Cinema and the Architecture of Invisibility

Curator's Note

Recent scholarship has dealt repeatedly with the connections between media and architecture. But what makes for a particularly cinematic architecture? As a result of nostalgia for the movie palace, cinephilia is frequently tied up in marvelous and extravagant space, in chandeliers and murals and exotic fabrics signaling an extraordinary event beyond the everyday. Yet the more pronounced, if not as celebrated, cinematic architectural experience is that of an invisible space: an empty black box in which the only means of definition once the lights go down are the flickering images onscreen. A product of Depression-era economics, film theory, architectural modernism, and advances in optical technologies, the post-1920s ornament-less theater ushered in a utopian form of spectatorship centered on rapt contemplation. The history of these spaces reveals that theatrical architecture had much more to do with certain ideals of filmic spectatorship than is often asserted. Since the theater’s slow modernization, spectatorship in erased space has become so familiar as to seem intuitive. And while the less luxurious experience of film in a “neutral” auditorium may seem forgettable, therein lies its power: in privileging screen over architecture, an invisible auditorium naturalizes filmic perception into an unquestioned category of experience. 

In the clip I’ve chosen from Danny Boyle’s 2007 science fiction film Sunshine, astronauts on a quest to breathe new life into a dying sun take time from their more pressing duties to watch as Mercury passes across their ship’s picture window. Since I first saw this film, the presence of an elegant viewing deck onboard a ship meant to divert an apocalypse has struck me as both nonsensical and necessary. Perhaps the inclusion of a floating auditorium suggests that our comprehension of voyages into space depends on a cinematic imagination. More than merely filmic, this imagination translates to a dream of a pristine and open display space, a window onto the cosmos, and a mobile and immersive viewing architecture. Such is the continuing seduction of a cinematic architecture rooted in disappearance and the illusion of depth. Yet in the drive to create a visually obliterated structure, what else is left to the shadows, obscured from sight?



Thanks for this lovely post, Jocelyn. It moves so seamlessly from the material architectures of cinemas through forms of spectatorship to textual seductions. Your discussion of Sunshine's modes of viewing the cosmos reminded me of Melancholia, a film that doesn't allow the space of an "invisible auditorium" at all. The characters have to constantly look at the planet in daylight and through a device that uses their bodies to measure distance. And they experience the apocalypse inside a transparent architecture that horrifyingly obscures nothing. Perhaps part of what is melancholic about these films is their staging of the loss of modern filmic perception. I also like the idea that the erased viewing space is its own kind of luxury. It seems to connect to Adam's point about my post in which Tsai's film attempts to create an experience of labouring through city space that privileged viewers will never really have.

Beautiful and intriguing post, Jocelyn. I'm taken by the concept and construction of invisibility, and the platforms and frameworks necessary to support the disappearance of architectural materiality. What are the materials and practices of structural immateriality? To relate back to your comments on my post, the scaffolds that mark out the conditions for spatial arrangement and construction are always alternately obscured and ready to be revealed, whether deep within our bodies or our bodies imaginatively projected into outer space. This planetary viewing deck and the ensuing images brought right before these characters’ eyes can equally be scaled down to our methods of viewing cells and tissues under a microscope. These invisible structural scaffolds situate, stage and seduce us in very material ways.

Dr. Szczepaniak-Gillece's remarkable post puts me in mind of Sean Cubitt's work in "The Cinema Effect." Specifically, Cubitt asserts that one dominant strain of the cinematic imaginary privileges an aesthetic of the Kantian sublime, in which an overwhelming, hyper-formalized film spectacle commands and masters the spectator's attention. A primary effect of this spectacular performance is to produce a contemplative and isolated fascination before the cinematic "dispositif," negating and disavowing the very possibility of a communal cinema. In evacuating the communicative dimension of Kantian beauty, the sublime becomes a major ornament in spectacle's mining of the now-isolated consumer-subject of modern cinema. On this register, I am also reminded of Miriam Hansen's canonical account of the industrial and aesthetic transition of American film from a communal variety format to the continuity format that we know so well: a major agenda of the continuity tradition is the construction of a homogenous audience through the establishment of the classical spectator subject. In a provisional answer to the question that Szczepaniak-Gillece puts to us, then, I would venture that one of the things which such sublime pieces - and the anonymity of their exhibition settings - tend to efface is the destabilizing contingency of the social bond and its heterogeneous makeup.

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