also emphasizes the productive influence of all these elements on what was actually shown in the theaters, and that is of course what makes this study to dramatically innovative. While very modestly following the major trends in film theory (William Paul does not claim to bring a revolution), When Movies Were Theater proposes many exciting new readings of hitherto neglected or misunderstood elements of film history and succeeds in challenging commonly accepted ideas that are based on the omission of the theatrical context.

Let me give immediately two examples of such a critical rereading. First the technique of the close-up, traditionally read in terms of (psychological) distance and hence interpreted in the larger framework of the shift from cinema of attractions to narrative cinema and the necessity to offer the spectator new possibilities to identify with the characters. For engineers, architects, film executives, directors and also spectators, a very different aspect was essential, though: size, that is the possibility to enlarge the material presence of the character on screen so that spectators seated at a larger distance of the screen (and as William Paul clearly shows, the dimensions of the screen in the first half of the 20th century were much smaller than we can imagine today) could have the impression that these characters were more or less 'life size' (a convention inherited from the stage performance). Second, the strong preference of classic Hollywood cinema to locate the center of the action in the very center of the image, that is of the screen. Here as well, this tendency – often challenged if not rejected by certain forms of art cinema – has been subject to ideological over-interpretations. The visual centrality of narrative action is traditionally linked with the overemphasis on purely plot-driven storytelling and so-called invisible editing in Hollywood cinema, as if only European or art house cinema was capable of taking into account the material complexity of film and taking up the challenge of resisting an all-narrative approach of cinema. However, When Movies Were Theater shows that very different elements explain this basic feature of classic Hollywood, such as the distortion of the images for spectators seated beyond a 60° line in front of the screen or the reduced reflectivity of the less well-lit angles of the screen. Since the film industry was keen to offer a good-quality experience to all viewers, even those having to occupy a bad seat, the very production of the images had to take into account the material features of the theatrical context and directors 'naturally' tended to shoot their images in such a way that they could 'survive' suboptimal viewing conditions.

The major achievement of William Paul's book consists of the meticulous reconstruction of the progressive emancipation of film projection – and hence of film in general as an art as well as a cultural industry – from theater and life entertainment. This longue durée history (for after all, six decades in the permanently and always rapidly shifting history of cinema is a lot of time) has three major periods. In the beginning, movies had to fit into the existing infrastructure (first that of the vaudeville, eventually that of elite theaters). This integration is far from evident, since these existing theaters privileged proximity (to the stage) at the expense of issues of angle (when seated in a lateral balcony, one could enjoy the 3D performance as long as the acoustics were good, but the 2D silent movie screen had completely different demands). In a second period, the movie industry generated new types of specific movie theaters, which rejected the horseshoe structure of existing theaters but proved to be still strongly influenced by all kind of architectural and cultural conventions of life entertainment, as demonstrated for instance in the continuing presence of the proscenium and the curtain (this second period evolved toward what William Paul rightly calls a dual system, defined by the coexistence of theaters that continued to mix movies and life performances on the one hand and theaters strictly reserved to cinema). Finally, the introduction of a new form of architecture that abolished the difference between screen and stage: In these new theaters, built after the war, there was no longer a stage hosting a screen (among many other elements), the screen itself became the stage – and this is where Paul's story ends.

When Movies Were Theater does not tell a single history. It stresses the historical complexity of each place at any time, since there have always been competing models and the evolution from one type to another is never clear-cut. It also addresses the exciting diversity and multi-layeredness of each of its key elements. Vaudeville theatre, for instance, is not only studied in terms of class (popular) and content (a medley of fragments belonging to a wide range of genres), it is also studied in relationship with, for instance, the form of the place where it was performed (with a key role for issues such as proximity to the stage and the preference given to sound rather than image), the presence of certain pre-cinematographic genres (such as the tableau vivant, which often supposed the literal presence of a guilt frame, a feature that the first movie houses will reproduce – and after the reading of Paul's book it is no longer possible to call this reproduction 'strange' or 'bizarre') or the habit of continuous representation (which allowed to spectators to come in at any time – a habit that explained in some cases the resistance to multi-reel feature films, a resistance all the more vivid since it reinforced the producers' initial fear to be incapable of producing sufficient high-quality features). However, it is always the link with actual film production that is at the heart of Paul's study: This is not a book on the history of film theater architecture or screen technology, it is a broadening of our views on the history of cinema as a cultural practice at the crossroads of many different fields: theater, architecture, technology, economy, and art. When Movies Were Theater is a decisive contribution to the collective effort to rethink cinema in the expanded field, and it deserves a place on the very top of all compulsory reading on the history of cinema.


Last Updated 2 September 2016

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