When Movies were Theater: Architecture, Exhibition, and the Evolution of American Film by William Paul (review)
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WHEN MOVIES WERE THEATER: ARCHITECTURE, EXHIBITION, AND THE EVOLUTION OF AMERICAN FILM by William Paul. Columbia University Press, New York, NY, U.S.A., 2016. 432 pp., illus. Trade; paper; eBook. ISBN: 9780231176569; ISBN: 9780231176576; ISBN: 9780231541374.

This is a book that will change our thinking on cinema and will prove of vital importance to the study of all art forms that are based on a dialectic relationship between an object and 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 it is 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 to the appearance of wide-screen 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the new medium of film appearing within a well-established tradition, that of the vaudeville show, which it eventually superseded while at the same time becoming a strong competitor of more prestigious forms of theatrical entertainment.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. 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 not only discloses 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, [End Page 332] and that is of course what makes this study so dramatically innovative. While very modestly following the major trends in film theory (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, however: size, that is, the possibility to enlarge the material presence of the character on screen so that spectators seated at a greater distance from the screen (and as Paul clearly shows, the dimensions of the screen in the first half of the 20th century were much smaller than 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 for locating the center of the action in the very center of the image, that is of...