not in our stars, but in ourselves
As I mentioned, I’m reading James Card’s fabulous book, Seductive Cinema. He was a child of the 1920s, and remembers fondly (and in wonderful detail) the gorgeous, gleaming silent films he saw throughout his youth. When he grew up, he made it his business to collect and rescue as many of his beloved silents as possible, because the advent of sound had led to widespread apathy about the first thirty-odd years of cinema. There’s some estimate I’ve heard quoted often, and I don’t know if it’s an exaggeration or what, that about 80% of all films ever made are now lost forever. If you read about any of the greats from the silent era, and from the pre-Code era as well, you’ll note scattered among their filmographies “lost film.” Due to studios’ shortsightedness, or to an overwhelming need for silver during World War II, many films’ original and only prints were neglected; negatives destroyed; film stock melted down to extract metals; and generally lost forever. It’s sad.
Card also writes of the grandeur and majesty of the old movie palaces – with another tinge of sadness, because they too are more or less extinct. Once it became clear, during the 1920s, that movies were big business, elaborately appointed movie palaces (not merely movie theatres, mind you) sprang up all over the country. Few have survived to this day, although a few ghosts still linger…
…and some have been preserved in most of their old glory.
These were not the utilitarian theatres of the postwar world. These were not designed for maximum profit and minimum expenditure. These were, in addition to gilded fantasias of Grecian or Egyptian or “Oriental” or whatever other exotic theme of antiquity you might fancy, luxuriously appointed: velvet-upholstered seats, thick carpeting covering the entire floor (except in the lobbies, which had marble floors), soaring ceilings and thousands of seats.
I am far from the first or only one to draw this connection, and I encourage you to seek out other, better authorities on the subject, but doesn’t it all sound just like a cathedral?
And that, I think, is one of the greatest differences – and the greatest losses – of postwar moviegoing compared to the good old days in the 1920s and 1930s. Believe it or not, Goebbels in Inglourious Basterds hits the nail on the head when he tells Shosanna, “I must say, I appreciate the modesty of this auditorium. Your cinema has real respect, almost church like.” The cinemas did themselves, and so did the audiences. Had cell phones existed in 1929, no theatre proprietor would ever have had to instruct and re-instruct his patrons to be sure they were turned off throughout the show. Concessions were unheard of: you went to watch a movie, not to munch on popcorn and slurp a Coke. (This is, by the way, a pet peeve of mine. I absolutely loathe the sounds of other people eating, most particularly during a movie. While I very much enjoy having a drink while I watch, I refuse anything involving a straw and lots of ice chips sloshing around. As you can tell, I’m a real fun date.) In other words, if you wouldn’t do it in a church, you didn’t do it at the movies.
Maybe that’s a bit of a harsh line to take, but it would suit me just fine. To be in a fantastic palace, celebrating the power and glory of whatever your particular brand of escapism may be – whether it’s cinema or religion – why wouldn’t you be reverent? Why wouldn’t you sink into your lovely red velvet chair and lose yourself in the dream projected in front of you? Why would you want or need anything else?
I’ve always said I was born about eighty years too late, and this is one of many reasons. Alas.