Sunday, August 24, 2008

Space of Films, Space of Movie Theaters

by Katerina Tryfonidou


This paper is very special for me because it was my very first effort on critical discourse about space and film at a highly challenging -and therefore stressful- academic environment like that of Harvard University. It was written in January 2006 influenced to a certain extend by the inspiring conversations with Professor Giuliana Bruno. And as a very first effort it is enthusiastic and ambitious: I touched upon quite a lot of issues, always trying to stay under the discussion of physical spaces and spaces of the mind and body.

I study two different kinds of spaces: the physical space of the interior of a movie theater and the experiential space that a film creates when seen in a movie theater. Using two specific examples, the first movie theaters of the Western world in the beginning of the 20th century on the one hand, and a 2003 film by Tsai Ming Liang on the other hand, I argue that in both cases the notions of interiority and exteriority are challenged.


TRACK 1: Questions

I can’t say if it is an attempt to find my identity in a multi- ethnic environment like the academia in the United States, or a patriotic show- off, or maybe none of the two, but I would like to start this text with the Acropolis of Athens; and I would rather not consider this attempt of exposing my thoughts as a mere text, but more as a journey, a journey into thoughts of other people, thoughts of mine and a journey into time. As a vehicle for this journey, I will choose to use space.

Space is a notion with a variety of meanings, characteristics and qualities: space as an architectural expression where people live, drift into or out of, experience feelings and emotions, but also space that each one of us mentally creates, such as the social space of the city, the private space of our intimate thoughts, or the space formed on the screen when watching a film. All these spaces, so arbitrary defined and so unique for each one of us, usually have a three dimensional ‘representation’ in the city[i]. The merging of the architectural spaces like a street or the interior of a building with the mental spaces of individuals or of groups of individuals, particularly interest me in this journey I am about to expose. How different spaces are formed and the way they interact with one another is the kind of questions that will be traced throughout the way, sometimes with the illusion or confidence that they are led to an answer.

But let us start from scratch and stubbornly go back to the Acropolis of Athens, an architectural complex which reached its final form during the 5th century B.C., the Golden Age of democracy in ancient Athens. It is a religious group of buildings situated on a rock in the middle of the city, where the Athenians worshipped Goddess Athena, the protector of the city.

The way the buildings are situated on the Rock as seen on a plan or a bird’s eye view, do not follow any logic, they seem scattered randomly over the place. A visible geometry or any kind of rational spatial organization are absent, and one can question the presence of any logic or structure behind the design. It is only at the level of the walker that the Acropolis sense and structure is obvious. One understands the reason why each building is situated where it is only when taking the route that leads from the city up the Rock to the religious complex. The buildings are revealed one by one, and presented to the walker from a certain angle. Seen from a perfectly calculated point of view, the Acropolis creates the desired effect of harmony, balance, and ‘metron’.

Understanding a place by moving into it, or towards it, is an issue film is very much related to. In this very idea lays the notion of different spaces coexisting or being formed by the walker. When the physical body moves in space, and thus uses this movement to experience the space, to feel it and to understand it, then a narrative is created. The body creates its own ‘story’, a ‘story’ composed of views, and framings that the eye creates, but also composed of thoughts and emotions that the ambience evokes. All the senses play a role in this collage of experience, and the final result – if ever exists such a point as final point- is a spatial narration.

But isn’t film such a narration as well? An assemblage of views and frames that challenge the audience to feel not just with their visual sense but with the whole body. The result of this challenge might be called the film experience, and the creation that is being held on the screen is actually the creation of space where the audience is asked to enter.

Eisenstein argues that the only difference between a person moving into a space and a person watching a film is that in film the body movement is being replaced by the camera. Apart from that, the sequence of views, the control of the picture and the participation of the person , all lead us to talk about spaces in both cases, architectural spaces and film spaces. The sequence of images, the movement and the necessary presence of time define a very strong bond between cinema and architecture. In order to make this point, and also in an attempt to trace cinema’s ancestors, Eisenstein uses the example of the Acropolis of Athens:

The Greeks have left us the most perfect example of shot design, change of shot, and shot length (that is, the duration of a particular impression). Victor Hugo called the medieval cathedrals “books in stone” (see Notre Dame de Paris). The Acropolis of Athens has an equal right to be called the perfect example of one of the most ancient films.

And then goes on,

It is hard to imagine a montage sequence for an architectural ensemble more subtly composed, shot by shot, than the one that our legs create by walking among the buildings of the Acropolis.

Eisenstein, 1989[ii]

Architecture and film are both about space. Architecture uses the three dimensional space of the city as the platform for its expression, while film has the two dimensional screen as a means. Both of them however go far beyond the space of their ‘tools’ and both of them introduce the users or the audience in very different worlds and spaces. Having the participation of the person as an indispensable condition, new spaces take shape. Spaces that coexist, that are superimposed or intersected; spaces that fold into one another, thus creating others. This unique phenomenon caused by film or architecture and the human beings who experience them, can be considered as the spectacle. As it may seem obvious for the film, spectacle exists in many other cases, and among them, in architecture. The walk up the Acropolis is a spectacle per se, one that the body and the space create together. It is one of my goals in this journey to try to trace how these spectacles are formed and how the folding of spaces in the city and spaces in film fold to form the experience of the spectacle.

With this Ithaca in mind, and the journey always as the focus, I will examine spaces particularly designed to create a ‘film effect’, such as the first buildings designed to host films: the movie theaters of the 20s. And I will later reverse this condition to see what happens when such a place becomes the protagonist on the screen; in Tsai Ming Liang’s film “Dragon Inn” a movie theater is the heart of the film, its main essence, where everything starts from and where everything leads to. With the examination of these two interactions of film space and architectural space, I will try to see how spectacle is formed and how different spaces can fold into each other to cause the spectacle.

Tracing the film’s past, before it was even invented as film, will help our journey because it will give hints about the way this experience was formed and handled in the past, beginning from the Renaissance theaters.

TRACK 2: Metropolis and the Picture Palaces

The rise of the metropolis coincides the birth of film; that is, the moment the city changes its image, its rhythms and its population, is the moment that the moving pictures are invented. This is not merely a coincidence. Film appears into the metropolis as a product of the metropolis, as if the city needed it to represent itself. The first moving images are mere representations of the big cities or of the technological ‘deeds’ that changed the city’s paces. Indeed, the moving pictures showed panoramic views of the city, crowded streets, or the new means of transportation such as the underground an the trains. The thematic of the first films focus on the new image of the city. The camera depicts in a way the flaneur’s gaze. The people in the cities stand astounded in front of this brave new world that is being created and in an attempt to familiarize to it, they walk in the streets, use the public spaces, drift around as Benjamin’s flaneur does. The crowded public spaces, the new vitality that the trains and cars suggest, the tall buildings and the steel structures all seem amazingly new. This gaze of amazemement and excitement, this look towards a new condition is very accurately depicted in the films of this era. Film finds in the city its favorite subject, as if the metropolis is the protagonist in every shot. On one hand, it is the city that represents itself with a totally new means, and on the other hand it is film that does its first steps in creating images of space[iii]. Film is urban a priori.

It is very interesting to see where these very first films are being shown, the spaces that host them. At that time, the moving pictures were part of a stroll in the streets, as people would enter an arcade, or a small store just to see some minutes of moving images. Film was considered a quick entertainment, approachable to anyone. It had to do with the movement in the streets, and it was part of a peripatetic experience.

The moving image becomes a part of the public life. It takes place initially as apart of the events in the streets or in the arcades, and it follows the fluid movement of the city dweller as he walks in the city stopping to anything that attracts his attention.

With the broader impact film had to the people of the big cities, it starts to have buildings created to host it. Little by little a transformation of the places of the screenings is held: from the streets and the arcades to the shops, warehouses and deserted hotels, film in the 20s has found a place on its own, the movie theater, a building built especially to house film. The movie theaters are created following the typology of the theaters or the Vaudeville theater buildings, entering at the same time the category of entertainment targeted to the higher classes of the society. When film “leaves” the streets and enters new buildings, this is not without consequences. Film becomes a spectacle of the interior, rather than of the street.

The movie theaters are luxurious buildings, with an access on the interior decoration. The border between the outside and the inside space is strong, and thus the relation with the fluid movement in the city is lost. The film spectacle has less of the spontaneity of the first years’ panoramas, and comes closer to the theatrical experience.

If one takes a closer look at the architecture of the moving theaters, especially of the interior architecture of the hall were the screening takes place, one would be amazed to see the variety and the ‘bravety’ of decorations. Heavy ornaments frame the screen and the walls, and baroque style decorations are found where the walls meet the ceiling or on the columns. The most usual theme for those decorations is nature. Leafs, flowers and fruit, colorful and three dimensional, give to the halls an oneiric impression of nature. Tropical scenery was often one of the favorite subjects as well, thus implementing traveling. If the walls were in a picturesque manner representing nature, the ceiling was undoubtedly the representation of the sky. Its blue color and the drawing of stars suggested an ‘outdoor’ experience in an otherwise very enclosed space. The exaggerated effort in creating a space reminiscent of the outdoors natural landscapes calls for a need to create a space similar in effect as the space of the film on the screen.

Cracauer argues that the movie theaters of the 20s in Berlin succeed in distracting the audience to such an extend that the attention is no longer at the center, that is the screen, but rather on the periphery, on the hall. He calls these theaters picture palaces or palaces of distraction and comments on the effect these places have on the audience:

This total artwork of effects assaults all the senses using every possible means. Spotlights shower their beams into the auditorium, sprinkling across festive drapesory rippling through colourful, organic looking glass fixtures. The orchestra asserts itself as an independent power, its acoustic production buttressed by the responsory of the lighting. Every emotion is accorded its own acoustic expression and its colour value in the spectrum.

Cracauer, Cult of Distraction[iv]

Cracauer explains these delirium of colors, light and d├ęcor as a necessity so that the people in the audience find their own place in the spectacle, in order to identify their position in these two merging spaces: the space of narration on the screen and the space of illusion in the hall. As he clearly states “The interior design of movie theaters serves one sole purpose: to rivet the viewer’s attention to the peripheral, so that they will not sink into the abyss[v]

It is very interesting to notice the word abyss that Cracauer uses in order to describe the world on the screen. Falling into the abyss is an image that suggests a movement into space. Here the German thinker creates a very spatial image that implicates movement, entering and falling... in film. In a unique way this phrase talks about the creation of space in the film, and how the audience enters this space. In fear of being lost in the world of film, or falling into its abyss, one needs to have another space to stick on as a hint of where one previously was. In this case the heavy ornament of the movie theater creates the counter-balance of the interiority of the screen, thus suggesting a natural, sublime exteriority.

It seems as if the journey of the viewer into film should not be without a point of reference to where he started, and this is typical of many mythical dangerous journeys in unknown worlds.[vi] The entering into the unknown world of film, in order for it not to be without return, needed to be distracted by another space equally interesting and inviting. The idea of traveling is present in both worlds, both the interior world of the screen and the exterior one of the ‘exotic’ movie theater. One of the most pictorial cases that show the overlapping of those two spaces of travel is the case of the movie theaters in the States during the late twenties and thirties. There was at the time a trend of Egyptomania, and many movies were shot on the theme of the mysteries of the pyramids and the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt[vii]. The movie theaters therefore were decorated in an Egyptian-like manner, with golden colors and shapes reminding the Egyptian architecture[viii]. It would be as if the space depicted on the screen has passed that delicate border and invaded the space of the movie theater.

As we see from the Egyptian- like films and movie theaters, it is not easy to tell whether the creation of an exteriority helps the audience not to ‘fall into the abyss’ or whether this scenography merges so well with the film’s interiority that the audience is fatally doomed to travel into it. No matter what the case is, what is most interesting is the relation of the two spaces, and their interaction in provoquing the audience’s senses. There is no point in trying to compare them, but rather see them as a whole, as the intersections of different spaces that create the spectacle. Indeed, one can see these two spaces as two layers superimposed to cause an illusion, one that the film narrates.

The peripatetic experience that the film suggested in its first steps, when it was still part of the street’s life, is now transformed to a different type of movement. Although the spectator has lost his movement into the space of the city, yet in the movie theater of the 20s and the 30s another kind of traveling is implied. It is a mental, sensual travelogue that the space proposes, a transaction from the urban environment of the city streets, to an environment of exotism, sensation, and reverie. The illusion of the film blends with the illusion of the movie theater and together they suggest a voyage of distraction.

TRACK 3: Tsai Ming Liang, Goodbye Dragon Inn

Up to this point we have argued on the merging of the space of the movie theater and the space that the film creates, giving examples from the first days of cinema and from the early architecture of the movie theaters. Let’s make a big step into time now, and let’s travel to a movie theater in Taiwan of 2000, old and decaying.

In Tsai Ming Liang’s film Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) we watch the parallel lives of people that find themselves in an old movie theater on the day of its last screening. The people from the audience, the female ticket clerk and the projectionist, all trace different itineraries in the movie theater, which at times intersect with one another. Many of the characters, as the Japanese tourist or the old actor for instance, stay mostly in the cinema hall and watch a movie- others wander around lost in their thoughts.

The film takes place internally into the movie theater. This mere fact consists a paradox. The situation with which the spectator is usually acquainted to is the screen- movie theater relation explained before. But in this film, a unique event takes place: the same situation is represented on the screen, with other spectators who watch a film inside the film. This self-referential condition creates a misoriented, dizzying effect. The spectator wonders of his role in the whole spectacle, which is the audience and which is the movie? Where are the limits of the screen’s space? If these questions were already difficult to be answered in the palaces of distraction of the 20s, Tsai Ming Liang puts the discourse one step closer to the abyss. The spectator can be drowned in the sea of the screen, ignorant of its limits. In Goodbye Dragon Inn there is the extreme condition of the blending of the space of narration and the space of the movie theater inside the film. There are several long shots of the spectators looking at the screen, or other shots of the movie theater taken with the camera ‘turning the back’ to the theater’s screen, reminding the paradox.

This choice is per se a comment on space and on the merging of spaces. Tsai Ming Liang wants the audience to think of its place in the movie theater. It is a case where the spectators find a space in the film where their participation is needed; the spectators are asked to add their thoughts, reveries, memories and emotions into the long stables takes. There are certain moments in the film that the action totally stops, and the image either almost freezes, or there is a periodical movement repeated continuously. Two such takes are the take of the empty movie theater that stays with the audience for quite some time, or the scenes where we watch the woman walking with the same rhythm and the limping movement, practically making a promenade in the building. The time where no action happens is actually the time where each one of the spectators is asked to participate in the film, and add his/her own thoughts and emotions, thus creating an intimate, private space. In the same way that the characters in the Taiwanese movie theater drift around carrying with them their memories, the spectators are asked to contribute as well. The mirror effect inside and outside of the screen implied with the long take of the empty movie theater could be another way of showing how the space in the film is a reflection of real space.

This notion is quite similar to the flaneur’s promenade in the city, or Eisenstein’s way of experiencing architecture through movement. The woman in the film has such a peripatetic experience when she wonders around the theater, with or without a reason – it doesn’t matter. She feels the space and mapping out her own itinerary, thus leaving a trace. Her physical movement is not only necessary but in a sense redeeming. The audience sympathizes with her effort and her pain when going up the stairs, so as the importance of the body experience is accentuated.

The film or the spectacle of Goodbye Dragon Inn could never be complete without the psychological landscapes of the spectators. The space is left for the people who watch the film to define and use, to move into it, as the characters do. It is a topos of privacy, but which is at the same time very public. It is where the movie theater of Tsai Ming Liang and our movie theater become one, blend into one another, and the two topoi create a single one.

TRACK 4: Interiority/ Exteriority

Tsai Ming Liang’s movie theater has a lot in common with the movie palaces of the first decades of the moving images. They are both very introvert spaces, very self –referential, but in an interesting way, controversial they open themselves to the outer world.

Talking in architectural terms, movie theaters do not have any windows or other kind of openings. When entering such a place, when crossing the border, the only window to the world is the screen and the interior space. The screen is some kind of an ‘eye’ that allows the spectators to look at another world, but also a ‘gate’ for the beginning of their travel. And the interior space, as we have already noticed in the movie palaces act reinforcing the idea of movement and of traveling.

In Goodbye Dragon Inn the movie theater does not have any of the glory and luxury of the movie palaces in the 20s. It is a decaying building that is left to ‘die’ free of any attempt of embellishment of renovation. The feeling that it reflects is of a body dying, with merely any life left into it. The people that are in it adjust to this sense of lifeless-ness: at some points, as it is also stated by one of the characters, it is difficult to tell if they are alive humans or just ghosts, spirits from an other era. However, if we break the crust of the surfacial image of the movie theater, we will notice that some of the most important qualities that the idea of a movie theater stands for, are there in both cases.

The movie theater of Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a very introvert space, a place of total interiority that functions as a unique microcosmos. All the information that the film gives about the outside is that it rains, as if the outer world is nothing but water. An interior space like this movie theater surrounded by water seems a lot like an island. Indeed some characteristics of an island suit perfectly the conditions narrated in the film. The movie theater gives the impression of a place highly inaccessible for people who do not belong to its ‘microcosmos.’ It has very strong boundaries –water boundaries- and there is a feeling that the people in the movie theater are there forever, time functions in a different way in that world. Isolation is another characteristic of an island also present at the movie theater of Tsai Ming Liang. Not only nobody can enter it but it also seems very far away from ‘real world’ abandoned in its own state. The only element that can enter or exit is water: the element of fluidity and the means by which the theater becomes an ‘island’ is present in and out. It penetrates the building, and causes ‘catharsis’: there is a scene where the man takes buckets full of water and throws them out of a window. This is a relieving scene, as if much of the gathered tension, the anger, the unfulfilled desires and the unexpressed emotions are exiled out of the world of the movie theater with a strong, dynamic gesture. Seen as a beautiful metaphor, when the buckets are full, someone has to cross the boundary and throw the water into the outer world, so that the system can continue to exist.

In the case of the space Tsai Ming Liang narrates, water is the element of the exterior space that penetrates into the interior. In the case of the movie palaces, there are also elements of exteriority that are incorporated in the space. All the scenographic elements of nature and of the sky that are being used as decorations can be seen as a way that the enclosed space incorporates in itself elements from the exterior. The natural or tropical motifs, the design of the sky in detail, even the Egyptian decorations – all of these suggest that the enclosed space has selected certain elements of the outside to “open” its boundaries. The voyage is being done via the mind and the film on the screen, but the body also participates being in a space of in-between: an interior space that holds representations of the exterior- a place that prepares its inhabitants for the journey.

The movie palaces and the movie theater of Tsai Ming Liang’s are interior spaces that “open” themselves to the exterior not by conventional means, but rather with the use of iconography and the necessary participation of the user. Through the ambiance the space suggests, the mind travels and the enclosed space gets more open than any other. Spaces as such existed in the past and represented the need of narrating and of traveling –in a way forshadowing film. Such places existed in the Renaissance, usually related with the need of the Renaissance thinkers to depict the whole world in one single room or surface.

TRACK 6: Epilogue

French philosopher Gilles Deleuze has worked a lot on the notion of interiority and exteriority. For him, the words ‘interiority’ and ‘exteriority’ go beyond their spatial signifier. He describes as interiority a system that is defined by some kind of order or structure, a system with hierarchies, one of stability. For Deleuze, interiorities do not exist without exteriorities, that is some elements outside the structure of the system, that have the tendency either to resist the existence of the interiority, or try to destroy its structure.

When elements of the exterior manage to intrude an interiority, then happens the fold. That is the interiority is forced to move, to change form, to fold. And this state of movement, of unstability, of constant redefining – the folding- is the cause that creates everything new. A new quality is being born only by “creating an interior space absolutely coexisting with the outside on the line of fold[ix].

The spaces of spectacles represented on this journey, starting from the Acropolis, to the movie palaces and Tsai Ming Liang’s movie theater are in a sense folded spaces. For they are spaces that give to the interior a whole new meaning, opening it to exterior worlds of memory, emotions and thoughts. Such places make us think about spectacle not just in terms of what one sees on a stage or a screen, but as a collective experience created with the participation of everyone in the room… and the room itself!



[i] I use the urban condition as the setting of my research.

[ii] Eisenstein S., Montage and Architecture, in Assemblage, v.10, 1980.

[iii] Bruno G., Atlas of Emotions, Verso, NY, 2002, pp.21.

[iv] Cracauer S., Cult of Distraction in The Movies, President and Fellows of Harvard College, USA,1995, pp.324.

[v]Cracauer S., Cult of Distraction in The Movies, President and Fellows of Harvard College, USA,1995, pp.326.

[vi] I cannot help but think of the mythos of the Minotaur: the mission of Theseas was to enter the labyrinth in order to kill the beast Minotaur. Theseas was given the edge of a clew of string to hold, when entering the labyrinth. His girlfriend, waiting in agony at the entrance of the labyrinth would hold the one edge, and Theseas would unfold the clew in his way inside so as not to lose his way. The reference of taking a hint of the exterior world when entering an unknown space is evident in many stories and myths.

[vii] Lant A., Haptical Cinema in October, v.74, fall 1995, pp 51-52.

[viii] It is very interesting to see how the Egyptian style has many similarities with the Art Deco movement of the time, but this is already another journey on its own…

[ix] Deleuze, Gilles Foucault Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988, pp. 117

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