Sometime after a dog brushed against my bare knee. Around the time the brakes of the bicycle descending the precipitous hill squelched their ear piercing call. Sometime around the thermal inversion, when the vapors of the earth cooked up by that day’s July sun met the cooler air of night. It was sometime around all of this, sitting in a Community Garden in Somerville, Massachusetts watching Rob Moss’ River Dogs (1971) that I remember the scene where a group of men and women on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon stood half-clothed around their inflatable boats. Projected 14-feet tall, the group was arrayed in the distance, discussing their next move. The screen, 4 bed sheets carefully stitched together tethered to the blank façade of an adjacent building billowed in response to warm gusts of wind, the on-screen motion of the Colorado River and the fluidity of the surface bearing its images coincided. It was around that time, when the edge of the screen showed itself, when the film left the flat surface, that the action opened up into the garden and the garden opened up to the world.
This indelible memory of cinema, was more than a sequence of images. The coincidence of the film and the setting created a complex time concocted in a theater garden or garden theater, where what was playing on screen was buffeted and weighted by the sens-a-round supplied by a particular place. On one hand, its flat images were threatened with being overwhelmed by the cacophony of Somerville on a hot summer evening. On the other, there was the possibility that the film could be incorporated as one of many forces building towards an experience, where what your eyes register is accompanied by odors wafting from the soil and the music of the surroundings as well as the soundtrack filling your ears. By contrast, the number of films that have passed before me via state of the art 70mm projection and surround sound float freely amongst each other in my mind’s eye. Often enough, these films are interchangeable, where characters from another populate events from one film. Seeing films outdoors sets us up for remembering things differently. More precisely, seeing films outdoors, not from a car sets things completely differently. Without the windshield of the car, the second screen acting as a built in buffer between anything and us, or without the climate control of the cinema that flattens and regulates the texture of the air, sensory experience becomes palpable. Outside, the moisture of the air, the impossibility of total darkness and incidental sounds infiltrate the film, bending it so that the experience need be neither fixed nor eternal, always swaying to the vicissitudes of time.
The garden linked to both sensory and memory stimulation through history as in the present, is an ideal place to behold this fluid spectacle. Italian Renaissance gardens were explicitly constructed to pique memory. Picking up from cues left by Roman rhetoric, Renaissance gardens established a sequence of places and events to help memorize long spoken passages. Seeing the garden as both vessels for experience and a series of clues to recall the experience, metaphoric chains of ideas that made up a memory were linked to specific places by a of set mnemonic devices in the garden that represented ideas and triggered responses. Yet no matter how carefully the sequence of events were choreographed, these places were invariably set alongside the inescapable and the unpredictable–the change of seasons, the rise and fall of the sun, growth and decay, the passage of time.
In these gardens, the place itself was protagonist as well as narrator. By setting the scene, so to speak, the garden controlled the scenario and its unfolding much as a film does. In order to read the plot; one had the cooperation of all the senses operating in consort to conjure up an image and its place in the progression. Trouble is, some of these senses won’t stop operating, and pick up their cues when least expected. Seeing a film outdoors like seeing a crucial rock outcropping in a garden is complicated by these unexpected responses. Walking through the garden, or down a street, I pick up the story, my life, your life or something else essentially constructed from chance gleanings pulled from all over. Where the eyes understand the image up ahead, the summer smell of gently rotting honey locust leaves, or the wick of a unexpected breeze against sweating skin can trigger a whole chain of associations, pitting past lessons against present circumstances, tripping you up, throwing your cadence and altering the scene.
Film assumes the cadence of that sequence, sets the parameters for action, records it and replays it forever at the same speed. Film controls not only plot and language by design, but also by setting the speed and reducing the impact of other variables. With the reproduced and recorded sequence, there is the possibility of limitless return to the action, but always in the same way. The outdoor theater, like the garden, offers a scenario that is always changing, where an experience is not only dynamic but democratic in its engagement of the senses, and actively connected to the world by the necessity to respond to external factors. Yet in its nascent years, film as a hybrid of literature and theater with photographic technique was less in control, more dependent on support, and more visibly connected to a place.
When I say I am going to the movies, I say that I am going to the (movie) theater. The word theater, whether linked to the theater of war, or the operating theater, the movie theater, suggests some kind of action, as much as it suggests something visual. It suggests a spectacle. The developments of Italian garden design and theater design were closely related in the 16th century. Both gardens and theaters set up idealized backdrops to enhance the fantasy of the spectacle, and both employed splendid technical virtuosity. Whether by displays of jets of water, painted backdrops, sound effects from bells to canons, or music coordinating the unfolding of the drama, it was acknowledged that all senses could be attended to. Much of these vestiges remained in film, as both dazzling effect and come-ons to engage those unwilling or unable to follow the drama.
In the early part of this century, film was experienced, like photography, as a novelty. The new medium invited audiences to view a technical experiment. Many of these early appearances followed their predecessors—panoramic paintings, large-scale dioramas, peep shows and nickelodeons–through appearances at carnivals or World’s. At these venues, the film was part of the spectacle, one of the attractions, where its gossamer presence depended less on it as a sole protagonist and more as a component of a day at the fair.
Promoters, in order both to pad the entertainment interval of these short productions and to entice skeptics to a theater without actors, often enlisted local talent, so that the film was part of an event. The excitement of the new attraction was gradually replaced by its omnipresence, no longer relying on local participation to engender familiarity. Film became its own destination, with elaborately painted theater interiors suggestive of Egyptian palaces or the night sky. As projection of the film itself improved, the architecture was no longer enlisted as support, as technical specialization could create an ideal atmosphere for the film. With ideal viewing conditions far beyond the distracting fanfare of makeshift cinemas, carnival exhibitions, kinescopes and the picture palaces of the early 20th century, the movie place itself was eventually streamlined to provide a focus more like seeing pictures at a gallery than seeing film at the circus.
Now the show, which used to begin at least on the sidewalk with barkers and elaborate marquees, has been reduced to categories of promotion replicated in the medium itself through clips on television previews. Theater marquees are simply internally lit rectangular boxes like the screens inside, announcing their offerings in high relief black on white. The inside of the theater, like the outside, is similarly enigmatic, showing neither support nor service for its contents. As the playing of the film has been perfected, the theater has become a mere vessel for fleeting images—with no stage door, tangles of visible power cords or hums of generators, their spectacles have no clear point of origin, appearing magically from the screen.
Following the obligatory plugs for the concession stand, perhaps a few choice messages from local advertisers or an appeal from a charitable organization, the lights lower over an undistinguished room coated in nappy surfaces from walls to ceilings to seats, and we disappear for two hours or so. While the lights are down the edge of the screen is rarely visible, nor do our eyes wander to find it, transfixed by the emanating glow. This can be purely physiological; eyes open in the dark gravitate towards the only source of light. The approach is mechanical; the optical trick fairly simple, as we train our eyes on the flickering light source and accept its pulse of controlled flickering. As the glowing illusion hypnotizes, it washes over our particular present, obliterating individual memory by drawing us out of our everyday place into a fantasy.
Images of these visual places fade without the supports of the other senses, their illusory glimpses disappearing as the complex present scenario playing in front of our eyes supercedes the images. Thinking about a film, memory clings to its visuals, grasping at them to comprehend their relationship to one another, while they are applied willy-nilly to a present itinerary that is absorbing more images all the time. Easy come, easy go–the immediate facility of a film’s readily strung together causes and effects, like the fluidity of the digital scan, or the quick take of the Polaroid, are part of film’s apparently instantaneous and immutable language, where one thing happens and then another regardless of us watching.
Sitting in a darkened theater, like being in a sensory deprivation chamber, I am oblivious to what is around as the film takes hold of me. The insistent present tense of the film is undeniable when it’s all you have in front of you. How is that we so easily overlook our senses (other than visual) and our bodies so that we suspend disbelief enough to accept the film’s logic? Is it suspension or do we surrender?
Part of this surrender is acceptance through familiarity. Film is omnipresent in our culture, a continual source of visual images. Part of the acceptance comes from verisimilitude and recognition. Like a dream whose forms are recognizable, film logic can take leaps without gravity, precipitous actions without consequences that do not correspond to possibility. This is a wonderful possibility allowed by the dazzle of the spectacle. The great value to this type of comprehension in entertainment is the ability to absorb an arguably illogical narrative, to follow the unexpected without shock. But seeing the scenario unfold without shock, there is no pause in the chain of events for reflection, and without reflection there really is not much seeing, just looking.
The surface of what we look at in a film generally has a consistent texture itself; it is an abstraction, a representation of textures made possible by an understanding that illusions are acceptable experiences. Without scale, without texture or touch there are no benchmarks to gauge these claims against. Without these tactile properties, film becomes a montage of flat object. With no backside and no past, these objects cast no shadows. A shadow indicates that something exists beyond the immediate focus—a light source, a history. Whatever casts its influence upon the present is in turn reformed by the surface it falls on, the shadow responding to real bumps and folds. This combination in turn projects itself on what follows, the next shadow a malleable surface to drape on the future. In an illusory world, though, shadows like anything beyond the present of the screen have no role.
The denial of peripherals allows the potential to focus, to read rather than merely scan the film. But there is a danger and a fallacy that this focus is inherently useful, for images with no visible origin, no shadows or edges there are neither responsibility nor trace and no memory without weight.
My eyes are bound by attraction to the lit screen, all peripherals darkened and hushed; the present is kept at bay by the illusory space. The image appears as immediate fact. Like photography, film’s possibility to manipulate, record and replay suggest truth through recognition precludes the presence of being, recording and replaying an already decided history and suggested memory. Surrounded by a flood of appearances, we sit watching the present explain itself as pictures appear from darkness, unfolding as if we are inventing them.
Disarmed by recognition, the surrender is completed by architecture’s tacit agreement to serve as backdrop, to disappear seamlessly and not to allow its physical limits to interfere with the world without bounds suggested by the film. This may be modernism’s great reduction, the triumph of efficient functionalism over enthusiastic innovation and messy fantasy. The lights rise; we rise and exit having pursued a set of seamless images with no physical connection to one another. The possibilities the film suggests are limitless. Limitless or self contained, I wonder?
Sensory deprivation and suspension of disbelief are quite different. Senses are hard to duplicate, their being and meaning inseparable, denying paraphrase, despite centuries of efforts. Irreplaceable and complex, sensory variables differentiate human experience, and, like the weather, are factors in the garden that can not be ignored. Whereas the shopping mall’s winter garden is always light enough to encourage shoppers, the cinema is always dark enough to block out distractions. In the Somerville garden, films start around 9:30 for maximum darkness. The lights never really go down all the way, car headlights occasionally washing out the screen or the glimmer of repeating spheres of incandescent bulbs tug the eye as they march up an unseen stairwell. The lights never really come up either, so the interval of the film slips in and out of the space of the evening and the film joins the space surrounding it. On one July night Baraka, an atmospheric landscape film with no dialogue, lighting ripped through the sky just beyond the screen, the wind whipping the makeshift screen and distorting the image, ultimately pulling the plug on the projector. With the confluence of on screen imagery and off screen conditions, this film became an inseparable part of that night, the picture slipping off the screen edge into the evening.
This edge is what is so palpable in the garden. Its edges are made visible by unplanned interruptions from transverse thrusts—sound, smell, and wind– jolting us out of a preset linear path and forced to actively absorb the present. In the garden, film images compete with interruptions from the rain, sound migrations like the whisper that brakes my focus. Sounds like the wind exist outside the frame, emanating from not only other sources than the film projector, but subject to other forces as well. Sound from a distance can disturb the eye–the car backfiring in the street does not come from the same source as the voices on screen, so you sit bolt up and swivel, and then you catch sight of where you are. Whereas in the cinema we sit, atomized, barely aware of the bodies on either side, but painfully aware of onscreen tribulations, the garden film touches our bodies, making us aware of where we are. It also makes us aware of how we fit into it, not only bridging the middle distance between images of celebrity and immediacy, but also making us aware of ourselves beyond the edges of the film.
Like the shadows continuing impact beyond the film, there is a Doppler effect to the sound of the car that goes boom in the distance that July night, as Pras Michel and Ol’DB’s Ghetto Superstar supplies a base beat whose invisible source off screen permeates the air. Meanwhile, on screen, the river rafters break camp. Music echoes, and once released it travels, its sound transcending the poetics of a place beyond the present, as it continues to fall on others and trigger associations in the future.
What the outdoor film does so well is to set up a place between experience and desire by entertaining and creating these associations. It is a place that can be formed by creative action on the part of the individual so that conceivably the same film can be experienced differently by different individuals depending on its setting. The garden film can be, as much the experience of what we are seeing as what we are seeing by searching for clues among the forces and energies which cannot be conveyed completely through a visual image. By traveling through the garden, following its clues and its paths, one has the option of veering off to ask how and why things were set that way, revealing inconsistencies, reconstructing memories.
When I walk by the garden on a cold January day, its leaves lying fallow, I think of the summer. I think of the collage of the film and the place, and the shadows cast then by the seams of the sheet against the brick wall, and the shadows now of its memory.