Towards a history of the cinema theatre

The cinema theatre is not a neutral space, a mere container; if it may be said that it has served as the venue for contact between film and audience, then the cinema is a point of transition between a possible world created for the screen and the real world in which the audience lives. Moreover, it guarantees mediation between the entertainment related by the film and that provided by the living environment, especially the city. A border zone, therefore, a margin; but also a threshold which in juxtaposing two worlds reveals their common traits and a means of passing between them.
A history of cinema theatres is certainly a thing of the future; nonetheless there is already a distinct impression that the logic by which they were often shaped depended both on the kind of product they offered and at the same time on their surrounding environment. It appears equally clear that this logic intended to provide both an entry to the heart of the film experience for the cinemagoer and a point of contact between the fantasy world and the daily life outside. In other words, cinemas have always been influenced both by the shows they screened and by the kind of show presented by the world around them, and they have always served both to allow viewers from outside to enter into the film, and to allow fiction to join with reality and vice-versa.
Having already asserted that a history of cinema theatres is yet to come, we may nonetheless test our interpretation against some historical instances. The first places to host the cinema, after the provisional hospitality afforded by cabarets and beer halls, were travelling showmen's stalls. Their gaudy façades were lit by repeated patterns of electric bulbs, and decorated with motifs borrowed from any style from classical to art nouveau. In Italy the signboard "Cinématographe" proclaimed the invention's exotic origins, in France there were often circus animals lining the entrance, in Britain the booths echoed the forms of the seaside pier; in all cases the structure could be dismantled and taken away as quickly as it had been set up.
These features had a dual purpose: on the one hand they underscored the extraordinary nature of what was on offer, just what a "marvel" it was to behold, a totally unprecedented show of startling content, short-lived but hugely intense; on the other they sited the event within a clearly delimited urban space, one of those for transit but easily recognizable, and used to housing such affairs - squares, fairgrounds, public gardens.
Together these elements explicitly created an "attraction", removing the film experience from daily reality - enter the booth and leave the world behind you. But at the same time they also formed a link with the city itself lived as an "attraction", a constantly changing composition, picturesque, spectacular, even exotic - the play of bulbs on the façade anticipates the show of light and shadow to be seen on screen, but also recalls the electric lights and shadows of the city at the outset of the twentieth century.
Let us jump ten or fifteen years to the first permanent, specialized cinemas. These were of solid masonry, lined up with other buildings along the busiest thoroughfares. The plan derived from the theatre, with a grand front entrance, an often spacious lobby, seats and stalls according to class, a broad screen and next to it a piano, if not an orchestra-pit. The accent here seems to be on the status of the cinema venue as a "building": a celebration of consolidation and legitimization, of a new institution taking root. An institution: the masonry construction suggests that the cinema is here to stay, become a social reality and a means of communication and entertainment to be reckoned with, boasting continuous production in answer to settled demand. Meanwhile the shows themselves followed an increasingly precise and established format: the random medley of scenes and vignettes was giving way to a narrative trend, an illustrated story, a popular tale. Taking root: the permanent structure suggests that the city is now in a position to absorb and distribute internally the various functions which traverse it, workplace, living space, meeting point and place of entertainment are ranged side by side along an intentionally visible path, that of the daily progress of each inhabitant; the diffuse and rather untidy spectacle has been replaced by a carefully composed schedule in which every experience finds its rightful place.
Another leap takes us to the 1950's, a period in which the relationship between cinema and city became both more fluid and more fascinating, though their interface is harder still to determine. A comparison between Europe and the U.S. is revealing. There was a sudden wave of cinema closures in America, linked to a shift of the population from downtown areas to the suburbs, and to the all-pervading spread of television, which shifted consumption of images into households. In post-war Europe, on the contrary, cities were expanded and rebuilt, and in the process many cinemas were refurbished or purpose-built to cater for ever-growing audiences - these were the last years of the cinema's "monuments" to itself, from cinerama to drive-ins to 3-D. In such phenomena we can trace the emergence in the European context of a new reality articulating the cinema and the city: the crowd, now a principal (social, political and psychological) subject. In the cinema, this subject often became the "collective hero" of the story: we could think of the typical Italian comedies which by taking the man in the street as a character made the man in the crowd a hinge of the narrative. In the city, dormitory townships sprang up, the suburbs expanded, internal mobility became more complex and crowd movements more intense, and so also new spaces were opened up (underground and suburban cinemas) to "intercept" the new subjects.
After this heyday in the fifties and sixties, cinemas tended to decline in numbers and be clustered in city centres, specializing as premiere theatres or failing that in arthouse or porno movies, and acquiring showpiece technology such as Dolby sound or state-of-the-art projection systems. Once again a restructuring was taking place: the cinema was no longer a form of popular entertainment for daily consumption as in the two preceding decades, but more of an evening out, a festive occasion, something of a "luxury" as compared to the parallel availability of television; always a one-off experience, given that people no longer went to the movies, but to see a movie. Fewer cinemas, with higher technical standards, answered to the cinema's new role, itself again a reflection of urban reorganization.
The city was no longer an organic whole, a logically ordered and usable territory according to an integrated scheme, but typified by dispersion, fragmentation and reversibility. Cinemas were brought closer to the new urban reality by their determination to specialize, carried almost to excess, together with the multiple use of spaces and timings. Nonetheless, although in more fleeting terms, we may still note a conjunction which is more than just an analogy. It is just that, if in the previous instances the separating and conjoining elements for cinema and city were concrete, perceptible - the "marvellous" façades of the booths, the masonry-built cinemas of the 1920's - and later more fragile - the crowd in the 1950's - nowadays they have become entirely symbolic. Today the cinema theatre links cinema and the city by offering itself symbolically as a domestic space, a family venue. It is no coincidence if in taking on some of the domestic characteristics it occasionally appears "centripetal": with shrinking screen and auditorium, like the tv set in the living room, it forms for itself an identity not unlike that of certain areas in the home, becoming a kind of studio in the case of arthouse cinemas, or a formal salon for premiere theatres, or even an (empty) bedroom in the case of porno cinemas.
The attitudes modelled are of relation, if not of closing off. Sometimes, however, the family "residence" appears "centrifugal", as in the case of multi-screens or multiplexes in large shopping centres. In this case the cinema's domestic quietude is transferred to wider contexts; the ambience continues to be calm and collected as in an aristocratic palace, but the siting of these virtual city squares models an inevitably more open, available attitude, which then finds a highly particularized expression in thematic parks (for instance the Poitiers Futuroscope): a day at the cinema is a day out of town, with a party for all the family and outdoor fun for the kids. By now this is a train of imagination, but supporting data are already in evidence, as has been seen. The cinema as symbolic residence, now centripetal, now centrifugal, is the latest form requiring analysis; it is also the prevalent form currently, albeit expressed in the most conflicting of appearances, and one destined to change as and when - in the way that has been suggested here - there is a further alteration in the make-up of cinema and city, and with it their idea of a threshold which at once divides and unites them.

Francesco Casetti