Collage art blog(& some photography)by Russell C. Smith

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Incredible Shrinking Screen

The first movie screen I remember was at The State Theater, on Central Avenue, In St. Petersburg, Florida. The year was 1961. "One Hundred and One Dalmatians" positively filled the massive movie screen. Seats were purple and plush, and a short cartoon was shown before the feature, even though the movie was a cartoon. The combination of the gigantic movie screen and the endless stream of spotted dogs running through a cartoon version of London has stuck in my memory.

In 1968, my friends and I made our way down to The State Theater to see the new science fiction movie we’d heard about. "Wow," was all we said, while scrunched down low in our seats, munching popcorn. It was the movie with the incredible, deep space light show visuals, now known simply as "special effects". "2001: A Space Odyssey" was as far away from a cartoon version of London that one kid could travel in a mere seven years.

The Palms was the movie theater closer to home. It was on Park Boulevard in Pinellas Park, and the five block walk from my house to the theater was a Friday night and Saturday afternoon ritual. The screen at The Palms didn’t have as much allure and old theater magic as The State did, but it was close enough to my house that I thought of it as my own theater, and my own giant screen with which to view completely other worlds and ways of life.

The Sean Connery James Bond movies are some of my fondest cinematic memories from The Palms. Sure, the pavement was sizzling in the humid summer heat, just past the air-conditioned lobby, but for only fifty cents I could enter the world of Bond, James Bond. And what better way to spend a hot summer afternoon than live vicariously as an international, martini-drinking spy?

In the early 1970s, an insidious trend began to change the inner architectural landscape of every movie theater in Florida. It seemed as though a madman (the same sort of unhinged maniac James Bond prevented from achieving world domination within two hours) had decreed that all movie screens had to be split in half, or thirds, or quarters.

Over time theaters like The State and The Palms closed down, and inside the malls, three or six screens were slapped up against the wall at the far end of grim, concrete bunkers. While my friends and I had been out in the lobby getting bags of popcorn and Cokes, our beloved movie theaters had been shrunk to the dimensions of a large shoebox. As the decade progressed, these small screens were further chopped and divided. The days of the big screen were passing.

In 1978, when I moved to New York City—to get out of Florida and attend The Art Student’s League, I was pleasantly surprised to find some of the big screens from days gone by still intact. Thankfully, in the late seventies, Manhattan was still several years away from having most of its theaters turned into multiplexes. I saw "Blade Runner" on a big screen in Times Square, back when Times Square still reminded one of the darkly futuristic vision wonderfully depicted in Blade Runner. And I remember seeing the wide-screen epic "Ghandi" at The Ziegfeld Theater on West 54th Street. The movie reality filled the screen so completely that I expected to encounter people dressed in robes, leading pack camels and squinting up at the desert sun when I left the film, instead of shouting pedestrians dodging honking taxis.

The one truly big screen left in Seattle is The Cinerama. A while ago, it seemed like this theater was going to get a ticket to the movie theater graveyard. Instead, it was revived and given a new life. I always get a big screen tingle when I enter the lobby of The Cinerama. Even the previews of coming attractions are invested with more grandeur and impact on such an imposing screen.

Big screen theaters do more than show movies, they become time machines, and through cinematic magic, transport moviegoers to a strange place in the desert, to another moment in history, and to a life lived halfway around the globe. Wide-screen theaters take all of us back to a time when big screens ruled the earth, and we were a better culture for it. But here in the year 2006, they no longer do.

With each passing year, movie screens are further chopped, whittled and shrunken down. Some of these diminished screens are closer to the size of giant-sized TV screens. Although now, TV sets are growing larger and larger, as if they want to regain the visual ground lost by the shrinking movie screens.

The loss of screen size is felt most acutely when watching one of the great movies made back in Hollywood’s heyday. For decades, the actors faces in old black and white films belonged to larger-than-life characters—full of glittering, wild, sensual, evil, beautiful, sexy, tortured, insane, brilliant and troubled emotions, gestures and expressions. To shrink these characters down to fit on a TV screen is a sacrilege to those creative spirits who gave themselves to the miracle of moviemaking.

A worst case scenario developed about our possible future life on planet Earth, used in science fiction plots and on ancient TV commercials, is the scene of a child looking up to a parent, and asking innocently what trees were. The cinematic equivalent of that futuristic nightmare is already happening. Naturally, I’m referring to the question: "What was it like to see a movie on the big screen?" For me, there is only one answer: "Kid, it was amazing."


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