Houses of Stangers

Chris Fujiwara

Recently, a group of film critics, curators, academics and historians were invited by the Kinodvor cinema in Ljubljana, Slovenia, to take part in an examination of the changing role of cinemas in film culture by answering the question: “Are there any films you wouldn’t want to see anywhere else than in a movie theatre?”It seems to me that an attempt to answer this question could move beyond the stalemated position of what remains of 21st-century discussions of “cinephilia” and get to something essential, and still unformulated, about the place and function of cinema. It is all too easy to say that we need the cinema to take us outside ourselves (though this is certainly true). Once taken outside ourselves, what are the images and sounds that we need to encounter – and what do we need them for?

The question could be re-stated like this: given that cinema is the presentation of a moving image (before an implied or actual single spectator or group of spectators) in such a way as to make the relationships that constitute the image visible as an abstract pattern, are there films whose performance of that function is clearly enhanced by projection in a movie theatre, and clearly hampered if the films are seen in other ways?

It might be assumed that this will be the case for all films (and not only those that were made with theatrical projection in mind) simply because the conditions of theatrical projection and reception make it more likely that the viewer’s attention will be focused on the film. However, there are also certain films that include those very conditions as an essential part of both their “theme” and their “form.” For such films, the experience of watching them in a movie theatre is part of what they seek to make visible and elucidate.

There are, certainly, many films that contain scenes in movie theatres, from Sherlock Jr.(Buster Keaton),The Crowd(King Vidor), and The Man with the Movie Camera(Dziga Vertov) to Vivre sa vie(Jean-Luc Godard),Les carabiniers (Godard),Masculin féminin(Godard), and Inglourious Basterds(Quentin Tarantino), by way of The Tingler(William Castle),The Blob(Irwin Yeaworth, Jr.), and Demons (Lamberto Bava). But do all these films need to be seen in movie theatres in order to be understood? Clearly not, since such films merely stage cinema as a visual spectacle or dramatic situation that can be perfectly intelligible if seen on TV at home, on a laptop or mobile phone, etc. These films may gain in emotional and psychological resonance from being seen in a movie theatre, but do not necessarily gain in lucidity.

The case is different with Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn, which takes place almost entirely inside a movie theatre. Here we have not merely a film that in some more or less clever way contrives to be “about” watching a movie in a theatre, but a major manifesto on cinematic space by a filmmaker for whom it is an imperative in the cinematography of interior spaces that they reflect back to the spectators the condition of being in an interior space watching images. However, the same can be said of any of a number of other Tsai films, and as “a film I wouldn’t want to see anywhere else than in a movie theatre,” I am more tempted to pick Tsai’s more recent Stray Dogs.In Stray Dogs,in which the cinema serves as a metaphor for homelessness, the extreme length of shots reaches toward the limit where the discomfort of watching a moving image in which very little moves almost ceases to be compensated by whatever pleasure can be taken in the qualities of the image – a threshold that must bereduced if the viewer is given the option of fast-forwarding through the scene, or if the image becomes degraded through lower-resolution reproduction.

Tsai Ming-liang is at any rate a predictable answer to the Ljubljana question, and I am afraid my next answer will be no less predictable. As Noël Burch observed, Jacques Tati’s Playtime is “the first [film] in the history of cinema that must be seen not only several different times, but from several different distances from the screen” – obviously it went without saying, for Burch (writing in 1969), that the film needed to be seen in a theatre.Jonathan Rosenbaum carried Burch’s remark further by claiming that it is “inappropriate” to see the film “in private spaces, especially on any screen smaller than oneself. Playtime assumes a precise contiguity and continuity with the public space of a theater, where we share its experience with others.” For Rosenbaum, the film offers nothing less than “a particularly euphoric form of reengagement with public space.”

This euphoria comes partly from the formal miracle of Tati’s film: its triumphant and meticulous choreography of people within a rectilinear modern architecture, leading to the breakthroughs of a new sociality that it becomes possible to enact within spaces that at first appear to deny anything but a programmed and simulated sociality. The scale of the human figure within the image (Tati films almost everything in long shot), the saturation of the image by visible details that can be meaningful or pleasurable without being given prominence, make Playtime a film that truly demands a “big screen” and becomes something radically different, and possibly even unreadable, when seen on anything less.

The question of scale becomes important again with another director with a preference for relatively distant, or neutral, camera positions, and whose films benefit from being seen in cinemas and may become deformed to a degree that is not well understood (or even understandable) when they are encountered on small screens: Jacques Tourneur. From Tourneur’s work, I would highlight especially four works – The Leopard Man, Canyon Passage,Stars in My Crown, and Wichita – portraits of the destinies of communities, in which the roles played by personal heroism or perversity are placed in a perspective where they become, if not wholly insignificant, then somewhat arbitrary.

When we consider these films by Tourneur, do they not seem to belong to a historical configuration whose passing has deprived the films of their ability to communicate to us? Have not these works, as images, become mute? As stories, they are still, certainly, understandable, but behind the stories lies something that the stories themselves do not communicate and that enters the films only through the way the actors have been directed and composed.

For different reasons, I can imagine that Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan could not work outside a movie theatre: the effect of the film requires sequestration within a space where the audience can be operated on by the images and sounds (above all, the sounds); the willed powerlessness that is always part of the ethics of theatrical spectatorship is as fundamental to creating the experience of the movie as it is for Lamberto Bava’s Demons (in which the viewers of the film within a film are attacked by monsters loose within the movie theatre). Another maritime film, Raoul Ruiz’s Les trois couronnes du matelot, could also be mentioned for the perfection of its cinematic metaphor (greater than that of Tsai’s Goodbye Dragon Inn) and for the construction of its imaginary cinema as a floatinghouse of stories. When one leaves the cinema after watching Ruiz’s film, it is as if one were setting foot on land again after a long sea voyage. It is also by invoking the completed experience of the voyage that two great films by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, House of Strangers and A Letter to Three Wives, derive a power that is largely lost when the films are seen on small screens: one must be inside the cinema, itself a “house of strangers,” and one must apprehend these beautiful mechanical patterns of human relationships being relayed through words and images that convey the most precise attitudes toward those relationships, in order to feel any emotion at all.

But the ne plus ultra of filmmakers whose work must be experienced in a movie theatre is certainly Naruse Mikio. Why? Because his films, when casually encountered, seem too close to life itself to be even graspable as images; and it becomes necessary to instill the greatest possible distance between the film and the viewer (through the difference in scale between the viewer and the screen, through the ceremony of entering the cinema and sitting down, etc.) in order to be able to see them in their complexity and abstraction.Of Naruse’s films, the following (all from the postwar period) are not necessarily the greatest, but they are certainly great examples of films that need to be seen in a cinema in order to be seen at all: Ginza gesho, Okaasan, Yama no oto, Bangiku, Iwashigumo, Midareru, Midaregumo.

Maurice Blanchot wrote: “The everyday escapes. In this consists its strangeness – the familiar showing itself (but already dispersing) in the guise of the astonishing… The everyday is what we never see for a first time but can only see again.” Naruse is the great director of the everyday; and perhaps, through an inevitable historical irony, it is now the everyday (of electronic formats and screens) that has to be banished, in order that Naruse’s visual and narrative poetry of the everyday can be recovered, through the increasingly exotic experience of cinema.

* The Korean translation of this essay is included in Magazine F (No.14) published on July 30th in 2014.