Monday, July 29, 2013

The screening environment as choker hold

Posted By on 07.29.13 at 04:42 PM

Alain Resnaiss You Aint Seen Nothin Yet screens again at the Music Box tomorrow.
  • Alain Resnais's You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet screens again at the Music Box tomorrow.
One thing I like about watching movies at Chicago Filmmakers in Andersonville is that they try to keep the screening room as dark as possible. There are no emergency lights, a thick black curtain prevents any illumination from sneaking in through the foyer, and it's common practice during shows to keep the door to the back hallway shut. You watch movies there as if you were entombed with them. Afterwards, when the curtain opens and you return to the world of the living, it takes longer than usual to adjust your eyes.

On Friday night at Filmmakers, a projector issue occurred during one of the Stan Brakhage shorts in the Cat Film Festival, holding up the program for several minutes. Some patrons took out their cell phones to pass the time; they looked fantastic in the darkness with bluish light casting upwards from their laps. From the back of the room, they seemed to form a constellation—or, rather, the sort of state-of-the-art facsimile of a constellation you might see at the Adler Planetarium. I think Brakhage himself may have appreciated the spectacle.

(On an unrelated note: Is it just me, or do the names of the Adler star shows all sound like euphemisms for drug experiences? Cosmic Wonder; Undiscovered Worlds; Welcome to the Universe; One World, One Sky: Big Bird's Adventure . . . Sometimes I think the Adler could really clean up if they started running these as midnight movies.)

As much as I look forward to revisiting You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet in the main theater of the Music Box (it plays there tomorrow at 5 PM), I imagine the screening room at Filmmakers would be the best place in Chicago to watch Alain Resnais's latest. Now there's a movie to be entombed with! The mise-en-scene of You Ain't Seen is as airless as it gets, due to (not in spite of) Resnais's decision to shoot the movie in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. In recent weeks I've complained about contemporary movies that fail to fill out the wide-screen frame, but Resnais uses negative space better than most filmmakers use mountain ranges. As in the director's other wide-screen features—Last Year at Marienbad, Love Unto Death, Private Fears in Public Places, and Wild Grass—the images of You Ain't Seen never feel empty but rather pervaded by nothingness. I suppose the point is that it doesn't matter how big a room is if you're locked inside it—if no air can enter, you're going to suffocate to death sooner or later.

At one point in This Is Orson Welles, the great director refers to movies as "dead things," opining that "a movie doesn't come to life because it's in a theatre. Finally and forever, it's as dead as a book. And, potentially, as everlastingly alive." Resnais has always been fascinated by this inherent tension of the movies—the older he gets, the more pronounced it becomes in his films. Even a superficially jolly Resnais work like Wild Grass has a way of making the darkness of your screening environment feel like a burial shroud.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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