The New York Invisible Cinema
This was an event organised by the Leeds based art project The Pavilion. The full title [taken from Sidney Peterson’s The Dark of the Screen, Anthology Film Archives, 1980] was ‘A movie house is an enlarged camera Obscura for the sale of popcorn, a Darkroom for star-gazing right side up’. Overall we are talking about that section of the film world often described as Underground Cinema. One unconventional project was Peter Kulbeka’s imaginative if somewhat unusual Invisible Cinema. This was a project originally set up in New York in as part of the Anthology Film Archives. And there is now a descendant based at the Austrian Film Museum. The event included films, illustrated talks and a ‘happening’.
Bear with me as I described the evening more or less chronologically to try and give a sense of the experience. It was introduced by Will Rose. He set the scene and also drew attention to the venue, The Hyde Park Picture House. Opened in 1914 as a purpose-built cinema the venue has screened films for fortunate Leeds patrons for nearly a hundred years. For most of that time it has screened 35mm prints and it still retains two 35mm projectors: though a Digital Projector has now been added. Over the years the cinema has changed a little; it now has gas lighting, a refreshment kiosk and a new screen. It remains not only one of the oldest cinemas in the UK but one with really distinctive characteristics. Will Rose also set the scene for the evenings fare, rather different from the regular programme.
The first screening was one of the 9 Intervals films directed by Aurélien Froment in 2011. This was a commission by The Pavilion for nine short films to be screened between adverts, trailers and the main feature. We watched Interval 2, which was actually filmed in the Hyde Park. It included the illuminated clock, nowadays dimmed along with the lights as the features commence.
The main speaker was Friedrich Mascher. He is the architect for Invisible Cinema 3 at the Austrian Film Museum. Kulbeka’s original idea was for a ’machine for viewing’. The auditorium included “hooded seats, complete darkness, single-source sound equipment and strict decorum ensured that the viewer would ‘not have any sense of the presence of walls or the size of the auditorium. He should have only the white screen, isolated in darkness, as his guide to the scale and distance. Kulbeka’s Invisible Cinema attempted to purge anything that exceeded the image -.” (Expanded Cinema, 2011). It provided a rather extreme emphasis on the individual viewer. Friedrich Mascher embarked dryly that it was not a success.
He provided a brief illustrated historical over view on the development of auditoriums. The examples ran from the open-air Greek amphitheatre of ancient times, to the open-air Roman amphitheatres, which, though, introduced a proscenium behind the staging area. He showed us the London Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s plays were seen in a ‘forum round a yard’. The most interesting example was the Teatro Olympico in Venetia, where the proscenium had five entrances / exits for players. This fitted into a set of conventions shared by performers and audience. There was Vienna’s Josephadt Theatre, an example of a classic auditorium. And moving on to cinema, he showed us Graumans’ Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, an exotic movie palace of the 1920s.
He then introduced the Invisible Cinema 3 at the Austrian Film Museum. Modern health and safety regulations mean that it is not quite as bleak as the New York example. The only additional illumination is at the rear of the auditorium. Seat numbers are under the seat and so disappear when a viewer sits down. And there are no separation blocks. It seemed quite an attractive venue for films. Kulbeka’s vision was that the ‘‘eye and ear were directly connected to the filmmaker’, or to be exact his/her film.
An example of the sort of film Kulbeka envisaged for this cinema was his own Arnulf Rainer (1960, on 16mm} The title is a dedication to a painter. Rainer’s work was mainly painting in colour over photographs. A technique that aimed at ‘painting over a painting over a painting ….’
Kulbeka’s 6-minute film exhibited this approach as it played with four basic elements – light, dark, sounds and silence. It was screened twice, and the second time Friedrich Mascher requested the audience [most of whom were in the ground auditorium] to view it from the balcony. Intriguingly there is a slight trapezium effect in the ground auditorium due to the steep drop between the projection box and the screen.
We then watched Interval 8 [from 9 Intervals] which deals performance spaces and their organisation. It took on an added resonance after the earlier illustrations and screenings. The evening closed with a ‘situationist’ type event. Following a set of printed instructions the projectionist and the house staff operated the projector and its varied functions, the curtains and drapes, the auditorium doors and finally the fire exits. Friedrich Mascher then asked us to leave the auditorium ‘in memory of Ernst Schmidt’ whose creation we had just witnessed. In the course of this event one was awfully aware of those aspects of the cinema that normally only exist on the periphery.
It seems that Kulbeka was less concerned with avant-garde cinema per se than returning to a ‘normal cinema’ without the excrudences that have been added to performances. He was not in favour of the type of multi-media approach found among some of the Anthology film practitioners. One can see where Sydney Peterson’s chapter title fits into this scheme of things. The venue, the Hyde Park, provided an intriguing opposition to this minimalism. The cinema is positively baroque in comparison to either of the Invisible Cinemas.
It was a fascinating evening. My main complaint was that the limited time meant that there was little opportunity for discussion. Kulbeka seems to have been focussed on the screening of films. In cinema this means an audience who can interact with each other as well as with the images and sounds, and indeed the venue: but it is not clear how much attention Kulbeka paid to this aspect. A like-minded 1920s critic opined that in front of the screen “Our problems evaporate, our neighbours disappear.” (Expanded Cinema, 2011)The cinématographe Lumière was mentioned in the introdcution but I felt that Edison’s kinetoscope, with its individual veiwer, was closer to Kulbeka’s aim. What struck me was that the contemporary media world follows some facets of Kulbeka’s approach with individual viewers watching films on pods, mobile phones and computers. I am not sure though whether all of them are linked into the films without distraction. This is also where I am not really a disciple of Kulbeka. Great features and great documentaries are enriched by the vibrations that cross and circulate round audiences. I am sure that George Bailey’s plea to Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life has a greater catharsis when one feels the whole audience willing him home. And the pathos that Eisenstein creates during The Odessa Steps depends equally on this communal feeling. This week I watched Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 and the anger that he intends is swelled by a sympathetic audience.
Finally, I would also like to have learned more about the Teatro Olympico, which also sounds fascinating. The good news is that Aurélien Froment’s new film is currently under production in that very location. So I should soon be wiser.
Expanded Cinema Art Performance Film edited by Al. Rees, Duncan White, Stephen Ball and David Curtis, Tate Publishing, 2011. Articles on the Anthology Film Archives including Peter Kulbeka and a range of avant-garde film practices.