The cinema theatre was, and to some extent still is, one of the great
places for socializing, an often fascinating cross-roads
of private and public memories, a chemical solution in which the most disparate
emotional states can be dissolved. It may be easier
on the surface to trace the history of cinemas through the architectural
styles they have adopted this century, from the art nouveau of the early
years to the cold rationalism of the forties, to today's post-modern; however
a more tortuous, but equally rewarding route is offered by following written
or filmed memories, held together by the fragile thread of the cinema recalled.
Gian Piero Brunetta has written that "every cinemagoer, in the darkness,
cultivates his own little dream and perceives the vibrating energy of the
dreams of all those around him. The cinema absorbs collective life without
producing the sensation that individual experience is annulled. Social
ties are reinforced in a space in which everybody - singles, couples, small
groups - is allowed to define their own territory".
This has been just the place, perhaps the homeland of memory confined between desires and reality, for Twentieth Century Man to confront himself, seeking the profile of his own identity and the plots of his own century's culture: often a fleeting confrontation between the time and stories inside the cinema and time and history themselves, outside. "There were years", wrote Italo Calvino, "when I went to the pictures almost every day, sometimes twice a day. That was from around 1936 to the start of the war, when I was an adolescent and for me the cinema was the world. A different world from the one around me, but for me only what I saw on the screen had the qualities of a world, the fullness, the necessity, the coherence, while away from the screen was a variety of elements mixed up apparently at random".
Cinemagoing could also become a kind of initiation ceremony, a rite of passage to the adult world. Federico Fellini recalled that when he was young violent brawls would break out among the cheap seats at Rimini's Fulgor cinema, in imitation of the swashbuckling action on screen; Albert Camus thought of the cinema as a place to date; Carlo Emilio Gadda watched entranced as the girls swarmed out of the matinee; Milan Kundera was a habitué of the back row; for Elio Vittorini the cinema was one long teenage party and for Roland Barthes it was the analyst's couch. Different ways of opening oneself to the world, discovering something new, always in the darkness of the cinema. Literary references or autobiographical recollections are not the only ways to illuminate the enigmatic traits of the cinema. Sometimes it is the cinema which turns on itself, reflecting on its nature and examining its mechanics. A wealth of examples could be cited from every kind of director in every place and period, but there are three emblematic instances in recent films centred on the cinema theatre: as place of dreams and desires in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985); as place of nostalgia for a kind of cinema now lost in Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso (1988); as place of clear-cut social value in Splendor (1989) by Ettore Scola.
Autobiographies, novels, interviews and film clips: the variegated testimony yields the memory of a cinema theatre which continues to astonish and amaze.