By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY GRANDMOTHER CALLED THEM “THE PICTURE SHOW“, which I always thought was a more elegant phrase than the self-important motion pictures. Indeed, well into our second century of going to special, secret places to see illuminated instants stab across the dark to illuminate a wall and charm our collective senses, we are experiencing a sea change in every way that we refer to “the movies”, including how much of the experience is “picture”, how much is “show”, or even how much of that event is to be shared with others.
I came back across this image from 2015 as I was thinking about the reported demise of movie palaces, about the umpteenth such prophecy I’ve heard over a lifetime. Television, the death of the nuclear family, the scourge of home video, and now streaming and plague have all taken their place in conversations about how the movies, or at least how we consume them, are “finally over”. Who knows, this time out, it might finally be time to cue the end titles and think of these stories in some profoundly different way. What I do know is that, as the drama unfolds, cameras of all kinds need to be there, to chronicle the transition.
The theatre seen here is actually holding a gala on its last night in operation. It is closing, not because of hard times, but because of good ones, as the Harkins family, the most powerful name in movie theatres in the soutwestern USA, prepares to raze the Camelview Cinema to build an insanely larger version of it just across the street inside a mall. There will be speeches, local tv coverage, even a few tears. And the neon will dim and the attendees will become ghosts, just as this time exposure has visualized them. It’s a gloriously unsubtle night of Happy/Sad/But Mostly Happy.
Since 2020, this scene has been repeated all around the world as, for the first time, the future of theatrically projected “picture shows” is seriously in doubt. As I write this, only mega-blockbusters and “franchise” releases like the latest Marvel Masterwork are turning the turnstiles to any degree. Cocooning, before smaller screens, phones, and tablets, is still being driven by a strange cocktail of convenience and survival.
But many theatres won’t get the luxury of a Harkins sendoff, or even a poetic fade to black, merely the sudden, jarring contrast of Lights Out. In my grandmother’s day, going to the movies was still a bit of a miracle, a definite event. The houses were gaudy, resplendent in their excess, with even the boxy little bijous of her own small town fitted out in their own carnival colors. Part picture, part show. The road ahead in uncertain, but I want to seek out the ones that last the longest and the ones that wink out the saddest and everything in the middle, and snap my shutter madly until the last “flicker.”
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT IS THE OLDEST FRAMING DEVICE IN HISTORY. If you’ve ever watched a play on any stage, anywhere in the world, you’ve accepted it as the classic method of visual presentation. The Romans coined the word proscenium, “in front of the scenery”. Between stage left and stage right exists a separate reality, defined and contained in the finite space of the theatre’s forward area. What is included in the frame is everything, the center of the universe of certain characters and events. What’s outside the frame is, indefinite, vague, less real.
Just like photography, right? Or to be accurate, photography is like the proscenium. We, too select a specific world to display. We leave out all the other worlds not pertinent to our message. And we follow information in linear fashion…left to right, right to left. The frame gives us the sensation of “looking in” to something that we are only visiting, just as we only “rent” our viewpoint from our theatre seats.
We learned our linear habit from the descendants of stage arrangement….murals, frescoes, paintings, all working, as our first literate selves would, from left to right. Painters were forced to arrange information inside the frame, to make choices of what that frame would include, and, as the quasi-legitimate children of painting, we inherited that deliberately chosen viewpoint, that decision to show a select world, by arranging visual elements within the frame.
For some reason, in recent months, I have been abandoning the non-traditional in shooting street scenes and harking back to the proscenium, trying to convey a contained world of simple, direct left-right information. Candid neighborhood shots seem to work well without extra adornment. Just pick your borders and make your capture. It’s a way of admitting that some worlds come complete just as they are. Just wrap the frame around them like a packing crate and serve ’em up.
This is not to say that an angled or isometric view can’t portray drama or reality as well as a “stagy” one. Hey, sometimes you want a racing bike and sometimes you want a beach cruiser. Sometimes I don’t mind that the technique for getting a shot is, itself, a little more noticeable. And sometimes I like to pretend that there really isn’t a camera.
That’s theatre. You shouldn’t believe that the well-meaning director of the local production of Oklahoma really conjured a corn field inside a theatre. But you kind of do.
Hey what does Picasso say? “Art is the lie that tells the truth”?
Okay, now I’m making my own head hurt. I’m gonna go lie down.