- The Optical Vacuum: Spectatorship and Modernized American Theatre Architecture by Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece
By Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece
New York: Oxford University Press, 2018, 198 pp.
The mayor owned the movie theatre where I grew up, and Saturday matinees were sometimes interrupted—the film stopped, the lights turned up—by his castigations to behave and pay attention to the movie. This 1956 theatre had a streamlined interior, unadorned except for indirect lighting framing the screen—a small-town example of the “optical vacuum” that is the subject of Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece’s book about New York architect Ben Schlanger. Architecture alone is hardly enough to subdue a children’s matinee into rapt cinephilia, although stopping the film to discipline the audience never occurred, I bet, at a Schlanger-designed theatre. Mostly art houses in uptown and suburban enclaves, his strict modernism in cinema interior design aimed to make viewers “docile, untroubled creatures held silently by comfortable chairs” (6). I kept thinking of times and places when social context interrupts movie-going as I read Szczepaniak-Gillece’s remarkable achievement marrying film theory and exhibition history. She takes the deceptively simple method of reading Schlanger’s trade-press writings “in concert with revelatory film theorists” (82), claiming that his writing and built designs together constitute a corpus of film theory in itself. This inventive, original approach places Schlanger alongside Baudry, Metz, Doane, and Friedberg, except his ideas about the apparatus helped guide him to build structures where actual audiences adhered to cinephilic ideals.
Szczepaniak-Gillece notes, “it is not solely in the film itself but in the entirety of filmic encounter where such new theories are fully put to the test” (110). The movie theatre, after all, is precisely “an alternative reality made from the sutured elements of movie and theater” (118). Those are just two of many precisely stated, highly quotable points. Schlanger’s perspective is not unproblematic, however, and at times I wished Szczepaniak-Gillece had been more critical of his stark elitism, but her main claims are all the more important for leaving open space for further research. In spotlighting his strident call for immersive cinematic surroundings, Szczepaniak-Gillece makes a vital, and entirely novel point, that Schlanger is important for cinema studies and film theory because his career continually, in his own words, “established that there is a critical link between the art of film production and film exhibition, and that to ignore it would be to miss an opportunity for great stimulus in the industry” (135; emphasis in original). Not even scholars focused on movie-going, nor enthusiasts of movie [End Page 92] palace heritage, have made better arguments for integrating exhibition history with film appreciation.
Using Schlanger’s essays in the Better Theatres section of the Motion Picture Herald from 1931 to 1956, then other sources up to his death in 1971, each of Szczepaniak-Gillece’s four chapters covers a distinct phase in Schlanger’s career, on a progression from youthful vanguard to elder-statesman rearguard. His initial expertise and advocacy for perfect sightlines became a high-modernist manifesto for “neutralized” auditoriums, reclined seating positions, and unmasked screens, all to allow perfected viewing attentive only to the screen. In chapter 1, the 1932 Thalia on the Upper West Side and the 1935 Pix in suburban White Plains are profiled as early-career theatres from the first years of sound film that removed the stage and decoration to give the motion picture primacy over theatrical and musical accompaniment. Szczepaniak-Gillece casts aside the facile presumption that economic necessity lay behind the transition from over- decoration in 1920s movie palaces to Depression-era minimalism. She cites silent-era arguments, pre-dating the market crash, that accused the Hollywood movie palace of abandoning the nickelodeon’s promise of a space truly specific to moving pictures. The silent-era deluxe stage show surrounding the feature film only “prostituted” theatres to the “blare and din of an architectural circus.” What was needed was to “divorce the motion picture from vaudeville and jazz” (25, quoting T. E. Tallmadge).
Schlanger gained a public profile in 1931 after presenting...