In Pat O’Neill’s The Decay of Fiction (2002) the dust-filled halls of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles are notoriously absent of any physical embodiment. The golden days of such a monolithic icon of Hollywood’s self-perceived grandeur are long gone, creeping camera pans and long dolly-ins emphasizing a crumbling carcass barely standing on its historical foundations. Nevertheless, within its disheveled frontages and desolated premises, the old hotel’s inhabitants don’t seem to fret or even notice the dismal state of the building. Like a typical haunting, the emanation of decades past ends up cloistered between the outdated decor. In this instance the unresting spirits are not those of grieving souls, but rather the specters of our collective memories of the moving image. Blonde dahlings in cocktail dresses and square-jawed men rocking trench coats exchange quippy one-liners in thick transatlantic accents, oblivious to their surroundings or the changing world outside; all the glitz and make-believe lessened by the fact that what’s in front will probably never be again.
As such, the barren structure whose mythology O’Neill so precisely evokes is not terribly different from the projection each one of us has of our old movie theater of reference closed during the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of invoking a “general” legacy of the art form, these spaces are filled with communal and even personal memory. It’s true that the films themselves avoid totally fading away by mutating, giving into contemporary methods of consumption. However, some of its essence is invariably lost when lifted out of their inherent environment and switched to the fallacious comfort of a phone screen.
The act of cinema-going was always conceived as something akin to a willing exercise in submission. Traditional social behaviours are bypassed, and for 120 minutes (give or take) the senses are held hostage by what the screen radiates. As famously presented by Dziga Vertov in his seminal Man With A Movie Camera (1929), the natural endpoint of a film’s quest never really stood apart from its origins as a traveling funfair novelty. It’s only when the lights are dimmed and the multiple faces present get transfixed into the almost magical display in front of them that the possibilities of the artform really come to shine. In this Soviet landmark, phantasmagoria exudes from the idyllic excitement coming from the idea of motion pictures as the great popular spectacle, naturally drawing from one of the medium’s most prodigious periods of creative effervescence in the 1920s. Those are the kind of days that The Decay of Fiction seems to pine for with its nostalgic grasp to recollections lingering in the material world. Unfortunately, no matter how inscribed the images are in the collective unconsciousness behind a physical space, they still suffer from its degradation. These are fragments that belong to a type of filmmaking innate to the big screen, and without it, their temporal vulnerability comes to the forefront. The depressing sight of a crumbling movie theater develops then into a dual glimpse of the inert, as the old archaic shrine of the cinema and the gospel it has preached for generations both show signs of withering away.
Probably the most iconic portrayal of such an idea belongs to Tsai Ming-liang’s slow cinema classic Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003). With an already established career showcasing inner spiritual turmoil through time stagnation and negative space, the Taiwanese maestro decided to switch his focus from the expressive visage of his muse Lee Kang-Sheng to the filthy seats rotting away in Taipei’s soon to be demolished Fu Ho Theater. Here, the setting and the real-life context around it are not just metatextual nuances, moreso the actual raison d’être of the project.
The existence of the film itself relies on these facts, shaping the cadence of every elegiac travelling, and making each static long take and mundane sound clip burst with impotence and dejection. Romantic reminiscence is thrown out the window as Tsai perpetuates the immanence of a dead entity in real time and with matter-of-factness. The lights are turned on one last time as the credits of the King Hu classic (1967) that the title refers to roll unceremoniously in the scatteredly populated theater. Unaware, the movie-goers have just witnessed the last living breath of an iconic urban space for culture, and simultaneously, of a previous understanding of an artform. What happens afterwards is really of no interest to Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Tsai’s contribution lies in sculpting the old arthouse in time. Acknowledging its demise, yet at the same time making sure its memory is kept as a register of what once was.
In exploring the idea of viewership as the final piece needed for a work of art to really exist in the world, Lisandro Alonso’s Fantasma (2006) goes even further. The Argentine director sneaks on Argentino Vargas, as he attends a virtually empty screening of their previous collaboration, Los Muertos (2006). Bureaucratic sounds of printers and telephones occasionally irrupt the room and mesh with the rural atmosphere of Los Muertos, while the camera invasively centers Vargas’ stoic demeanor as he sees himself on screen. With no need to directly quote Barthes, Alonso makes a potent case of the viewer as auteur by just showing the intimate and unique relationship built between man and film when left to the mercy of an obscure room. Even in the case of the grand Sala Lugones in Buenos Aires, it still takes a pair of eyes glued to the screen in order to maintain the foundations of the edifice.
So what’s left when nobody’s watching? In many ways, it’s the natural cycle of things. Catalan Communications academic Xavier Romero cites art historian Élie Faure when mentioning how the architectural opulence of early century cinemas took the role left by churches when Nietzsche brought upon the death of their deity. Something else has now replaced the belief of the sacred nature of cinema, making the temples erected to its name a blatant anachronism. Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis (2008) takes the bleak approach of doubling-down on Goodbye, Dragon Inn’s cruising sequences, and making the theater in Papanga, Phillipines little more than a glorified motel. For David Lynch, both in Inland Empire (2006) and Twin Peaks: The Return’s “Episode 8” (2017), the cinema is a relic of the past whose only remaining function in the world is that of housing the spectres trapped in celluloid; some whose shadows still looms, and need to be eradicated in order to take the next step.
What we see from these films is that the sight of the desolated movie theater is understood by contemporary filmmakers less as the signal of distant, Omega Man-style apocalyptic fear, and more as an everyday reality inherent to society’s current spiral into oblivion. In some cases, like Uruguayan Federico Veiroj’s modern classic La vida útil (2010), it can even resemble a glimmer of hope. The real critic Jorge Jellinek plays a version of himself, forced to adjust to a new life after working 25 years in Montevideo’s cinematheque. Knowing of the nature of cinema as an art marked by a trajectory of successive expulsions and reinventions (from silent to talkies, black and white to color, academy ratio to cinemascope, film to digital, etc.), the film casts no doubt about the notion of it eventually finding a new way of molding and maintaining its essence. What it does put forward as something that needs to happen is the transformation of the viewer, since (paraphrasing Godard) the only possible story in cinema is the introspective one; experiencing art as a personal moment. In La vida útil, the closure of the cinematheque is seen as a big nostalgic landmark, and concurrently, it also means opportunity.
Be it the potential love story of Jorge, or the rebirth of a medium from its ashes, the power of absence is showing us that once we come to nothing, we have everything. It only remains for us to determine if we want to take those scruffy rooms and crumbling walls to erect the same altars again, or find a way to build something new from them.