Fuller Chapter 3… the Power of a Nickel

When I was a little girl, I would make my grandfather tell me about his parents. The idealized and dewy eyed six year old me imagined them to be much like the immigrant animated mice in Feviel goes west, except italian, Catholic and… not mice.

I loved hearing the stories of how they met in the tiny hilltop village of San Marco, Italy. How they fell in love and were married a week later.

The story continues a few years later, in Allentown PA, where my great grandfather ran a handful of movie houses. Now this part never really made sense to me. How do you run a movie theater? Aren’t they all owned by big companies? Six year old me was confused.  Those words glowing above the multiplex marquees: AMC, Lowes, Landmark, Arclight… they were all faceless businesses with massive rental contracts and expensive upkeep, how could someone run a movie theater?

Yet in my short little life I had experienced a place that sounded like these “Nickelodeon” things my grandfather was always talking about, it was a one room movie house from the early twenties that stood, up until two years ago, in the center of the town of Nantucket. The seats were hard, the air-conditioning erratic and the tickets surprisingly cheap. As a child, this was my favorite place in the world – This was “The Dreamland.” It was a name that evoked a sense of whimsy, clearly carefully chose to cater to the escapist appeal of the movies. The room was plain, for, as fuller points out, all our attention is to be directed at the screen.

Yet for me, “The Dreamland” represents the strange intersection between the ideals of the old Nickelodeon, the values of a conservative East Coast town, and the desensitization of the American consumer to technological spectacle. The late theater may have matched the stark interiors of old movie houses but failed to prescribe to the bare white bulbs and grand marquees that the times called for. Instead, “The Dreamland” had to retain gray shingles with white trim, and merely a wooden sign for indication of purpose. Why? The island has very strict building codes to maintain a traditional and culturally conservative atmosphere. It’s the same reason that chain stores are banned on the island; the town is founded on the traditions of purists – nothing can change, nothing can stand out. It is this mentality that makes me surprised they ever got  a movie theater in the first place, and even more surprised that they had the nerve to tear it down.

Prague’s Secret Son… Laterna Magika

No need for a paternity test, Laterna Magika is indeed the illegitimate child of socialism! Yes, Laterna is a healthy, thriving, baby boy… with split personality disorder and a mild case of OCD. Highly functioning, but not your textbook definition of normal. He is brilliant, but destructive, he is easily frustrated and distracted… he probably has ADHD too.

In this way, Laterna Magika is a perfect mirror of the social conditions under which it was born, for socialism is tornado of contradictions and chaos, thoughts of brilliance muffled by shouts of propaganda – it is a renegotiation of reality and society that succeeds only when certain aspects of that society are oppressed and manipulated into submission.

As Suzanne Langer bluntly puts it, “there are no happy marriages in art, only successful rape.” And while I cannot say that I wholly agree with this statement, I do see its insight into the treacherous process of redefining well established or normative notions of culture – be it within art, or any other medium. The challenging of the regular is always questioned initially, it is the nature of progress to be stunted by fear. Consequently, it makes a great deal of sense why Laterna Magika retains such niche standing within the art world today – it’s fragmentation, its imbalance, is as frightening as the system it belongs to.

It may not be a rape, but it’s a rocky marriage. the highs are high, the lows are low, and the only thing you can count on is that anything is possible. When you combine your influences the combination of creative copulation grow exponentially.

Buster Keaton: from Vaudeville to the Dirty Sheet

So I forget who said it, obviously, because the brain is an imperfect sieve of imperfect thoughts….

But some important film theorist, be in Bazin or whomever, called the medium of Film the “intersection of the plastic and the rhythmic arts.” This thought has since stuck with me as I try and dissect how exactly it is I came to pursue a career within the filmic discipline.

Well let’s see. I love to paint, draw, write, read, act, sing… etc etc blah blah blah…. and as recite this laundry list of passions I find that, indeed they all comprise different facets of the medium. I have allowed my different passions to combine and expand, and shift, in order to form a new kind of artistic amalgamation within film.

This is to me, the way that Keaton reconciled his entrance onto the silver screen. Film didn’t diminish his talent, it magnified it, allowing him an attention to detail impossible in live performance, and a wider range of routines as a result of expanding narrative and locational possibilities. For Keaton, film was the artistic high dive – higher risk, but a hell of a lot more innovative and impressive if he could pull it off.

During Keaton’s vaudevillian prime, the newly developing medium of film was combating pigeonholing left and right. Critics and viewers alike were quick to define its purpose and parameters, its values and its flaws; its every capability and downfall. The adversity facing the new medium was overwhelming, there seemed to be a cheapness to it for many. If live performances were the local coffee shop, Film was Starbucks, the comodification and mass distribution of sentiment, talent and real experiences. The selling out of an artistic soul for a “nickel a pop.”

And while this purist approach to entertainment is understandable, it’s not loyalty but FEAR that drives the decision to shy away from new forms of artistic expression – be they filmic or otherwise.

Fuller’s “Boundaries of Perception”

“Audience participation,” something most frequently thought reserved for Raffi concerts and midnight screenings of “Rocky Horror,” is a much broader concept than generally imagined.

Archaic thoughts of “active” and “passive” viewing are too heavily contingent on the physicality of of the act of viewership, when there are MANY more facets to audience engagement than mere visceral reactions to the stimulus.

Likewise, the “active” vs “passive” debate relies far too deeply on the notion that participation is simultaneous with viewing, which in today’s internet based society, and even in the film reviews and critiques of yesteryear, is just not so. Participation is ongoing and personal. It can be screamed at the top of your lungs, it can be twittered all over the web, or maybe just marinating subtly in the deep dark depths of your mind… in any case, just because we aren’t running away with the film’s lead doesn’t mean we aren’t participants or active viewers.

I break down participation into three categories.

1) The Intellectual/Emotional

2) The Physical

3) The Communal/Cultural

So the intellectual/emotional is pretty self explanatory, these are the wheels that are turning in your head as you watch a film: your understanding of the plot, your recognition of famous actors, your criticisms with dialog… your disdain for dumb jokes or weird plot twists. Whether you LIKE the movie or not, and how it makes you feel. This experience continues even after the film is over, it effects the rest of your day, maybe even your week. Last of all these filmic interactions become a part of your intellectual encyclopedia, forever ingrained and ready for re-assessment.

The physical is related to your emotional response but specific to visceral reactions emanating from surprise, fear, and sadness/joy. This is your scream or seat jump when the serial killer pops up in the mirror behind the pretty girl taking out her contacts. These are your tears at the end of “Toy Story 3” even though you know your childhood toys can’t feel, and that a team of hardworking  writers and producers are essentially waving cinematic onions in front of you for those damn tears. Physical participation in the film is primarily involuntary and frequently a little embarrassing (as any boy who cried at the end of “The Notebook” will testify); it is a moment where we, or at least our body, forgets that the film is an illusion.

And then last, but certainly not least, comes the communal/cultural participation. While this type of participation often combines elements of the two previously mentioned viewer-active categories, the essential difference is that communal/cultural participation requires the manipulation and evolution of current and previous film experiences by the addition of discourse or shared activity. It may be a Grease sing-a-long at the Hollywood Arclight, or tweeting for a month about what the hell Inception was trying to say. It can be a film class discussion, or a movie date who whispers criticisms of ScarJo’s acting across the darkened theater. Maybe it’s walking out of a horrible film, maybe it’s going to a film you’ve heard is horrible. In any case communal/cultural participation is the imprint of others on your viewing experience, however big or small that imprint may be.

Fuller, Chapter One…

Ah the thrill of the traveling picture show!

What intrigues me most about Fuller’s account of film in the country before the depression is how well integrated into the vaudevillian arts it became, and how this integration was an inherent impulse of the cultural movement. Early film it seems, was initially thought, both by the traveling proprietors and audiences alike, to be better off sandwiched between and supplemented by other forms of art and entertainment than stand-alone. This choice can be dissected in a number of fascinating ways:

1) As a continuation of Vaudeville and Circus like entertainment

2) As a replication/imitation of theater

3) As the foundations of the quest for a perfected, fully sensory cinema

In many ways, the moving picture shows of Harris and Cook and the like incorporate all three concepts of the medium.  The films were short because of technology, yet also due to the fear of the audiences untrained attention spans. By the same token, the films were varied in subject matter because they sought to appeal to the masses,  the very same reason they incorporated song and slide show into their acts –  the only knowledge of a film audience came from other similar audiences, consequently, adapting the tastes of vaudeville audiences and theater goers was valid research and provided at least some semblance of a cultural foundation for the medium.

However, what I find more compelling, is the idea supported by certain film theorists whose names seem to escape me… is that perhaps film has always been searching to become a three dimensional all inclusive sensory experience. If so, this would this explain the inherent desire for painted frames and sound effects, for early musical scores and now 3-D… the quest for a perfect cinema.