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?