Wednesday, November 7, 2007

From Plato’s Cave to Ike’s Church

Most of my quasi-religious experiences have happened in movie theaters, not churches. It’s no mystery, really. One sits in the dark, preferably a cavernous space, where one senses the presence of other souls, only you and they are focused on the visions before you, as intimate as dream, or memory. Or, in the case of the popular re-tellings of the Exodus story, as intimate as God speaking to you from out of a Burning Bush.

Actually, the first time I heard God at the movies He was awesome and terrifying. It was the late 60s, and my father had taken me to see a holiday revival of De Mille’s The Ten Commandments at the Loews Paradise on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, one of the five Loews Wonder Theaters in the New York area. The decor of the place was impossibly lavish, even pagan. It was an “atmospheric” movie palace, meaning that the vast barrel-vault ceiling of the auditorium was designed to imitate the open sky, a deep blue which faded to night when the show started, tiny electric lights winking on to evoke the stars. The audience of thousands sat in the midst of a ruined Roman villa, its broken columns silhouetted against the artificial twilight along the walls on either side. My dad and I sat in the lower of two balconies piled high above the orchestra seats. After the film was over and the house lights went up, or rather, when the artificial dawn arrived, I looked down over the brass rail on the teeming, milling masses below. It was a sea of people, like De Mille’s Israelites, huddling under the towering walls of water in the cleft of the Red Sea.

That was the point of the Wonder Theaters. You didn't go to the Paradise for Cassavetes’ earthbound human dramas, but for De Mille's spectacle, for Ford's sweeping vistas, even for the tortured camera angles of Hitchcock. You went to have an out-of-body, almost spiritual experience, helped along by the temporal displacement of being in an ancient outdoor ruin, or a pagan temple. The movie palaces of the 1920s were going for the vestigial memories of mankind unreeling their imaginations in ritual spaces, what was known as theater to the ancient Greeks but which still had an odor of burnt offerings. It's no accident that the earliest movie theaters, the nickelodeon arcades and bijous, were essentially magical caves.

In fact, the very history of the 20th Century movie theater resembles a super-compressed history of western religion: the caves and grottos gave way to lavish temples and imperial palaces, which fell into neglect and ruin during the Dark Ages of the Great Depression. Many of the palaces were razed to the ground to make way for purely secular office towers, but a few, including some of New York's Wonder Theaters, survived to become places of Christian worship.

The transcendent sensory experience of early 20th Century American moviegoing found a ready counterpart in the postwar religious revival. Reverend Ike, for instance, purchased the Loews 175th Street Theater (see picture at the top of the post) and transformed it into his United Palace Church, keeping this most elaborate of the Wonder Theaters in a state of near perfect preservation. Its gilded interiors are an appropriate setting for exalted states, whether of enthralled movie audiences or ecstatic evangelicals. Today, it is rare to see a movie in such grand surroundings; but I still believe the big screen offers a better chance at epiphany than our home theaters, laptops and iPods, the Lumiere Manifesto notwithstanding.

The second time I heard God at the the movies, it was in the featureless black box of a modern multiplex. His voice was gentle and soothing. Once again he called to Moses from the Burning Bush, but this time it he was a God of persuasion, not of command. De Mille's blinding atomic bush had become a gently iridescent shrub. "Moses," God whispered, almost inaudible in the desert breezes. And while I don't consider myself a religious person, per se, I wept. Because of the intimacy of scale, it was a powerful little scene in an otherwise run-of-the-mill animated musical (Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt): on the big screen, in that dark room, the message is aimed right at you, only at you.

While researching this post, I found a clip of the scene on YouTube ... only to find no trace of the original power. The flame, it seems, burns brightest in the temple.

Thanks to Strange Culture for hosting the Film + Faith Blogathon, November 7-9, 2007.


Fox said...

Theater as church. Awesome! Great post.

I like your angle about certain films feeling right in certain places. Indeed, Cassavettes would come off much more appropriately in a 200 seat room than in a movie palace.

Marco Acevedo said...

Thanks, fox. I have different nostalgias for different areas of film. In NYC they recently closed the Beekman, which was a classic art house, as opposed to a palace. It was small but stylish... felt like a hip 1950s lounge, and that would have been the perfect place for a Cassavetes retrospective. Oh well. At least the space was taken over for a hospital wing, and not another condo tower.

Westcoast Walker said...

A very thoughtful and well written piece!

It is interesting that in the suburbs of Vancouver there are evangelical congregations using the theaters in the multiplex as a place of worship on Sunday mornings, the same place where later in the afternoon 100's of movie goers will go to worship in their own way!

Going to the movies is one of the few shared cultural experiences that still persist in an era of increasing tribalism and multiculturalism.

The experience of going to a movie is something I share with my Sikh, Christian, and Jewish co-workers. These archetypal stories bind us together in many ways, and become a shared history and point of reference. We all willingly allow our spirits to be elevated by the transcendent cinematic experience.

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