In the House, In the Picture: Distance and Proximity in the American Mid-Century Neutralized Theater

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Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece

Cinema by definition maintains multiple temporal and spatial levels: the time and space of the profilmic scene, of shooting, of editing, of projecting, of the theater, and of the spectator herself. As if to collapse these separations, cinema evokes an imagined dissolution of the spectator’s body, of the theatrical environment, and of the gap between spectator and screen. In order to fulfill a desire for proximity, cinema offers an illusory unity of film, spectator, and theatrical space. Such an artifice reveals film’s indebtedness to built environments: in particular, to architecture’s capacity to fashion semblances of proximity. For instance, Paul Virilio has described the effects of the movie theater space in tandem with projection as the moment “when the cinema auditorium is suddenly plunged into artificial darkness, its configuration, the bodies within it, dissolve... The matter provided and received in collective, simultaneous fashion by cinemagoers is light, the speed of light… The only other art to have offered this before is architecture.”1 Likewise, André Bazin’s myth of total cinema contemplates film enrapturing, containing, and masking the materiality of the spectator for the sake of bringing her closer to the ephemeral image.2 Bazin is not alone. Throughout the history of film theory, theorists of all kinds have imagined cinema’s ability to unite film and spectator, shortening—by way of absolute immersion—spatio-temporal distance.

What we currently understand as a cinematic ideal of proximity appears naturally traced from film’s infancy. From turn-of-the-century spectators supposedly terrified by—or, in Tom Gunning’s words, attracted to—the Lumières’ train pulling into the station, to the fullness of experience promised by Hale’s Tours, through the 3D booms of the 1950s and 2000s, film exhibition’s interest in spatial immersion points toward an investment in the reduction of the distance between viewer and image.3 Seated in darkened auditoriums bereft of decoration before a looming, enormous screen, viewers of the twenty-first century seem to share a common bond with their spectatorial ancestors: for two hours we sit quietly in a darkness lessened only by the projector’s beam, fixed in attention to the images projected before us. If immersion has always been one of the contradictory goals of spectators and film theorists alike, audience participation and vocalization are also touchstones of moviegoing. Yet the appeal of immersion consistently echoes throughout critical and especially industrial rhetoric. For American mid-century exhibitors, the concept of immersion bore some commonalities with what Michael Fried describes as “absorption”: total belief in the full reality of the image and its hermetic existence, as well as the ability to enter into it unselfconsciously.4 Exhibitors’ ideals of immersion, however—ideals that alternately included spectatorial presence, spectatorial participation, and spectatorial witnessing—suggested the efficacy of immersion over absorption: immersion retains a hint of the unfeasibility of total bodily relinquishment. The implication for immersion in exhibition rhetoric is film paired with its own futility, both reaching toward bodily disavowal and acknowledging its impossibility.

Despite the importance of immersion for film theory and exhibition history, attempts to achieve it through calibrated theatrical surroundings did not appear at the beginning of film exhibition. Instead, the theater’s strange combination of invisibility, targeted vision, and idealized proximal space emerged during the slow dying of the movie palace and the concurrent rise of the “neutralized” theater from the 1930s through the 1960s. Fitted with thematic depictions of orientalism, fairy tales, or mythology, movie palaces boasted fantastical decorations such as colored lights, gilding, chandeliers, statues, lavish lounges, and murals, as well as seating for thousands; although exhibitors attempted to keep the lights relatively low in order to discourage socializing, the palaces frequently included a clear view of one’s surroundings.5 Based typically on the standards of mainstream stage design—including use of proscenium arches, stages, curtains, and separated boxes and floor seating—movie palaces tended toward the spectacle of the theater rather than ideal optical conditions for film watching. While the palace’s expensive ornamentation waned in the wake of decreased attendance numbers after the Depression, its environmental excess was also a target for theorists and exhibitors invested in film’s unique disciplinary qualities, the value of streamlined modernist architecture for framing the movies as an art form deserving of contemplation, and the importance of restricting auditorium design elements to foster spectator-image proximity. As a direct result of these concerns, the neutralized auditorium involved the creation of directional lines and lighting, stricter and more intimate seating plans, and as little light during projection as possible in an effort to discourage audience movement and encourage attention—in effect, to create an idealized cinematic space of bodiless minds projected forward toward the flattened surface of the screen and the artificial depth of the filmic image. There, the gap between screen materiality and ephemeral visual experience would be managed to balance distance from bodies with proximity to imagined filmic world.

In what follows, I will introduce the neutralized auditorium and its most vocal provocateur, Beaux-Arts educated New York architect Benjamin Schlanger, but I will not trace this history as simply a product of exhibition economics.6 Although partially a response to Depression-era financial troubles, the neutralized theater also imposed a new cinematic ideal on exhibition and, by extension, the form of film itself.7 Neutralized cinematic architecture was designed specifically to decrease distance between audience and film through minimized decoration, horizontal line detail pointing to and perspectivally converging at the screen, and seating patterns encouraging spectatorial stillness. Its ongoing legacy is certainly architectural, as evidenced by the sparseness of so many contemporary auditoriums. But the neutralized theater also highlights, in historical terms, a particular mode of deferred filmic desire that was developing and strengthening as cinema grew older. If a neutralized auditorium focused rather stringently on the direction of the spectator’s attention to the screen, it also hinged on an artifice of proximity. In guiding the spectator’s vision toward the screen, the auditorium’s designers insisted on immersion in a projected filmic image that effaced the materiality of the screen. To bring spectators closer to inhabiting an ephemeral image, the neutralized auditorium was built in an effort to suspend our awareness of the materiality of environment, including the body. Filmic immersion suggested by the neutralized cinema depended, therefore, on the distance effected from the tangibility of a built environment, bodies, and screen in order to create a proximity to what is an ultimately untouchable image. As idealized perception in the movie theater similarly depends on physical visual and aural experience in order to reject an embodied sense of time and place, the neutralized auditorium similarly proposes to us the possibility of an illusion of an immaterial architecture, which shifts the filmic image from evanescence to manifestation.

Fig. 1: Roxy Theatre, New York, NY, 1927.

In the United States at mid-century, a new kind of conceptual architecture arose in the American exhibition scene, one that sought to rectify what some saw as the mistakes of the palace era by constructing an efficient visual machine. Its product, the so-called neutralized theater, relied on an aesthetic of functionalism as stylistic erasure for the sake of a newly intimate relationship between viewer and screen. Championed by architects and designers who shared a fascination with European modernisms and a conviction that distraction was anathema to proper film viewing, neutralized theaters emerged in part from the French-oriented little cinemas of the 1920s such as Symon Gould’s Cameo Theatre in New York (1926) and experimental theaters such as Frederick Kiesler’s Film Guild Cinema (1928, Fig. 2).8 All of these theaters restricted decoration and auditorium size, both to cut costs and to assert film’s validity as an art form deserving of its own individualized system of display rather than its installation as mindless entertainment in an amusement park of distractions. Neutralization broke with the elaborate and enormous movie palaces of the 1910s and 1920s by shrinking auditorium size and seating, reducing or eliminating vestiges of live theater such as proscenia, darkening the lights, removing extraneous decoration, and designing an auditorium that directed visual attention at the screen. Most importantly, the notion of neutralization implies an importance of an invisible style that, in the very act of effacing itself, privileges the screen, thereby bringing it closer to the audience’s contemplative gaze. Gaudy palace architecture was simply too visible; neutralization tended instead in the direction of stylistic erasure. This functional approach would eventually shape mall, multiplex, and most standardized moviegoing and lead to current theaters’ darkened and minimalist auditorium centered on an ever-enlarging screen.9

Fig. 2: Film Guild Theatre, New York, NY, 1928.

If ever discussed, neutralized theaters tend to be explained in terms of economic motivation, and certainly the Depression contributed to a drive toward cost reduction. Beyond economics, I would argue, neutralized theaters--specifically those designed by Benjamin Schlanger—are better understood as an effort steeped in film and visual theory that presented attentive vision as a utopian ideal. Schlanger’s theaters in particular were an attempt to reconfigure the movie house into a place where proximity and contemplative immersion replaced the gap between spectator and screen. This conviction in film’s ability to bring its spectators closer to the image related to larger theoretical discussions of film and technological reproduction in modernity. In part, Schlanger’s investment in immersive proximity as metaphysical contemplation suggested what Walter Benjamin described as a “desire of the present-day masses to ‘get closer’ to things,” a function of auratic decay in modernity.10 While Schlanger did not share Benjamin’s belief in the potential productivity of distraction, his identification of attention as a central modern phenomenon aligned him with related discourses. For example, also in circulation at the time was Hugo Münsterberg’s early definition of film’s, and particularly the close-up’s, ability to “objectif[y] in our world of perception our mental act of attention,” which resonates strongly with Schlanger’s interest in attention.11 Finally, versions of ideal theaters imagined by Harry Potamkin, Seymour Stern, and Siegfried Kracauer also proved similar to Schlanger’s built structures and published essays. His neutralized theater, then, did not only result in expanded profits, but was an experiment in attention exemplifying both a modern aesthetic change and the way that film’s direction of vision could create an illusion of environmental—and bodily—disappearance.

By the mid-1930s, theatrical architecture in the United States faced serious conceptual and economic difficulties. The ravages of the Great Depression had not yet been transformed by American involvement in World War II, and although Hollywood suffered on the whole less than most other industries, skittish exhibitors—conscious also of the looming threat of television as domestic entertainment—were uneasily seeking ways to guarantee consistent numbers of bodies in the seats.12 For an American public suffering through the Depression, several-thousand-seat movie palaces built before the stock market crash seemed examples of conspicuous consumption; worse, their substantial size resulted frequently in wasted space unfilled by eager consumers.13 Yet while theatrical space shrank in the wake of the economic crisis, excessive style did not necessarily disappear. In the 1930s, lavish decoration was often thought of as providing an experience of wealth that struggling Depression-era attendees could not have at home—an experience that could soothe and therefore regulate potentially economically dissatisfied audiences. Harold Rambusch explained in Motion Picture Herald two years after the crash that:

the vast majority of those attending our theatres are of very limited means. Their homes are not luxurious and the theatre affords them an opportunity to imagine themselves as wealthy people in luxurious surroundings… In a sense these theatres are the social safety valves in that the public can partake of the same luxurious surroundings as the rich and use them to the same full extent.14

By the 1940s, architectural gimmicks such as black light murals and fluorescent textiles proliferated, while into the mid-1950s theaters still included fanciful themes, velvet curtains, jewel tones, and detailed lighting schemes. Such whimsical approaches stood in direct contrast to modernist designs from the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright’s homegrown Chicago style that were increasingly popular in the United States from the 1930s-1960s.15 Yet despite American interest in various modernisms, movie theaters were slow to respond, partially because “showmanship,” or the creation of a spectacular and escapist theater, remained the driving force for many exhibitors seeking to provide exotic pleasures for downtrodden audiences and more effectively sell the theatrical experience. In short, showmanship seemed a more profitable direction than modernism, many exhibitors explained: “The appearance of a theatre… is part of what the theatre is selling both directly and indirectly… Despite the notions of some strict modernists, reliance for the greater part of the required environmental character of a theatre interior still must be placed on decoration.”16

Fig. 3: Fox Theatre, Brooklyn, NY, 1928.

In terms of aesthetics, showmanship was a relatively fluid term that referred at once to orientalist, romantic, deco, neo-classical, or regionalist themes, among others; conceptually, it signified visual excess, fantasy, and an environment of escapism unrelated to the films being shown (Fig. 3). Pre-Depression era showmanship manifested itself in dripping chandeliers, fairy lights, thick plush carpeting, gold paint, and other markers of wealth; after the Depression, it similarly included lush fabrics and high concept design, intended to provide struggling audiences with at least a brief experience of luxury. For most large theaters of the 1920s and early1930s, film venues were fairgrounds of attractions that promised—and delivered—a wealth of experience past the boundaries of the screen, including live acts and therefore stages, ornamentation, and games and contests. Showmanship, however, proved to be only one avenue for American mid-century film exhibition. In fact, showmanship’s encouragement of a diverse array of attractions and experiences rather than the focusing of audience attention only to the screen helped inspire neutralization. According to exhibitors, architects, and theater owners invested in neutralization, while audiences appeared immersed in the palace, their wandering eyes distracted by all the theater’s frippery reinforced the gap between viewer and film through “costly ornamentation, affording poor aesthetic environment, besides being disturbing to restful screen exhibition.”17 To make the theater stylistically simplistic would lead to a fixing of eye to image and therefore immersion in the film undiluted by the distancing effects of additional sensory information. The rhetoric of neutralization also involved a severe distinction between screen and stage, especially as architects followed film critic Harry Potamkin’s assertion that film was a specific and unique discipline separate from live theater. “It seems,” Potamkin wrote in 1927, “that the interior arrangement of the ideal cinema must be radically different from that of the theatre.”18 Referring to critic Seymour Stern’s National Board of Review essay from earlier that year, Potamkin recommended “the abolition of the proscenium arch, the graduate convergence of all lines in the theater to the screen, marked elevation between rows of seats, and music to be hidden.”19 According to Potamkin and Stern, not only should stage acts be removed from exhibition, so too should architectural details recalling the stage, and their suppression would be instantiated to concentrate the spectator’s attention on the film.

Potamkin and Stern’s ideas drew on concepts of ideal cinematic space emerging from Germany, particularly from Siegfried Kracauer’s description of Berlin’s massive movie houses as “palaces of distraction,” where “elegant surface splendor is the hallmark of these mass theaters.”20 These theaters, although large and ornate, adapted to a kind of tasteful grandiosity and glitter; accordingly, they showcased an array of entertainments, from the film itself to production numbers, songs, and other performances, so that a “glittering, revue-like creature…crawled out of the movies: the total art work [Gesamtkunstwerk] of effects.”21 Kracauer’s difficulty with Berlin’s palaces was not just that they traded in an outdated and twinkling aesthetic; rather, their horrors stemmed from the space’s confusion of artistic disciplines. Like American palaces, Berlin’s theaters were far more than movie theaters, bringing together stage acts, music, and dance into a monstrous whole. Borrowing from Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, Kracauer described the picture palace as a perversion of utopia: a chaotic and thoughtless mingling of glitter and surface texture that elided all potential politics and insight in favor of a flattened, shimmering façade of collaged images. The problem with Berlin’s movie theaters was their attempt to contain a diversity of delights at the cost of the potentially radical and liberating benefit that the movies might also promise. For Kracauer, if the film itself became the focus rather than the panoply of events and wonders that surround moving imagery, if the theater is wiped of “all trappings that deprive film of its rights” and the movie becomes the center of theatrical architecture, cinematic space might be something that “exposes disintegration instead of masking it.”22 By effacing itself to privilege the screen, the theater could highlight a central dialectic: the vast encompassing nature of filmic experience and the ephemerality of projection, duration, and spectatorship. To do so, the theater must first operate at the service of moving imagery alone; it must act, in a sense, as a modern art museum, both constructing the works it houses as worthy of aesthetic admiration and vanishing around them, providing an intimate and direct connection between visitor and artwork.

In direct opposition to the showmanship spectacle decried by Kracauer and its estranging effect on spectators, Schlanger similarly sought to shorten the distance between screen and viewer by eliminating the palaces’ ornamental architectural detail as well as their visual references to staged theater, decorating only with horizontal lines and light, and expanding the screen to its limits. Emptied of the trappings of showmanship, Schlanger’s theaters proposed the use of functional modernism as an instrument for substituting proximity to the picture for distance from the onscreen events, materializing immersion by constructing an architecture of invisibility. In Schlanger’s view, an invisible space created by regulating the direction of the spectator’s visual attention maintained a spatio-temporal filmic immersion that could potentially lead to an idealized community. Corresponding to Jean-Luc Nancy’s “The Inoperative Community,” Schlanger’s sense of what community might be gained—or regained—in the contemplative space of the theater was at once an ahistorical and a modern impulse.23 For Nancy, a condition of modern experience is the desire to escape alienation by recovering community—a community that has never actually existed. Read alongside Nancy, Schlanger’s theaters imply both a physical manifestation of revelatory film theory and community’s “impossibility of its own immanence.”24 The illusion of spectators brought closer to the screen as well as together in a state of bodiless projection, therefore, evokes community’s operability only in death. In Schlanger’s version of an ideal cinema, spectators became both less and more than themselves: remade into eyes without bodies, sharing space that erased markers of distance and difference, his ideal spectators were no longer individualized but instead transcendent of specificity. To fuse theatrical space, film, and spectator is to reduce the distances among singular objects, spaces, and beings; to form an ideal filmic community is to manifest proximity through visual streamlining. Distraction separates, individualizes, embodies and prevents visual communion. Attention is a centripetal force.

Community’s impossibility in the lavishly ornamented theater was a result, for Schlanger, of the dual problem of distraction and separation. If a spectator watched in distraction, she remained aware of the multiplicity of objects, pieces, and parts of the theater and the film, of the separation of her mind from the images onscreen, and of her own embodied perceptions. Total attention to the screen, however, could achieve an intellectual projection enabling the viewer to forget her physicality and lapse into pure vision and abstract community. In February of 1931, Schlanger wrote his first of several decades’ worth of essays in Motion Picture Herald’s Better Theatres section.25 “Motion Picture Theatres of Tomorrow,” the first cogent argument for architectural neutralization in an American exhibition journal, contained his often-repeated argument that the theater of the future should become part of the film rather than remaining visible as partitioned space: theater seats, stage, screen area.26 As Schlanger explained, the proscenium arch should be destroyed as much as possible, and is where “the slaughtering should begin and concentrate itself… It is here where the mood is determined. It is mostly this transition that should enable the viewer to feel as little conscious of the surrounding walls and ceiling as possible, so that he can completely envelop himself in that which he is viewing.”27 In other theaters of the 1930s, ornamental sidewalls cause

a disturbing pull of the eye away from what should be the main focal point. These walls should have a gradual simplification and omission of forms as they recede to the rear of the auditorium; the forms used should have strong horizontal direction, instead of vertical emphasis, fastening the eye to the screen, the focal point, at the front of the auditorium… While the viewer should not be conscious of the different walls and ceiling that enclose him, he should by all means be conscious of the effect of the unified surroundings, which should assist rather than compete with the presentation.28

Unification—a term repeated by neutralization designers, as well as architectural modernists including Frederick Kiesler and László Moholy-Nagy—meant an entire system of screen, space, and vision culminating in filmic proximity.29 A framed transition between screen and audience space through proscenia and other unnecessary decoration highlighted the physical separation in space and time among screen, spectator, and image, making a unified and therefore bodiless theatrical/filmic space an impossibility. Achieving a community of projected minds necessitated a more efficient cinematic machine.

Schlanger would soon apply his principles to actual constructions. In 1936 the Pix Theatre, designed by the architectural firm of Bianculli & Ghiani with Schlanger as architectural associate and consultant, opened in White Plains, New York (Fig. 4).30 Small, intimate, and functional, the Pix sat 300 and was positioned as an experiment in cost-cutting, lowered overhead, quick return on minimal investment, and exquisite, perfected visual exhibition. The “eccentric” appearance of the theater’s front section of white stucco with no decoration except for signage was described as part of the designers’ search for a purely functional effect where “the architecture observes only the space requirements of the interior.”31 Inside the Pix’s auditorium, the walls and ceiling were constructed of plaster, while two stepped metallic panels painted a “neutral” color flanked the screen platform.32 Otherwise, the entirety of the auditorium’s decoration came from a lighting trough running the length of the room and three bracket luminous elements on the two sidewalls. The trough was located on the auditorium’s ceiling, and, especially given that the Pix’s floor had a slight upward slope, its dramatic line of light created visual momentum, intended to encourage the spectator’s eye forward to traverse the room’s length and focus on the screen dominating it in front. In a development radical for its time, light bouncing from the screen and reflected on the walls constituted nearly all of the illumination during screenings; without the interference of extraneous light falling on the image, the true blacks and shadows onscreen would not appear grey.

Fig. 4: Pix Theatre, White Plains, NY, 1936.

Schlanger in particular hoped that the Pix would demonstrate that a successful auditorium was not dependent on plush ornamentation, that economic savings could be obtained through minimized decoration, and that some of those savings could and should be invested in a more careful and calculated design for better sightlines and projection; functionalist architecture could thus both work to increase exhibitors’ profit marginsandpotentially provide a better theatrical experience. But the Pix was not only a design for a more fiscally responsible theater. Although most theaters of the early-to-mid 1930s were not necessarily conceived with idealized optical conditions in mind, there is little evidence to suggest that the public was demanding better sightlines. Somewhat decreased numbers in the mid-1930s resulted from the Great Depression rather than substandard viewing conditions; just a few years prior, Hollywood was enjoying substantial profits while showcasing films in cinemas converted from live theaters, or cavernous halls where many of the seats on the outskirts of the auditorium’s center were subject to considerable visual distortion.33 Like the movie palace, the Pix represented an attempt at immersion, yet immersion in the film itself rather than its surrounding space of exhibition. Through an architecture convinced of its own invisibility, the Pix reconstructed theatrical space as proximal and hoped to produce a spectator in visual conversation with the screen. Its horizontal lines, indirect lighting, and gradual building up of line detail toward the front of the theatrical space created a convergence of lines at the screen to engage the spectator’s eye in a sense of forward progression. By removing details that could upset this forward motion, the Pix both encouraged audience focus on the film and established visually that the object of spatio-temporal progressive movement was, in fact, the screen itself. Thus the visible future would end at the screen, where environmental streamlining framed a purified cinematic image undiluted by and preserved from other artistic disciplines and architectural forms of the past.

Schlanger’s calls for a more calculated, more functional theater would be an obsession for decades to come. By the 1950s his work was relatively commonplace in the exhibition scene, especially given a more prominent industrial focus on immersion, due particularly to new widescreen technologies such as Cinerama and CinemaScope, widely available color film technology, and 3D. In 1951, Schlanger and William Hoffberg’s cinema at Shoppers World, an enormous retail market development in Framingham, Massachusetts, included the still-revolutionary Schlanger-Hoffberg maskless screen, seating designed for perfected sightlines on a dual-incline slope reminiscent of the later multiplex’s stadium seating, and a goal of, as Better Theatres editor George Schutz described, “substantially freeing the performance from architectural—that is from local, extraneous—influence” (Figs 5 & 6).34 The theater, as Schutz explained, contained

a maskless screen... so integrated with the optically neutral auditorium that the impact of the performance does take on revolutionary proportions… Optical neutrality of the auditorium performs an important function of its own: with all framing of the picture eliminated… and with the screen surround ‘blended’ into the rest of the room, it allows the world of the performance to dominate vision, and illusion is the more completely produced by the picture through this concentration of sight upon it.35

Schutz’s description reads not just as a cynical exhibitor looking to place bodies in seats; while garnering profits is undoubtedly a goal, so too is a fullness of immersion in the film itself. Through new technologies, but also significantly through the impact of the functional theater, film and its house were becoming more widely considered as feats of visual concentration, the neutralized auditorium’s drive toward shortening the distance between screen and viewer a dream closer within reach.



Figs 5 & 6: Shoppers World Cinema, Framingham, Massachusetts, 1951. 

Despite the importance of Schlanger’s theaters for the history of exhibition, few survive; yet the Williamsburg “transcineums,” two of his most conceptually sophisticated and confounding theaters, remain standing and relatively untouched in an unlikely location (Figs 7 & 8). In 1954, Schlanger’s widely respected expertise led to his employment as theatrical designer of the Rockefeller Foundation-funded information center project at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, an undertaking now all but forgotten but at the time upheld internationally as a revolution in auditorium design. Inside the center, twin theaters, dubbed “transcineums” by Schlanger, were the centerpieces of the new space. The transcineums were built to show Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot, a film shot specifically for the unique theatrical space to formulate an introduction to the reenactment area.36 Film and theater together were intended to create the most realistic time travel experience possible to prepare visitors for stepping from their quotidian mid-century lives into a replica of eighteenth-century America. Once completed, the screens would be the largest indoors in the world, stretching an impressive 120’ in length and 26’ in height. Although originally intended for Todd-AO, the transcineums eventually used Paramount’s VistaVision; given that it could be projected in 65mm or 70mm, VistaVision was both more compatible and more flexible than many of its widescreen competitors.37 Knowing VistaVision could never be quite as wide as CinemaScope, Paramount had marketed it as a “big-screen” process that proved the importance of height in a moment obsessively dedicated to width.38 While it may have made sense as a long-term solution compared to Todd-AO or given that it was less expensive than CinemaScope, VistaVision also bore a metaphorical benefit for a project dedicated to memorializing—and resurrecting—the past. Its relative height could be awe-striking and monumental in a more substantial way than just width; for Williamsburg staff and Schlanger, that meant a greater possibility of silent contemplation as opposed to the bodily thrills commonly associated with widescreen. In press materials released by Williamsburg in 1957, the theaters were described as follows:

To a limited audience of 250 in each of the 71 by 81 foot auditoriums, the sensation is that of being “within” the scene shown on the screen. To avoid architectural distractions, the design of each theatre is severely plain and the only color is a neutral gray. Seat rows, four feet wide, rise in sharp, one-foot elevations and a three-foot barrier wall in front of each row keeps viewers from seeing heads of other members of the audience. Seating is the “continental” type with no center aisles. Acoustically, the theatres have a very low reverberation level... Heavy soundproofing is used in walls and ceilings of perforated metal, and floors are completely carpeted. At each side of the 50 foot projection, the image blends into a screen curvature or “surround,” which continues forward to the first row of seats. With the picture and surrounds continuous, the total uninterrupted screen length exceeds 120 feet, the largest indoor screen in the world.39



Figs 7 & 8: Transcineum (Authors's photograph, 2011) and Transcineum spectators, Colonial Williamsburg, VA, 1957. 

At a moment when screens throughout the United States were becoming larger and larger, the screens at Williamsburg fully inhabited the space of exhibition as both image and authority. As an intermediary space between the modern present and the colonial past, theaters, maximally curved screen, and specifically shot film were intended to mask contemporary experience in order to guide spectators into a reimagined historical past. Positioned as an entrée into the larger Williamsburg attraction, however, and its particular approach to the reinvigoration of Colonial America, the transcineums also represented what could sometimes be a curious politics of neutralization. Just as neutralization relied on a functional, “invisible” style in order to erase the theater, it also insisted upon the architect as spectatorial guide.40 Housed within neutralization’s goal of disembodiment was an uneasy negotiation of difference; transcendence, here, could also mean movement from the specific to the general, from the individual body to the collective idealized community unified through national pride. The Story of a Patriot itself involved meticulously designed shot patterns and early surround sound to encourage audience identification; as the protagonist changed from British sympathizer to revolutionary, the audience, too, would ideally find themselves becoming patriots as well. In Williamsburg, an attraction that recreated a unified approach to American history, ideologies underlying neutralization and idealized spectatorship were put to use to encourage patriotism through immersion.

Intended to stimulate mental movement from contemporary experience to an imagined past, the transcineums were the highlight of Schlanger’s career, notable particularly for their dogmatic adherence to architectural invisibility. No clocks and no reference points except exit signs were included in the auditorium space, while barrier walls preventing viewing of other audience members sustained a visual suspension between distance from physical space and a proximal relationship to the enormous screen. Perforated steel covered nearly every surface, including walls, barriers, seats, and ceiling. In this way, Schlanger and the Williamsburg staff considered the theaters transportive, believing as they did that they could remove spectators from their places in the seats and visually insert them into the picture. In a draft report from 1955, Williamsburg’s production committee wrote that those

working with Mr. Schlanger have developed a plan for the theatre which will further enhance the sense of participation in the film. Thus, the seating plan is so arranged that the viewer will not be conscious of the presence of many other persons. There are no elements of décor nor architectural features such as trim, cornice, etc., which permit the viewer to scale the picture size. In effect, the architectural aim is to achieve an optical ‘vacuum’ in which only the screen is seen by the viewer.41

Fewer rows and no aisles between rows further reduced the possibility of spectator distraction, while shooting The Story of a Patriot based on the measurements of the theatrical space would ideally allow film and theater to work together toward perfect immersion. Bosley Crowther, film critic for the New York Times, described the effect as “feeling removed in space,” or as an “illusion of space… and the sense imparted of complete removal from the outside world,” an impression of nearness to the recreated past hinging on an imagined distance from the time and space outside the theater.42 As Schlanger described in a 1961 Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers article, “the desire in the designing was to permit the viewer to the fullest possible extent to be able to transport himself in imagination to a different time and space by furnishing a floating void or optical vacuum to provide the transition to the new time and space and to hold him there by eliminating all distractions.”43

For the neutralization movement, auditoriums in general were conceived of as floating voids or optical vacuums, impossible metaphors that illuminated neutralization’s dichotomies. To properly view a film, neutralization advocates argued, one must see nothing else at all. In calling his auditorium a floating void, Schlanger reflected upon neutralization’s overarching contradictory impulses: to erase space through the careful regimentation of space, to evoke a projected state of bodilessness through measured physical environment, and to separate spectators from grounded lived experience by drawing them closer to an elusive filmic experience. Developing the illusion of nothingness—the void at the center of the neutral theater—required an obsessively detailed mechanism to float in a mysterious, invisible space. Within such an optical vacuum, nothing rises between eye and film, nothing distracts viewer from viewed, and nothing appears to exist except vision and screen. Inside the dematerialized auditorium, emptiness makes space for visions, images, and a spectatorship of purified presence.44 The theatrical void unmoors and disorients, but also transforms sensory experience and allows different spaces and times to converge in the place of visual contemplation. In Schlanger’s movie theaters, film and empty space met directed perception to evoke movement through vision, creating a system of travel based in abstracted community, immersion, and cinema’s strange experiential effects.45

For Schlanger, cinematic space was, at its most fundamental, a place of darkened contemplation where bodily identity could be forgotten. His approach to visually transcendent architecture with lights dimmed to gloom—theaters like the Pix, Shoppers World, and the transcineums—echoed Arnheim’s description of dark space, where “the absence of all points of reference and orientation, the lack of attraction and repulsion, the undefined distances” is equivalent to “the experience of a person who feels totally abandoned: the environment is complete without him, nothing refers to him, needs him, calls him, or responds to him… destroy[ing] the internal sense of identity, because a person defines the nature of his own being largely by his place in a network of personal relations.”46 With their determined focus on intensely calibrated objects that erase their own work and therefore the bodily work of spectatorship, and their furious vanquishing of social relationships for the sake of the idealized community, Schlanger’s neutralized designs trace a twentieth-century aesthetic trajectory toward seeing at a distance, seeing everything, at a glance, with eyes enhanced by perfected mechanistic space.47 To see something far away, however, is also the ongoing goal of the movie theater—entering into a dreamworld at a remove, but this is a dreamworld that contains duration and sensation at its core. For the neutralized theater, the potential of visual immersion was paired with the futility of obliterated embodiment, a conceit central now to cinema in general. If Schlanger’s drive toward invisibility suggested an impossible house with inconspicuous walls, a seamless fading structure, and a dematerialized place, then it physically echoed the very experience it existed to enclose: the encompassment and elusiveness, the place and no-place, the fullness and emptiness of film itself. Not only did the neutralized theater make itself invisible for the sake of the movie, it mimicked immersion in ephemeral experience by constructing a transparent space. Through a calculated recapitulation of film’s structure of spectatorship, Schlanger’s theaters were technologies of transportation that erased the distance between spectator and screen by erasing the markers of distance. In such a stripped-down environment, perception becomes instant, inalienable, and immediate. Vision in Schlanger’s theaters was directed, focused, and controllable through the manipulation of the space in which the spectator sat, entailing the removal of cues that suggested the chaos of the embodied world for the sake of the attentive eye of the enraptured. The critical motifs of controlled environment, targeted perception, and systematic unification could, for Schlanger, use an illusion of distance from bodies, from the external world, and from experience past the screen to promote an illusion of proximity to filmic image. In agreeing to regulation by the space of seeing, the viewer’s contract was to give herself over to an impossible otherworldly communion and the silence of mechanized, projected escape.


Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece is a doctoral candidate in Screen Cultures at Northwestern University where her work focuses on spectatorship, film and visual theory, and the neutralized movie theater.


Notes

1 Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 21.
2 André Bazin, “The Myth of Total Cinema,” in What is Cinema? Vol.1, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 17-22.
3 Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, eds. Adam Barker & Thomas Elsaesser (London: BFI Publishing, 1990); for a discussion of Hale’s Tours, see Lauren Rabinowitz, “More Than the Movies: A History of Somatic Visual Culture Through Hale’s Tours, IMAX, and Motion Simulation Rides,” in Memory Bytes: History, Technology, and Digital Culture, ed. Lauren Rabinovitz and Abraham Geil (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).
4 See Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
5 Douglas Gomery, Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), 48.
6 Despite his status as the “dean” of film exhibition, Schlanger is rarely discussed; those who have written on Schlanger are William Paul and Lary May. See William Paul, “Screening Space: Architecture, Technology, and the Motion Picture Screen,” Michigan Quarterly Review 35.1 (Winter 1996), 143-173; Paul, “The Aesthetics of Emergence,” Film History 5.3 (1993), 321-355; and Lary May, The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
7 Sparse decoration did result in a beneficial cost reduction relevant particularly during the Depression, yet neutralization designers suggested shifting savings from less elaborate style into functional needs such as better sightlines and perfected screens. See Schlanger, “Looking Towards a Better Theatre,” Better Theatres section of Motion Picture Herald, November 19, 1932, 8-9.
8 Barbara Wilinksy describes the little cinema movement in Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001); Laura McGuire gives a substantial overview of Kiesler’s theater in “A Movie House in Space and Time: Frederick Kiesler’s Film Arts Guild Cinema,” Studies in the Decorative Arts 14.2 (Spring-Summer 2007), 45-78.
9The average American screen size in the 1930s was approximately 16’, rising to 18’ in 1942 and then to between 20’-30’ in the early 1950s. “Pictures Are Getting Bigger Than Ever, Too—On the Screen,” Better Theatres section of Motion Picture Herald, March 1, 1952, 14; and “Trends,” Better Theatres section of Motion Picture Herald, March 22, 1952, 8.
10 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art: Second Version,” in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, ed. Michael W. Jennings et al, trans. Edmund Jephcott et al (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2008), 23.
11Hugo Münsterberg, Hugo Münsterberg on Film: The Photoplay: A Psychological Study and Other Writings, ed. Allan Langdale (London: Routledge, 2002), 87.
12 A slightly less than 40% drop in attendance after the Depression affected the industry on the whole, although the general historical consensus is that many audiences still found the money to attend the films they really wanted to see. See Thomas Patrick Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 29.
13 See Lary May, The Big Tomorrow.
14 See Harold W. Rambusch, “The Decorations of the Theatre,” Better Theatres section of Motion Picture Herald, March 14, 1931, 83.
15 The 1930s saw a boom in American interest in international architectural modernism due in part to Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Philip Johnson, and Alfred Barr’s groundbreaking exhibition “The International Style,” which opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1932 and proceeded to tour the country for the next two years through sixteen cities. Overtly intending to cohere American construction into what they saw as a unified European style, Hitchcock, Johnson and Barr deliberately excluded Expressionists and Constructivists, seeking instead to promote the streamlined International Style of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe as the New Pioneers. See Henry Matthews, “The Promotion of Modern Architecture by the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s,” Journal of Design History 7.1 (1994), 43-59.
16 “Showmanship in Treating the Interiors of Theatres Today,” Better Theatres section of Motion Picture Herald, November 13, 1937, 7-42.
17 Schlanger, “Looking Towards a Better Theatre,” Better Theatres section of Motion Picture Herald, November 19, 1932, 9.
18 Harry Alan Potamkin, “The Movie House,” Billboard, October 1927; reprinted in Spectator 18.2 (Spring/Summer 1998), 33.
19 Ibid.
20 Siegfried Kracauer, “The Cult of Distraction,” in The Mass Ornament, trans. Thomas Y. Levin, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 323.
21 Kracauer, “Cult of Distraction,” 324.
22 Kracauer, “Cult of Distraction,” 328.
23 Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Inoperative Community,” in The Inoperative Community, ed. and trans. Peter Connor, et al (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).
24 Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Inoperative Community,” 15.
25 Schlanger would eventually write his own monthly column, and would also author pieces in the Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, the first architect to do so.
26 Some articles in Moving Picture World in the 1920s argued for different kinds of theaters, particularly Thomas E. Tallmadge’s essays in 1928, but this is the first sustained argument.
27 Benjamin Schlanger, “Motion Picture Theatres of Tomorrow,” Motion Picture Herald, Better Theatres Supplement, 14 February 1931, 12-13.
28 Ibid.
29 For Moholy-Nagy, architecture should realize its aspiration toward unification in order to “revolve around the general basis, that of the biologically evolved manner of living which man requires” (László Moholy-Nagy, The New Vision: Fundamentals of Bauhaus Design, Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, trans. Daphne M. Hoffmann [Mineloa: Dover Publications, 2005], 159), while Kiesler argued that “we, the inheritors of chaos, must be the architects of a new unity” (Frederick Kiesler, “Notes on Designing the Gallery, reprinted in Frederick J. Kiesler: Selected Writings, ed. Siegfried Gohr and Gunda Luyken [Stuttgart: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1996], 42).
30 “The Pix: An Experiment in Theatre Planning and Operation,” Better Theatres section of Motion Picture Herald, January 11, 1936, 7-9.
31 “The Pix: An Experiment in Theatre Planning and Operation,” 8.
32 Probably grey, beige, off-white, or dark cream, which, generally speaking, were the colors alluded to as “neutral” by designers in the 1930s-1950s.
33 Movie attendance numbers climbed throughout the late 1920s, averaging 57 million tickets per week in 1927 and hitting a high of 90 million per week in 1930. By 1933, attendance had dropped to 50 million per week, and about 5,000 theaters across the country had closed. See William H. Young and Nancy K. Young, The Great Depression in America: A Cultural Encyclopedia (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2007), 319-320.
34 “Auditorium Design for Full Play of the Picture,” Better Theatres Guide Number of 1952, Motion Picture Herald, March 22, 1952, 13.
35 George Schutz, “Screen Border Elimination: A Start Toward More Realism,” Better Theatres section of Motion Picture Herald, November 10, 1951, 12-13.
36 Other films did and do occasionally show in the transcineums, but the auditorium design was intended specifically for The Story of a Patriot (George Seaton, 1957), still showing and consequently the longest-running film in history.
37 Among the project’s advisory board was Louis Novins, President of Paramount Pictures, who undoubtedly influenced the eventual choice of the VistaVision system and the choice of George Seaton as the film’s director. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Archives, Hotel and Reception Center September-November 11, 1953, Letter from Louis A. Novins to Kenneth Chorley, September 28, 1953.
38 See John Belton, “Cinemascope: A Poor Man’s Cinerama,” in Widescreen Cinema (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 125-126.
39 I am indebted to Colonial Williamsburg’s gracious hospitality and sharing of corporate files. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Archives, Block & Building Files, Background Notes on Colonial Williamsburg’s New Information Center, March-April 10, 1957.
40 Williamsburg planners chose a subdued functional modernist style for both the Information Center and the transcineums specifically because they believed it would blend into the surroundings and not be as jarring as the historical area’s colonial style.
41 Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Archives, Block & Building Files, Production Committee Report Draft, 1955.
42 Bosley Crowther, “Showmen’s Challenge: Time Now for Dynamic New Film Theatres,” New York Times, December 1, 1957, 16; and Crowther, “Screen: Williamsburg,” New York Times, April 1, 1957, 22.
43 Benjamin Schlanger, “The Evolution of the Williamsburg System: Motion Picture System from Camera to Viewer,” SMPTE 70(9), September, 1961, 685.
44 Schlanger, in fact, preferred the term “presence” to “participation,” the latter of which tended to be more commonly used in exhibition rhetoric surrounding widescreen. See, for example, Schlanger, “Theatre Design in the New Techniques,” Better Theatres section of Motion Picture Herald, January 7, 1956.
45 Schlanger’s goals for the Williamsburg transcineums generally tended toward imagined travel, disembodiment, and perception rather than celebrating colonial America. It is important to note, however, that his rhetoric tended to diverge from much of the Williamsburg press materials, which usually focused on the connection to the rest of the colonial attraction and the success of the film itself rather than the theatrical space.
46 Rudolf Arnheim, The Dynamics of Architectural Form (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 21.
47 In my larger project, I point to the legacy of the neutralized theater in the contemporary mall, multiplex, and even arthouse theater such as David Rockwell’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center (2011), but also, for example, in images from the Hubble space telescope, which propose an idealized vanished display space and an impossibly intimate connection with an eminently visible universe.