1 Galen Cranz, The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2000), p. 15.
2 Clare Graham, 'Introduction', in Ceremonial and Commemorative Chairs in Great Britain (London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 1994).
Revisiting the apparatus: the theatre chair and cinematic spectatorship
Almost without fail we sit in a chair when we attend the cinema. Despite its pervasiveness within the theatre, the humble chair remains overlooked, its impact on the cinemagoing experience unaddressed. What can this unassuming object reveal about the relationships between film, architectural space and spectatorship? Both within and without the movie theatre, the seeming simplicity of the chair bears profound implications for the body of the seated individual, reflecting architectural historian Galen Cranz's assertion that 'we design [chairs]; but once built, they shape us'.1 The chair was and is a confluence of discourses and possibilities for its occupant: it is a point of status and authority, suggests inertia or vulnerability, encourages complacency and laziness, or impels its occupant to sit straighter. Thrones, the most recognizable example of a chair's iconography, have enjoyed ancient associations with power, but the chair form has been repeatedly engaged for its commemorative, memorial and emblematic attributes; indeed, few pieces of furniture have borne quite as much weight - physical or symbolic - as the chair.2 Strange, then, that such a loaded object remains undertheorized in the cinema. Yet to examine the legacy of theatre chairs is to untangle the relationships between cinema, physicality, efficiency and film's ties to passivity; this inconspicuous thing encloses an entire history of cinematic bodies and, in turn, a shadow history of spectatorship. For the length of the film, spectatorial body and repeated chair mimic one another's motionless forms ad infinitum, huddled in the auditorium's liminal darkness, seated under the projector's dusty glow.
Screen 57:3 Autumn 2016
© The Author 2016.Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Screen. All rights reserved doi:10.1093/screen/hjw030
3 Gabriele Pedulla, In Broad Daylight: Moves and Spectators After the Cinema, trans. Patricia Gaborik (London: Verso, 2012), and Julian Hanich, 'Watching a film with others: towards a theory of collective spectatorship', Screen, vol.55, no. 3 (2014), pp. 338-59.
4 Jean-Lous Baudry, 'Ideological effects of the basic cinematographic apparatus', trans. Alan Williams, Film Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 2(1974-75), p. 44.
From the late 1920s to the 1950s, classical cinema's multiplicity of aesthetic, formal, reception and architectural discourses resulted in the emergence of a new spectator. Among myriad other factors, changes in seating arrangements, new interests in sightlines, and mechanized chair designs helped to define the conditions of this altered spectatorship; not only was the movie theatre now distinct from the opera and the stage, so too was the modern theatre chair an object conceptually discrete from the palace-era chair. My aim in this essay is less to document transformations in chair design than to analyze the discourses through which the chair was newly understood to function as part of a larger cinematic and spectatorial machinery. In short, I seek to understand how the chair became an emblem of the new modern spectatorship and a repository for its bodily rhetoric of efficiency, silence and stillness.
The chair and its stabilizing impact on the spectator's body propose a potential recoupment of apparatus theory's urgency on behalf of material history. Recent scholarship has signaled a return of the dispositif in light of new materialisms, phenomenological readings of collective theatrical spectatorship, and digitality. For scholars such as Julian Hanich and Gabriele Pedulla, unraveling the implications of individuated digital viewing obliges a theoretical and historical reconsideration of passive/ active and discrete/group spectatorship in auditoria.3 In this sense, JeanLouis Baudry's theory of the apparatus bears significance for the current transitional moment. Revisiting the apparatus is not only increasingly essential in the digital age but also in accounting for film exhibition and auditorium space. Such histories offer insight into trends in film theory as well as material evidence for cinephilic spectatorial modes rooted in attention, stillness and immersion; the chair, in other words, has played a quiet and sidelined role as unrecognized aid to the basic cinematographic apparatus, harbinger of the machine age and instrument of cinephilia.
The ideology of the apparatus depends on idealizations of vision, position and image indebted to western easel painting and perspective. Likewise the architecture of the theatre, and specifically the manufactured chair, attempts a materialization of idealized vision in its spectators: a universalized perception hinging on all viewers looking forward, seated in the same position, sharing as close to the same image as possible in terms of both camera eye and screen angle. While Baudry never fully included components of theatre architecture in the structure of the basic cinematographic apparatus, its effects echo the chair's influence on immersive spectatorship. The apparatus hinges on continuity, and 'the darkened room and the screen [...] already present privileged conditions of effectiveness' that prepare the viewer for cinematic suturing.4 Yet Baudry, generally speaking, locates the apparatus in the identifications between camera and subject; the space around the viewer is merely an accessory. Such accessories, however, share a long history of invisible work - work that, for Baudry, is necessary for maintaining the cinematic illusion.
5 Pedulla, In Broad Daylight, p. 105.
6 See Recherches Semiotiques/ Semiotic Inquiry, vol. 31, nos 1/2/ 3 (2011), 'Cinema & Technologie'/ 'Cinema & Technology'.
7 Jane Gaines, 'The inevitability of teleology: from le dispositif to apparatus theory to dispositifs plural', Recherches Semiotiques/ Semiotic Inquiry, vol. 31, nos 1/2/ 3(2011), pp. 45-58.
8 James Lastra, Sound Technology and American Cinema: Perception, Representation, Modernity (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2000), p. 136.
9 Thomas Elsaesser, 'What is left of the cinematic apparatus, or why we should retain (and return to) it', Recherches Semiotiques/ Semiotic Inquiry, vol. 31, nos 1/2/ 3(2011), pp. 33-44.
10 Ibid., p. 35.
11 Baudry, 'Ideological effects', p. 42.
12 Will Straw,'Pulling apart the apparatus', Recherches Semiotiques/SemioticInquiry, vol. 31, nos 1/2/3 (2011), pp. 59-73.
For Pedulla, the fundamental issue with the apparatus is that, unlike the viewers chained to the walls in Plato's cave, spectators choose to attend the cinema. While the dark-cube movie theatre relies on 'induced passivity' to instruct the audience, the enforcement of physical stillness in turn demands not only greater mental action but deeper empathetic reaction.5 Pedulla's spectator, like Baudry's, is dwarfed by the image, but voluntarily so - in other words, she is the immersed and engaged cinephile. Immobility, then, begs for a new set of theoretical interventions, |
such as those recently proposed by Jane Gaines, Thomas Elsaesser, Frank Kessler and Will Straw, that uncover interaction between apparatus theory and material histories.6 In Gaines's view, apparatus theory's seemingly teleological remission and rebirth can be traced through a semantic change from the philosophical French dispositif to the technological English 'apparatus'.7 This artificial transformation led in part to a widespread assumption of what James Lastra describes as the 'somewhat reductive' nature of apparatus theory's uniform impact.8 For Elsaesser, a historiography of apparatus theory acts as an inspiration for media archaeologies while also raising productive questions around the problems Baudry et al. purported to solve.9 If, as Elsaesser suggests, 'theory is often the funeral of practice', then apparatus theory's genesis in the 1970s implies a concurrent dying out of the entranced cinematic spectator - one who was shaped not only by attention to the closed filmic system but also by enmeshment in theatrical surroundings.10
If many have criticized the universality of apparatus theory's spectator, perhaps some of the blame should be shifted to certain architects and designers of the movie theatre. Baudry insisted that differences between frames 'must be effaced as differences'; automated assembly-line theatre chairs fill a similar purpose, in that they seek an effacement of the differences between spectators.11 Thus the quotidian chair enables a reconsideration of the apparatus as material and historical. Now we are past screen theory's heyday, the growing importance of socially grounded notions of the spectator has aided English-language theory's sloughing off of the apparatus.12 As spectatorship became much more a product of the viewer's identity, interrogation of the moment of screen encounter faded. But what if seats encouraged bodies to shed their stable identities in service of momentary encounter? In other words, can we think of apparatus theory's repeatedly cited failures - its erasure of difference, its maintenance of a universal subject separate from an individual body - as historically grounded in the goals of the movie theatre's structure? Is the disappearance of the apparatus in favour of the socially grounded spectator a product, in part, of the movement from the theatre chair to the sofa?
The chair is a model for both mid-century exhibition's and cinephilia's 'correct' way to watch: in interchangeable rows with upright bodies and indistinguishable limbs, heads forward and eyes on the screen, properly embedded within the cinematic experience. Perhaps the cinephile disparages watching films at home or on a laptop not solely because of the light leaks or the poor sound or the encroachment of the domestic
13 John F. Barry and Epes W. Sargent, Building Theatre Patronage: Management and Merchandising (1927), reprinted in Gregory Waller (ed.), Moviegoing in America: A Sourcebook in the History of Film Exhibition (Maiden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), p. 110.
sphere, but because we sit there on soft, yielding objects to which our bodies need not conform, need not become one machine among others. We are sprawling and domesticated individuals, far from the fantasy of a sedated audience jointly enraptured before the screen. In the theatre we allow the chair partially to dictate our experience, to gain some semblance of mastery over our physical shape. But the chair in the theatre is distinct from the home chair also by virtue of its status as technological object, frequently considered in relation to mechanisms for crowd control |
and movement. Chairs have been objects of interest and debate in the theatre since the nascence of the palace era, and recognized for their importance in creating both atmosphere and bodily support. Particularly from the invention of specific mechanisms in the 1930s onwards, modern theatrical chairs have pushed back, moved forward, tilted up and rocked to encourage better vision, better comfort and more efficient audience flow. The theatre chair not only sits us properly and firmly, but tells us how and when to move in the theatre.
One point calls for clarification: the spectator conceived by the theatre designer, whether enraptured by the screen or by the multitude of decorative features that surround it, operates, like Baudry's subject, in the realm of the ideal. Doubtless few cinemagoers ever considered themselves interchangeable with those seated around them. Yet this linkage of idealized beings (Baudry's 'transcendent subjects') reaffirms 0
the tie between the apparatus theorists of the 1970s and many earlier 0
theatrical architects and designers: both considered the film and its §§
theatre a place of universality. In 1927 John Barry and Epes Sargent told e
theatre managers that 'the architect has mastered the psychology of the U
movie-goer', reiterating the common cry that cinema offers enrichment V
for one and all: 'Here is a shrine of democracy where there
privileged patrons'.13 In its ideal state, such a theatre made manifest L
universal audience desires to escape everyday life, to enjoy a shared a
status and, by implication, to be held in as passive a state as possible. Of §
course the standard American theatre in the late 1920s hardly eliminated O
privilege in favour of pure democracy; segregation and, to a lesser e
degree, the enforcement of multiple social codes kept such ideals in firm I
check. Rather than provide insight into audience experience, Barry and n
Sargent's platitudes exemplify the tones of idealism and utopianism that s ■
permeated much exhibition rhetoric from the late 1920s throughout the V
mid-century - tones that implied an idealized attentive spectator and the §
chair in which such an upstanding modern viewer should properly sit. O
This utopian occupant of the theatre chair was a product not only of °
movie exhibition but of the modern chair itself, which reiterated o
modernist concepts of uplift, therapeutics, universality and efficiency. In s
the modern era, chair and man reflect one another, performing a 2
symbiotic elevation of design and human into the harmonious glories of 6 the machine age. By the middle of the nineteenth century, designs for an adjustable chair began to infiltrate the American furniture industry in keeping with new research into relaxation through constant bodily
14 Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1948), pp. 400-06.
15 Adrian Forty, Objects of Desire: Design and Society from Wedgwood to IBM (New York, NY: Pantheon, 1986), pp. 129-32.
16 Bengt Akerblom, Standing and Sitting Posture, with Special Reference to the Construction of Chairs (Stockholm: A. B. Nordiska Bokhandeln, 1948), p. 153.
17 See, for example, Edgar
Kaufmann, Jr, What Is Modern Interior Design?(New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art, 1953), p.7.
18 Adolf Loos, 'Furniture for sitting', in Spoken Into the Void, 18971900 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982), p. 29.
recalibration. Taylorist scientific management encouraged the study of labour-oriented sitting posture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from the perspective of both comfort and assembly-line production.15 By the late 1940s, new research into ergonomics led Swedish chair researcher Bengt Akerblom to declare that the chair's therapeutic potential rested on the sitter's ability to shift his body: 'A good chair is, thus, one in which one can alternate between various resting positions'.16 A modern chair, therefore, should provide consistent support for its occupant and also allow for tiny movements; it should accommodate every form of person and be mass producible. Similar attention to organicism, posture and appropriate use dictated much modern chair design at the mid-century. According to the Werkbund, much like Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye and 'machines for living', chairs should be 'machines for sitting', serving as wide a public as possible through low cost, interchangeability and functionality related to physical position. Akin to Akerblom's observations, modernist chairs suggested purity of design, mind and health. In 'Furniture for sitting', Adolf Loos argued that chairs should serve the 'most perfect man' and reflect his beauty: reduced to its fundamental attributes of health and reproduction with no extraneous impracticalities, upstanding in both civility and posture.18 Loos's argument would find reflection in the 1930s American theatre chair and its placement, where exhibitors sought harmony not only between machine and body but between chairs, minds and spectators' eyes, fixed upon the screen.
In a 1932 polemic published in Motion Picture Herald, American architect and champion of the modern movie theatre Ben Schlanger demanded radical reconsideration of chairs and seating patterns in cinema auditoria, where the position of the eye required far greater consideration than it ever had in the stage theatre. At great disservice to the movie industry, he claimed, exhibitors and architects alike were ignoring a crucial aspect of film's translation of everyday sensory experience. Where normal vision employed a delicate process of foreshortening and convergence, film flattened three-dimensional perspective onto a two-dimensional surface. Similarly, while audiences compensated visually for cinema's collapse of depth and viewing angles, the relatively random seating of spectators based predominantly on stage auditoria rather than film projection resulted in distortion, discomfort and distraction. To solve this conundrum, Schlanger argued, theatre chairs should be positioned according to subtended viewing angles based on screen size and placement. Immediate chair and seating pattern restructuring would move the industry forward and distinguish functional modern theatres from allegedly wasteful movie palaces by way of their superior bodily and therefore optical conditions:
If the position of the human eye is not favorable, a very undesirable
distortion of the forms and backgrounds being viewed takes place.
This distortion is especially annoying when the form being observed
on the screen is already transformed into a sharp perspective through
19 Ben Schlanger, 'Vision in the motion picture theatre', 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 30 July 1932, p. 9.
20 Marilyn Moffat and Steve Vickery, The American Physical Therapy Association Book of Body Repair and Maintenance (New York, NY: Holt Paperbacks, 1999), p. 97.
21 Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 28687 (emphasis in original).
22 Ibid., p. 290.
the medium of the camera eye. A view taken in sharp perspective in motion picture work is one of the most forceful and effective boasts of the art of the motion picture. Now to get the full benefit of a great art like the motion picture, the problem of the position of the patron's eye while he is viewing the screen looms up as of great prominence [...] Motion pictures are being exhibited under a serious handicap in theatres built for stage entertainment. When will the motion picture industry as a whole respect its own product sufficiently to insure w
effective delivery of their efforts to the patron?19
Ensuring effective delivery implied the implementation of many r
theatrical transformations, including removing the proscenium arch and g
stage, reducing screen masking and enlarging the screen. Particularly p
urgent in this case, however, was the scientific calibration of seating §§
patterns to facilitate proper viewing angles. To manipulate the audiences' 3
eyes effectively, exhibition standards needed to adhere stringently to O
modern chair design and seating plans. Access to the pathway to perfect r
cinematic vision hinged on recasting the chair as an integral meeting O'
point between body and eye: the locus of spectatorship's form was vision 3
by way of the audiences' folded and seated shapes. In this ideal theatre, a o multitude of cloned chairs - and spectators - spoke to a thread of
efficiency and mechanized repeatability finding expression in a post- p
movie palace, modern exhibition space.
For Schlanger the theatre chair sought to materialize the elusive a
spectator developed between gazer and gazed at; it taught of D
physicalized perception and spectatorial construction. Yet the corollary to t
Schlanger's rows of attentive spectators positioned in industrially n
constructed seats is the chair as a sign of discomfort, or as manager of er
unpleasant sensation. Contemporary physiological evidence for the ill 0S
effects of excessive sitting blames chairs for poor circulation, atrophy b
and Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome, also known as 'moviegoers sign'. 0.
Chairs were thus not only beholden to trends in design philosophy but NN
enfolded within themselves an odd structural paradigm, being built both t
to comfort and to emulate the human body. For this reason the mid- ern
century theatre chair resonates with Elaine Scarry's reasoning that the 00
chair, like most artefacts, is a projection of the skeletal body. All such 0.
meaning-making objects transform what is typically private into n
something communally accessible, through which we might attempt to e share one another's interiority. In our construction of such objects, Scarry
observes, we strive to make the inanimate world feel as we do, 'as on
knowledgeable about human pain as if it were itself animate and in £
pain'. The chair is therefore 'mimetic of sentient awareness [...] the e
materialized structure of a perception [...] sentient awareness materialized SS
into a freestanding design', the shape of 'perceived-pain-wished-gone'.22 0 Not only, then, does the chair perform symbolic acts, it makes elusive consciousness into a solid and recognizable form. Scarry's investment in the materialization of sentience - how the artefact embodies perception
23 Francesco Casetti, Inside the Gaze (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998), p. 45.
24 See Vivian Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991).
See Bela Balazs, Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art, trans. Edith Bone (New York. NY: Dover Publications, 1970), and Jean Epstein, 'Magnification', trans. Stuart Liebman, in Richard Abel (ed.), French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology, Volume I, 1907-1929(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988). Andre Bazin, 'Theater and cinema - Part II', in What is Cinema? Volume II (rev. edn), trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004), p. 99.
and awareness, how it emerges as a point of interaction between object and subject - hints at both 1970s apparatus theory's ideological subject construction and phenomenological film theory's development of 'film bodies'. Apparatus theory's argument for a unified, single spectator regardless of particularities of position in turn resonates deeply with the theatre chair, where interest in interchangeability similarly sought out rows of identically positioned watchers. Bridging both semiotic and phenomenological film theory, Francesco Casetti describes the spectator subject position as developed through the text's constitution of an 'enunciatee', made 'manifest in the text through a series of figurativizations'.23 Film and viewer together develop the role of 'spectator' - one available within the theatre, during projection, accessible via the bodies of text and watcher, akin to Vivian Sobchack's 'film body'.24 And the chair's shape conjures both Scarry's artefactual status and Casetti's spectatorial mode.
If Scarry's 'perceived-pain-wished-gone' delineates the chair's meaning in general, it is just one of many discourses relating to the movie theatre chair. Today's state-of-the-art multiplex boasts increasingly large and cushioned seats with multiple cup-holders and adjustable rocking backs, arranged on a stadium incline for better sightlines. Such accessories and careful positioning speak, however, of a legacy stretching back to mid-century cinemas just after the transition to sound. The internal mechanisms, positions and purpose of the theatrical chair reveal a history of cinematic exhibition that has repeatedly associated posture with eye fixation. Such forms of instructive interior technology taught spectators the 'right' way to watch films, and continue to inform our understandings of cinephilia, the narcotic effects of cinema, and the idealization of passivity that still haunts the edges of film spectatorship.
Classical film theory, such as that proposed by Bela Balazs and Jean Epstein, insists that contemplation in the theatre depends upon the spectator's position, which should particularly encourage identification, stillness and silence; the chair reflects this spectatorship of inactive mimesis, cradling its occupier into a folded imitation of itself. For Andre Bazin one major difference between cinema and stage theatre is film's creation of a massed spectatorship:
A member of a film audience tends to identify himself with the film's
hero by a psychological process, the result of which is to turn the
audience into a 'mass' and to render emotion uniform [...] The cinema
calms the spectator, the theater excites him,
Where the cinema enacts an assembly line of equalized spectators created through its formal elements and its apparatus, including its spatial environment, the theatre encourages individualized reaction. In turn, Alison Griffiths's history of the 'immersive view' in alternative spectatorships - mostly those differing from Bazin's classical theatrical structures - begins with the soaring vaults of the French Gothic
See Alison Griffiths, Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums and the Immersive View (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2008). Graham, Ceremonial and Commemorative Chairs, p. 17.
29 For an in-depth description of the transformation of European Christian structures, see for example, Nigel Yates, Liturgical Space: Christian Worship and Church Buildings (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).
30 Seymour Stern,'An aesthetic of the cinema house: a statement of the principles which constitute the philosophy and the format of the ideal film theatre', reprinted in Spectator, vol. 18, no. 2(1998), pp. 28-30.
cathedral. Prior to the Reformation, most mediaeval attendees stood in or walked around the kinds of Gothic cathedrals that Griffiths links to nontraditional immersive exhibition sites. Benches for laity began to appear in British churches in the fourteenth century, while pews for the wealthy emerged in the late mediaeval period.28 After the Reformation and an ensuing centralization of mass around the sermon, pews in both Catholic and Protestant European churches aided in organizing congregations and sustaining their attention for a significant amount of time.29 For Catholics the act of worship required a litany of intercessionary figures and objects: priests, icons, stained glass windows, relics. Chief among these was the environment of the church itself, and its pairing of heavenly ceilings with earthbound floors, walls and benches; spiritual contemplation was therefore enmeshed with bodily positioning, the faithful in silent, repeated rows that guided their spines into upright structures, their knees onto wooden slats or their hands into folded prayer on the smooth curve of the pew in front. Focalized attention on the sermon while sitting and spiritual projection through prayer while kneeling were both engrained into the interior decoration and design of the church. Following Griffiths's interpretation of the Gothic cathedral's lineage as folding into sites such as panoramas and museum displays, the stilled spectatorial site of the standard movie theatre resonates with post-Reformation churches and their congregations who stand, kneel and sit in orderly rows, according to proscriptions from both sermon and architectural form.
Just as churchgoing developed into a directed audience experience, the theatre chair and consequent seating plans have shaped an avenue of ideal cinephilic spectatorship by shaping the audiences' bodies in the seats. Such melding of cinema and church sites and their shared traditions of bodily regulatory space and mental/spiritual experience has long been a tenet of film theory. In a 1927 essay for the National Board of Review Magazine, Seymour Stern dreamt of cinema's ability to realize its full status as a 'religious' art that 'permits the projection of the ego of its spectator into its form', achievable only with focalization on the screen and, in an anticipation of later stadium seating, 'a marked elevation between each row of seats'.30 For Stern, making the cinema a 'religious' art required spatial markers of religiosity. Religion's combination of focused attention and specific positioning could act as a model for the realization of film's possibilities. To encourage the out-of-body experience that connection to a deity brings, one must be seated in the proper location, the proper position, the proper vessel. In telling the viewer to be calm, to be as unmoving as possible while seated, and to walk between rows without disturbing others, the chair is one of spectatorship's mythic objects, alongside the screen, the camera and the projector.
A reconsideration of the chair's spectatorial properties similarly uncovers its tranquilizing effects. While film might seem the ultimate
31 Susan Buck-Morss, 'Aesthetics and anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin's Artwork essay reconsidered', October, no. 62 (1992), p. 23.
32 Mark Twain,'Mark Twain at Bayreuth/At the shrine of St Wagner', Chicago Daily Tribune, 6 December 1891.
33 See Robert Vischer, 'On the optical sense of form: a contribution to aesthetics' (1873), reprinted in Empathy, Form and Space: Problems In German Aesthetics, 1873-1893 (Los Angeles, CA: The Getty Center for the History of Art, 1993), p. 92.
34 Ben Schlanger,'Applying the 'continental plan' to American theatre seating', 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 2 May 1936, pp. 8-9.
instrument of modern narcosis, the chair is its instrument of supplication that acts as film's anaesthesia. In the theatre, darkness paired with a single beam of light is the most familiar anaesthetic, yet darkness and light force the eye to focus, while the chair drugs the body into rest. Susan Buck-Morss associates the intoxications of cinema and other phantasmagoria, both of which 'assume the position of objective fact' by virtue of communal experience, with multiple narcotics of modernity: drugs such as opium and ether, electroshock, hypnosis and anaesthesia.31 For Buck-Morss, Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk constituted the late nineteenth-century attempt at a total phantasmagoric environment, overwhelming the spectator's senses with a variety of artistic impressions in order to freeze her into place. In Wagner's Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, built in 1876 yet a lasting inspiration for later American cinematic space, stiff wooden seats and a lack of aisles to divide the rows prompted Mark Twain to describe the audience waiting for and watching the opera as seated in
fixed and reverential attention [...] The funereal rustling of dresses and the low buzz of conversation began to die swiftly down, and presently not the ghost of a sound was left [...] You detect no movement in the solid mass of heads and shoulders. You seem to sit with the dead in
the gloom of a tomb
Influenced by aesthetic theories of empathy, the Festspielhaus encouraged a spectatorship that appeared deathly partly because of its insistence on psychic projection through bodily regulation. Empathy demanded a 'feeling into' the art object on display for the sake of communal psychic projection.33
Wagner's system of seating would later be integrated into American film presentation practice with the 'continental' seating plan, named for its usage throughout Europe. By removing the centre aisle to create a continuous row with aisles only to the right and left of the orchestra seating, the continental plan provided access to the best seats in the house - those directly in the middle - and, as in the Festspielhaus, discouraged standing or mingling during the presentation. Although four inches more per row were needed to modify most existing theatres in the early 1930s, the continental plan's major benefits allegedly included 'greater comfort for the patron', 'superior exhibition', easier illumination along side walls out of the line of vision for patrons, and the elimination of 'wasteful aisles' which would 'no longer cut a swath through the best seating areas in the house'; some also argued that the continental plan's more efficient audience traffic would create a safer environment in case of fire.34 In this sense, idealized visual contemplation intertwined with physical position; perfect seeing depended not just on optical conditions but also on bodily form.
Although the continental plan did not take root in the American movie theatre until the 1950s, when it was popularized primarily by the second
See Ben Schlanger, 'Continental seating crosses the Atlantic', 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 3 December 1949, pp. 27-41.
Douglas Gomery, Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1992), pp. 19-20. Ibid., p. 29.
See Ben Schlanger, 'Modern seating and chair maintenance', 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 4 June 1932, pp. 16-42. American Seating Company advertisement, 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 7 March 1936, p. 23.
42 Amir H. Ameri,'The architecture of the illusive distance', Screen, vol. 54, no. 4(2013), p. 450.
wave of cinephilia and its specialized art houses, the question of how chairs should operate and be positioned was a relatively early concern.35 While early nickelodeons in exhibition's first decade offered little more than a modified screening room with basic wooden chairs or benches, their rapid expansion soon led to some owners spending up to $1.50 per chair for opera-style seats.36 This was in keeping with exhibition's move toward luxurious environments in order to increase the attendance of middle- and upper-class patrons, who would eventually be courted in earnest by movie palace owners.37 During the palace era, which peaked in the mid 1920s, theatre chains like Balaban & Katz drastically increased the number of available chairs by a factor of ten or more - their Uptown Theatre in Chicago boasted over five thousand seats compared to a nickelodeon's typical hundred or so.38 Yet while palaces such as the Uptown ostensibly offered perfect views of the screen, those seated at the ends of the rows tended to experience image distortion, while the 'best seats' were often ticketed at higher prices; both movie and live performance showings in the same auditorium similarly meant that theatrical architecture had to be flexible and not focused solely on 'perfect' film viewing.39 Balaban & Katz, like many palace owners, fixated on an image of opulence rather than on the screen. In their fantasy of affluence concurrent with a desire to attract middle- and higher-class patronage, seating plans mimicked external class distinctions rather than promoting a uniformity of vision. Chairs in the palace signified the comforts of money and therefore demanded a posturing display of wealth.
By the early 1930s, chairs and seating patterns were no longer merely a function of luxury and customer satisfaction but objects to be understood in terms of their effects on visual distortion and optics; eye strain in particular was a consistent problem in earlier exhibition, and could in part result from poor seating and concurrent bodily adjustments.40 The right kind of comfortable chair - one that, according to an American Seating Company advertisement from 1936, 'caress[ed] the body' - made for optimized viewing conditions both in terms of reducing eye strain and maintaining a passive and cradled spectator.41 In the mid 1930s, then, theatre chairs ideally offered comfort to entice Depression-era audiences into the theatre, but also manipulated spectators into proper viewing positions. Slumping or bending forward disrupted the body's imitation of the chair's form and had an impact on viewing angles. Regulation of the spectator's body, it was argued, could structure posture and eliminate distortion, two issues of increasing urgency in the wake of the movie palace's decline and the rise of the architecturally efficient theatre.
American theatres in the 1930s transformed stylistically, sonically and phenomenologically from a 'second period' as a massive ornamental palace to a 'third period' as an intimate black box.42 While the transition to a less decorated auditorium resulted partly from Depression-era economics, much theatrical transformation of the 1930s - and thus the
38 Ibid., p. 48
39 Ibid., p. 55
43 Ibid., pp. 4З9-б2.
44 Ibid., p. 441.
45 Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (New York, NY: Vintage, 1975), p. 153.
46 George Schutz, 'Modernizing the interior', 'Better Theatres' section of Exhibitors' Herald and Moving Picture World, 7 July 1928,
47 George Schutz, 'Modernistic art, its significance to America and the photoplay', 'Better Theatres' section of Exhibitors' Herald and Moving Picture World, 27 October 1928, p. 38. See also John W. Root and Wallace Rice, 'The Taj Mahal, Mr Coolidge and the motion picture', 'Better Theatres' section of Exhibitors' Herald and Moving Picture World, 24 November1928,
pp. 7-9, and Thomas E. Tallmadge, 'The screen, a new art, should pave the way to a new architecture', 'Better Theatres' section of Exhibitors' Herald and Moving Picture World, 17 March 1928, p. 9.
notion of what exhibition tended to consider an ideal spectator - can be attributed to the arrival of sound. Amir H. Ameri argues that while the new modern theatres were not necessarily designed for perfected acoustics, their streamlined design was both stylistically and experientially distinct from the grandeur of the movie palace.43 While style has been the most commonly cited differentiation, the relationship between space, vision and sound in the new, smaller theatre resulted in a more profound phenomenological transformation.44 In light of film's new |
sonic 'hereness' as opposed to its former silent 'thereness', distance between spectator and screen was purposely eroded through modern touches such as horizontal wall decorations and downlighting that replaced exotically themed ornamentation and chandeliers. While these attempts were naturally conducted with an ideal spectator in mind, curiously the advent of sound film did result in an audience behavioural transformation where 'the talking audience for silent pictures became a silent audience for talking pictures', as Robert Sklar writes.45 Sound, therefore, paved the way for both a new modern theatrical architecture and an integrated passive spectator reminiscent of Baudry.
In addition to economics and the emergence of sound technology, the post-palace functional and intimate filmic space was informed by interest in the efficacy of attention, directed vision and a proper film viewing indebted to the talkies and their concurrent model of cinephilic spectatorship. Such trends found expression in both the style and purpose of the movie house, where modernist design heralded an aesthetic of the machine, of efficiency and of holistic attention. George Schutz, the longtime editor of Motion Picture Herald's 'Better Theatres' section, argued in 1928 for the more extensive use of Art Moderne and its use of 'design based on the simple line' that could express the psychological purpose of the room. Like cinema itself, 'Art Moderne is the child of the Machine', a form particularly relevant for a population told 'more and more every day that we are machines ourselves, a part, like the steel machines, of another, merely bigger machine'.46 Later that year Schutz reinforced the movies' connection to the industrial world and mechanization. Movies are a thoroughly modern art, and there is 'a natural affinity between modernistic art and the photoplay theatre which, it would seem, the architect and the exhibitor cannot ignore'.47 In this sense, modern design's purity of form was another tool for exhibition's rhetoric of uplift - for Schutz it shared an affinity not only with modern film but with the modern theatre, where viewers could be reduced to their components of shape, eye and ear, metaphorical machines elevated through efficiency to a higher cinematic experience. Schutz's editorial influence would help propel the movement towards black box theatres throughout the 1930s.
Exhibitors increasingly realized that this thoroughly modern art of film required an accordingly modern approach to its display, and that it should be shown under the most precise conditions possible to maximize its effects. In their view the movie palace, with stage theatre as its defining antecedent, sinned not only in terms of its visual excess but also its
48 Lary May, The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 2000), p. 110.
49 'Why remodel? An editorial', 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 11 April 1931, p.11.
50 Ben Schlanger,'Vision in the motion picture theatre', 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 30 July 1932, p. 8
51 E. C. A. Bullock,'Theater entrances and lobbies', Architectural Forum, vol. 42, no. 6 (1925), p. 369.
52 Heywood-Wakefield advertisement, Exhibitors' Herald and Moving Picture World, 10 March 1928, p. 8.
53 Gomery, Shared Pleasures, p. 54.
inability to provide a scientifically calibrated approach to seeing. This is not to say that palace designers entirely ignored the benefits of good sightlines, but rather that new voices in exhibition, led often by Schutz and Schlanger, accused the palaces of sacrificing visual acuity for the sake of embellishment. In addition, during the Depression multithousand-seat palaces seemed to be examples of conspicuous consumption; worse, their substantial size frequently resulted in wasted space, unfilled by eager consumers. As Lary May describes, the stock market crash of 1929 brought calls for a revolution in cinematic architecture, as the lavish displays of the palaces suggested to a poverty-stricken public the terrible fall from grace of rampant capitalism.48 Palaces were no longer interchangeable with exhibition, nor was their immensity a necessary apparatus for showing a film. In 1931 the editors of Motion Picture Herald's architectural 'Better Theatres' section observed that
theatre designers studying the function of the motion picture theatre with its special relationships to architecture, are adopting the attitude that interiors, particularly the auditorium, should contribute through their very lines and appointments to the focusing of all the patron's
interest upon the screen.
In the following year Ben Schlanger stated that
the large deluxe, lavishly treated theatre is no longer a symbol or agent of the motion picture. As a matter of fact, the motion picture was only an accompanying attraction in them at their inception... an
unnecessary addition to the motion picture itself
What was 'unnecessary' were the decorative trappings glimmering throughout the palace; 'necessary' theatrical touches focused on seating comfort, lessened eye strain and continually improved viewing angles, all of which provided enhanced consumer value and a more directed cinematic experience.
Palace designers had certainly always encouraged a state of escape through bodily comfort, primarily marketed with atmospheric luxury, with designs evoking lush scenarios such as a 'magic carpet' or a 'king's palace'.51 Plush seats encouraged a lavish experience of 'maximum comfort' that resonated through elaborate draping, gilding and decoration.52 Air conditioning provided another extravagance for audiences, but one economically and spatially affordable only by owners of palaces seating more than 2000 patrons; Balaban & Katz's Tivoli and Chicago Theatres (1921), 'marvels of modern-day engineering and comfort', required a basement room with 15,000 feet of pipe, a 240-horse-power electric motor and a dedicated engineer.53 After the debut of Willis Carrier's cheaper, more compact system in the 1930s, however, smaller theatres gained access to air conditioning; even the more intimate theatre could now extend the comforts of cooled air to all classes of patron.54 Yet the palace's main goal was an entirety of spectacle rather than straightforward focus on the film itself. At the height of the palace's popularity in 1925,
54 Ibid., p. 76
55 Samuel L. Rothafel, 'What the public wants in the picture theater', Architectural Forum, vol.42, no. 6(1925), p. 362.
56 Ibid., p. 363.
57 Ibid., p. 364.
58 Tallmadge, 'The screen, a new art', p. 9.
59 John Eberson, 'Making use of the new materials that add color and life', 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 21 September 1940, p. 18. Fora discussion of the 'little cinema' movement, see Barbara Wilinsky, Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).
Samuel L. 'Roxy' Rothafel, stated that while he agreed that '"The picture is the thing" [...] Of course the picture is important, and we could not do without it; but what we have tried to do is to build around it an atmospheric program that is colorful, entertaining and interesting.' Music, for Roxy, supplied the 'body and foundations of the presentation [...] It will become so integral a part of the picture that the lines of confluence will hardly be distinguishable [...] reach[ing] the standard of grand opera.' Like the exuberant palace decorations, music strengthened an entirety of spatial rather than screen coherence. While Roxy looked towards a theatre of tomorrow with 'neutral' decorative character, the eventual result would transform movies from being a 'fusion of varied abilities' to the 'highest expression of art'.57 Such a new expression, Thomas Tallmadge argued in a controversial 1928 article that would be debated for months, would eliminate 'prostituted' theatres away from the 'blare and din of an architectural circus', enhanced by the slapping-on of vaudeville and comedy acts, towards an uplifting and intimate space. 'Divorce the motion picture from vaudeville and jazz', Tallmadge insisted, 'from tawdry decoration and vulgar architecture and it will yet take its place not only among the educational and moral forces of this country, but with the arts as well.'58 The palace and the smaller theatre of the 1930s were therefore distinguished from one another in terms of economics, sonic qualities and immersion - a transformation from immersion in general theatrical and spectacular luxury to immersion in the film onscreen. To encourage this newly regimented spectatorship, modernized theatres should be focused not on wealth and luxury tinged with exotic flair, but on the twinned outcomes of physical comfort and visual immersion. Whereas comfort more generally signified indulgence and extravagance in the 1920s palace, the 1930s comfortable theatre tended toward ergonomics, posture and a collective cinematic immersion in keeping with an emerging ideal of cinephilic spectatorship.
Changes in the importance of seating and seating position, necessitated by increasing interest in the relationship between eye and bodily comfort as well as visual immersion, reflected these multiple discourses as well as interest in modernization and modernism. Mainstreaming of modernism in the movie theatre continued throughout the 1930s and 1940s, yet 'modern' in theatrical parlance functioned as an umbrella term for a variety of styles: from regionalism to the International Style; from folklore to functionalism to Moderne; from the barren rooms of New York's and Washington's little cinemas to the rose-coloured fluorescent lamps and cherry-red Formica of the RKO Theatre in Cincinnati. Yet mid-century exhibitors in general understood the modern theatre as a collection of smoothly working parts whose goal was filmic immersion. 'The whole public portion of the building itself, architect John Eberson declared in 1940, 'is really part of the machinery of public entertainment that the invention of motion pictures has created'; in 1944 Schlanger repeated this assertion, calling for 'full awareness that the [theatre] building itself is an integral part of the elaborate and exact projection
60 Eberson, 'Making use of the new materials', p. 16, and Ben Schlanger, 'The theater for motion pictures by film and television projection', Architectural Record, vol. 95, no. 1 (1944), p. 86.
advertisement, 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 26 September 1931, p. 8.
62 Ben Schlanger, 'Modern Seating and chair maintenance: VIII - an architectural point of view', 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 4 June 1932, p. 16.
equipment'.60 Moving imagery, but more specifically the entirety of its apparatus, from production to projection to the spectator in her chair, proclaimed the age of the American machine and, in turn, the possibility of a mass-produced and industrious spectator straddling the categories of labour and leisure, of industry and community, of human and interchangeable part. The mechanized chair designed for posture and focus was a prototype for exhibition's new spectator: noiseless, directed, identical; one member among many of a silent community immobilized under the screen's glow.
As the fulcrum of the screen's relationship with its viewer, the theatre chair in the 1930s aided in the streamlining of the cinematic machine. More directed focus on the screen and greater comfort became rallying cries for exhibitors, architects and auditorium interior designers, during and after the Depression, looking to put bodies in the seats and encourage stillness, silence and theatrical integration after investing in expensive transitions to sound. In addition to the removal of the proscenium arch, the shrinking of balconies and a general reduction in extravagant design, the new desire for theatrical efficiency in the 1930s found expression in the chair. Chair designers seized upon the opportunity to market the appropriateness of their furnishings for the new theatres; Heywood-Wakefield advertised their theatre seats as deluxe and 'acoustically correct'.61 Arguing in 1932 that the broader aspects of efficient seating design had yet to be fully addressed, Schlanger urged the integration of architectural ideals of perfect vision with better chairs through analysis of
ocular comfort. Bodily comfort. Size of screen and location of seats therefrom. Areas most valuable for seats. Floor slopes in relation to chair design. Minimum walking distance and stair climbing to reach seats. Relationship of seating arrangement to the various elements of theatre design.62
According to Schlanger, despite its importance for rethinking chair and seating design, ocular comfort was too frequently ignored by exhibitors. Yet he continues,
the patron does react to eye-strain [...] [and] the ordeal of adjusting the eye to accommodate vision cannot be tolerated for more than a few seconds by the spectator. An adjustment takes place in the position of the whole body to relieve eye-strain in the front orchestra seats by slumping down in the seat, or in balcony seats, by bending forward. And so the factor of eye-strain is more directly related to the placing
and construction of seats than is generally assumed,
Such a strong relationship between posture and eye-strain elucidates comfort's direct correlation with seating as well as its opposition to labour - a strange erasure of earlier seating research from scientific management's approach to productive workflow. In order to achieve 'scientific seating', backs must be correctly angled in relationship to the floor slope as well as to the body's need for support; presciently
65 Ben Schlanger, 'The screen: a problem in exhibition', 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 24 October 1931, pp. 14-66.
66 Heywood-Wakefield advertisement, 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 16 November 1935, p. 2, and 17 October 1936, p. 5.
67 'New type chair', 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 10 February 1934, p. 25.
68 Ansel M. Moore, 'Again seating modernization moves ahead smartly', 'Modern Theatres' section of Boxoffice Magazine, 7 January 1939, p. 36.
Schlanger mused that the 'enlarged screen will probably be the factor that will soon force this problem to the attention of all those concerned'.64 The carefully calibrated combination of a massive screen, sound cinema and seats that all 'come within range of comfortable sight of the entire screen' could create a fuller cinematic illusion; for Schlanger,
bodily comfort is of the utmost importance in this respect, not only
because of the need for physical comfort, but also because bodily °
discomfort, which causes the spectator to move about in his seat, is I
also a disconcerting factor in achieving the much desired illusion. e
Cinematic illusion required the spectator's body to be incorporated into 0
the film experience, kept in place by a proper seat positioned in a proper location. And the entirety of cinematic illusion - immersion into the film experience rather than the theatre experience - was of utmost importance for the modernized theatre's ideal spectator.
Alongside Schlanger's call for greater efficiency and scientific analysis in auditorium chairs, seating patterns and architectural design, theatre chair producers began to focus on technological as opposed to just stylistic innovations. From the 1930s onwards, upholstery furniture producers experimented with chair mechanisms in order to provide greater visibility and to minimize irritation for seated patrons. Luxury chair producer Heywood-Wakefield advertised their products' 1935 i
installation at the Ambassador Theatre in Baltimore as a way to smooth О
audience movement, reduce inconvenient delays and function as 'ready s
eye guides' to patrons looking for seats; their 1936 installation of e
'Streamline Seats' at the Plaza in Stamford, Connecticut added 'good U
modern styling' and 'quicken[ed] house traffic'. Similarly the V International Seating Corporation's 'V-16' chair and its patented seat' facilitated theatrical efficiency by allowing patrons to stand so other viewers could enter the row.67 Evidenced by Heywood-Wakefield and
the International Seating Corporation's marketing, the theatre chair of the s
1930s funneled spectatorship from body to eye to screen. Lushly padded o
chairs encouraged reverie, both promoting repeat visits and soothing e
spectators into an experience of relaxed, passive viewing. Ideal modern I
seating should in fact be gg
so caressingly comfortable that the physical is completely forgotten g
and the illusion created on the screen reigns supreme [...] Every seat is e
filled by patrons who are entirely forgetful of surroundings, which is y
the ideal condition of motion picture entertainment reception [...] Were g
they not comfortably relaxed, even the most elaborate presentation t
would not hold their interest.68 b
Film, in short, could not do all the work; to create a proper narcotic effect 2
the chair must sculpt the spectator's body into a receptive position. 6
Efficiency implied not merely streamlining the movement of spectators but forming them all into the same shape, keeping them in place. Industrially made chairs, each exactly the same, could similarly force
69 'History of the Kroehler Mfg. Co.', Folder 'Timeline history of Kroehler with pics', Box 49, Kroehler Manufacturing Corporation Archives, Naperville Heritage Society (hereafter Kroehler Archives).
70 'Kroehler Celebrates 65th Anniversary', Upholstering Magazine, January 1958, Box 22, Kroehler Archives.
71 'History of the Kroehler Mfg. Co.'; 'Reports-industry generated', Box 30, Kroehler Archives.
72 When Kroehler closed in 1978, managers discarded its corporate history in dumpsters at the Naperville factory site. Gathered by enterprising employees and other citizens of Naperville and currently held by the city's Heritage Society, the archives are necessarily and unfortunately incomplete; in particular, few records exist from the 1930s when the Public Seating Division was established.
73 Folder 'Timeline history of Kroehler with pics', Box 49, Kroehler Archives.
74 See, for example, 'Why remodel? An editorial', pp. 11-154, and Ben Schlanger, 'II. The economics of theatre remodeling: material and construction costs', 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 9 May 1931,
75 Heywood-Wakefield Theatre Seating Catalog (Boston, MA: Walsh Press, ca. 1937). See 'Digital Treasures', W. Joseph Carr Collection, Mount Wachusett Community College, <https://www.
digitalcommonwealth.org/search/ commonwealth:bk1292082> accessed 5 July 2016.
spectators into assembly-line versions of themselves, remade into duplicate parts of a larger cinematic machine.
In 1937 the Kroehler Manufacturing Corporation, at the time the world's largest producer of upholstered home furniture, established its Public Seating Division and entered the theatre seating market with 'the world's finest theatre chair', its patented Push-Back Seat (figures 1 and 2).69 As the first American manufacturer to introduce 'divided 0
operations' in the furniture factory assembly line, Kroehler had a history |
of innovation in furniture production and industry practice, and held a
substantial factory line systems employing thousands throughout the ^
USA.70 Operating factories in both Naperville and Kanakee, Illinois, 0
Kroehler was a major force in the towns where its factories stood during and after the Depression; by the third period of 1951, the Naperville headquarters employed 956 men and women on the factory floor, while in 1959 the company as a whole employed 5959 factory and office workers. As the market dropped for relatively expensive domestic upholstered furniture during the Depression, Kroehler sought out new revenue streams, settling eventually on filling a need for better vision through mechanized seats in the movie theatre. Precisely why the corporation made moves towards the movie industry, which was experiencing lower attendance and fewer theatres during the Depression, remains somewhat unclear.72 But in 1909 its founder, P. E. Kroehler, had r
patented a new form of folding davenport bed, whose popularity among i
the new, mobile, urban families requiring modular space-saving furniture §
had brought fame to the company.73 Such a history of metal mechanism e
production, combined with corporate and industrial infrastructure for U
upholstery furnishings, undoubtedly laid the groundwork for Kroehler's V
Push-Back Seat; with the introduction of the Unifold and Duofold t
davenport bed models, Kroehler Manufacturing's founder showed a L
canny comprehension of the needs of the American urban citizen in a
modernity. P. E. Kroehler's decades-long experience with flexible, §§
mechanical efficiency allowed him to seize on the latest trends, such as o
modular objects and spaces, to great profit in both domestic and public e
markets. In addition, while far fewer theatres were built during the I
Depression and World War II, many were being remodeled. Exhibition n
journals often encouraged demoralized theatre owners to inject some »' vitality into their shabby auditoria with new carpeting, curtains, lighting
or comfortable seats, all of which were substantially cheaper than theatre §
construction.74 Chair producers such as Heywood-Wakefield advertised O
their models 'for the owner and operator who desires to modernize his O
interior without drastic and architectural change'.75 Stylish and comfortable 0
seats offered an illusion of luxury to make the theatre experience 3
enticing for a public in dire financial straits, while their internal 2
mechanisms highlighted a mid-century investment in factory-produced 6 innovations gleaming with the machine culture's slick veneer.
Patented in December 1938 by engineer Merrill W. Hard, but credited also to actor and inventor Alan Hale, Sr, the Kroehler Push-Back Seat
Fig. 1. Kroehler Push-Back Seat advertising brochure, 1944.
Fig. 2. Kroehler Push-Back Seat advertising brochure, 1939.
Fig. 3. Kroehler Push-Back Seat patent, filed 1938.
Fig. 4. Kroehler Push-Back Seat advertising brochure, 1939.
Fig. 5. Kroehler Push-Back Seat advertising brochure, 1939.
Fig. 6. Kroehler Push-Back Seat advertising brochure, 1939.
76 'Theater's worst plague ended by new Kroehler seating system!' pamphlet (1939), Folder'Push-back theater seat promotional info and cover letter', Box 30, Kroehler Archives.
featured a retraction unit allowing seated audience members to simply 'push back' with their feet on the floor in order to slide the seat backwards while other attendees passed through the row (figures 3 and 4).76 The chair therefore eradicated what Kroehler described as 'Theater's Worst Plague': the irritating need for seated spectators to move when tardy audience members entered (figure 5). According to promotional materials,
79 'Kroehler push-back seats promotional packet, ready-to-release publicity story' (1939), Box 30, Kroehler Archives.
80 'Kroehler push-backseats promotional packet, "Newcrim installs floating chairs"', Box 30, Kroehler Archives.
when occupied, the chair is designed to give the utmost comfort to all types of people - tall or short - thin or fat. When anyone wishes to pass, seat can be instantly retracted with slight thrust of feet [...] Ample passing space is provided without rising. Retraction does not reduce space in adjoining rows. When not occupied, seat automatically retracts.77
As a result, the Push-Back Chair, the first theatre seat to 'meet modern °
movie theatre operation', allegedly provided the following benefits: i
1. No Waste Floor Space. I
2. No Standing. |
3. No Stepped-on Toes. 3
4. No Aggravated Patrons. p
5. Increased Vision. S
6. More Comfort. 1
7. Greater Safety. o
8. Bigger 'Box Office'.78 &
While 'Bigger Box Office' was an arguable claim, one that Kroehler U
suggested could be achieved by announcing the arrival of Push-Back el
Seats on the theatre marquee, the Push-Back was a meeting point for public and private discourse in 1930s cinemas and homes. Kroehler's advertising insisted not only on the convenience of the Push-Back Seat in eliminating the so-called '"climbing-over" nuisance' and streamlining audience movement in the theatre, but also its usefulness in moving audiences from the home to the theatre: 'the new Push-Back Seats are said to provide comfort that even goes the easy chair at home one better' (figure 6).79
Compared to the domestic easy chair, however, the theatre chair offered not only equal comfort but idealized cinematic vision. The easy L
chair, after all, was positioned by amateurs in the home, and in 1939 was &
probably still in front of a radio. Yet the Push-Back, as in the Crim |
Theatre in Kilgore, Texas, would be 'scientifically installed so as to o
assure its user of perfect vision, with the staggered seating arrangement h
being employed so as to eliminate the obstruction of the person in 3
front'.80 Whereas the home might signify intimacy, relaxation and the n
presence of spouse and children, the movie theatre offered a rarified and 3 ■
modern experience that was attending to - and reducing - the signs of the i
pesky public. In the dark, in the Push-Back Seat, in a modern theatre, s
Kroehler promised, all individuals, 'tall or short - thin or fat', could enjoy 3
equal treatment, equal comfort, a scientifically gauged visual experience 3
and a diminishment in the annoyance of noticing others sharing one's S
space. Yet to 'go the easy chair one better' also implied an immersive &
private experience without the aggravations of family. The automated 2
'instinctive' action of the Push-Back Seat quietly helped to usher in an 2 impression of cinematic reverie and of silence, bodily relaxation, relative stillness and solitary contemplation while in public - the ultimate escape from family and from the persistent sensations of life outside the cinema
81 'New retracting theater seat minimizes annoyance', 'New Equipment' section of Architectural Record, March 1939, p. 66.
82 Kroehler Factory News, 25
February 1944 and 21 April 1944, Kroehler Archives.
83 'Letter to employees from D. L. Kroehler (Pres) on 28 February', Folder 'Correspondence re: Company Policies 1937-1976, 1949', Box 21, Kroehler Archives; Kroehler Factory News, April and October, 1951, Box 3, Kroehler Archives; Kroehler Manufacturing Corporation advertisement from 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 4 May 1946, p. 7.
84 'Theater Pushback Seats', pamphlet, 15 November1944, Box 24, Kroehler Archives.
or experiences outside of the eye, the ear and the mind. What constituted 'theater's worst plague' was, fundamentally, annoyance: the prickly environmental details that unpleasantly stimulated spectators' nerves. The body in half-repose in the Push-Back Seat, relieved to the greatest possible extent from external realities of whirlpool crowds, jostling limbs, cityscapes teeming with cacophonous noise or children clamouring for attention, could fade into minimized sensation, pain-wished-gone, physical ignorance and surrender.
The Push-Back's production was on hold between August 1942 and April 1944 due to restrictions on steel during World War II.82 A redesign and relaunch of the chair occurred in 1944 to great success; 88,785 seats were made and installed in 1947, while by 1951 Push-Backs were installed throughout the USA and Canada, as well as in Venezuela, Lebanon and the United Nations Council Chamber at Hunter College in New York.83 Rhetoric surrounding the new chair, however, remained similar to that of its predecessor. The new chair was 'Smooth [...] Noiseless [...] the most important theater improvement since air conditioning' and 'designed to fit the normal, comfortable posture of the human body in a relaxed position'. Like the original Push-Back, 'merely relaxing the body brings it forward to its original seating position where it stays until the patron consciously retracts it again', meaning that
the Push-Back is the only theater chair that permits patrons to remain seated throughout the entire show. There is no standing up to let others pass ... no stepped-on toes ... no dropped articles ... no being jostled around ... no aggravating annoyances. Other patrons suffer fewer inconveniences, too. When people enter or leave rows in theaters equipped with ordinary seats, all in the row must stand. This blocks the vision of those behind. But, because there is no standing up with Push-Back Seats, and because they also allow sufficient freedom of movement for patrons to pass quickly and quietly, there is very little interruption. Thus, all patrons can see the picture with practically no obstructed vision [...] [and] leave their comfortable chairs at home for
the equally comfortable Push-Back Chairs.
The revolutionary theatre chair operated with no interruption, with silence and invisibility, both relaxing its occupant and keeping her still, making her one part among many lulled into a mass cinematic dream state and a public stupor of dulled physical sensation yet sharpened filmic vision.
At once a meeting place between eye and body, and the representation of exhibition's tension between relaxation and focus, theatre chairs and their placement aroused a curious ambivalence of approach: were they required to be efficient, geared toward pristine optics, replacements for the comforts of home, profit drivers, instruments for controlling the flow of audience members, or all at once? A similar ambivalence accompanied the reverse floor slope, an experimental seating and floor plan that married relaxation and focus, and bore strange consonance with the
85 Frederic Arden Pawley, 'Design of motion picture theaters', Architectural Record, June 1932, pp. 435-37.
86 'The reverse floor slope in practice', 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 9 April 1932, p. 29.
advertisement, 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 4 June 1932, p. 21. See 'That 'reverse slope' - past and present', 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 24 August 1940, pp. 7-8.
domestic easy chair. When paired with identical seats, the parabolic reverse floor slope - introduced by Schlanger in 1931 and first put into practical action in 1932 at the 300-seat Thalia Theatre at 95th and Broadway in New York City - sought to account for poor optical conditions in certain theatres by shifting the seating pattern, changing the slope of the floor and maintaining identical audience bodily positions. The plan called for placing the high point of the orchestra floor closer to the screen than the auditorium, raising the screen above the eye-line of the first row and simultaneously tilting the backs of the chairs on the slope. Angling the back of the chair and seat at ninety-eight degrees on the slope created a 'correct and restful' posture, while even body-weight distribution eliminated unequal wear.85 'By tilting the body backward', George Schutz explained,
and permitting the higher part of the floor in front of the seat to support the feet, a comfortable position of the patron is sought which yet allows him to obtain a complete view of the screen without having to raise his head from its natural position. The slope of the reversed floor automatically establishes the proper pitch for the backs of the seats in every row, eliminating the need for specially adjusted chair backs and changes in the standards and leg supports of the chairs. All chairs can then be exactly alike in every detail of construction. Instead of designing differently constructed seats to fit a floor slope, as is now necessary, the floor is designed to suit uniform seating. It is as though the seats were placed in an ideal position for viewing the screen, the
floor being built afterward to support the seats in the proper manner
'Ideal', in this context, meant a spectator being able to see the entirety of the screen without distortion and being cradled, motionless, in a position dictated by the architecture of the theatre and the infinitely repeatable form of the chair. Specially designed chairs produced by Heywood-Wakefield were installed in the Thalia, the dramatic new floor slope of which required 'new ideas in seating, sight lines, and chair construction', according to an advertisement from 1932.87 Although the parabolic reverse slope enjoyed relatively widespread exhibition coverage, its experimental status, potential expense and specificity of environmental requirements restricted installation to select theatres for about a decade.88 Yet its development and use in the 1930s and 1940s illustrated serious exhibition interest in the echoes of optics in seating design; reverse slopes implied the integration of both chair and eye into the very structural integrity of the theatre, and the consideration of all parts of the theatre as necessary components within a larger organic and cinematic machine. In addition, the parabolic reverse slope implied a crossover between public and domestic viewing spaces: although intended to improve sightlines and thus increase focus on the screen, the reverse slope positioned its spectator at a more supine angle. Like the easy chair, it encouraged the spectator's head to rest gently backwards, tilting slightly up; but chairs
89 'Comfort isn't a luxury now-it's a necessity', 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 3 September 1955, p. 11.
90 Gio Gagliardi and George Schutz, 'What wide-screen technique is doing to the seating plan', 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 3 September 1955, pp. 13-24.
on the reverse slope also promoted a relaxed physical sensation in order to engage with deeper mental introspection.
Schlanger's 1932 prediction that the enlarged screen would force changes on seating patterns came to fruition during the widescreen revolution. Widescreen's physical and industrial dominance and an increasingly urgent threat from television in the 1950s resulted in theatre seats being touted as both supremely comfortable and encouraging of a relaxed submission to the image. Alongside the new predominance of television viewing and a lowered cinema attendance, exhibitors made comparisons between living-room chairs and theatre chairs, leading to the conclusion that perfectly projected pictures were not enough to seduce patrons back. The theatre must both
supply every condition for fulfillment of the art that it offers [...] [and] be equipped to allow the enjoyment of the art in the highest possible comfort. Auditorium seating figures in both of these functions. As an arrangement of viewing positions it is a crucial element of the presentation machinery.89
In addition to competition from home comforts, seating construction was also dramatically affected by widescreen techniques. Prior to screen advances, exhibitors argued that relatively small projection areas meant more use of closeups to compensate for narrow seating patterns and spectatorial distance from the image; given widescreen's use of long and wide shots, seating patterns must similarly be changed. New larger pictures
eliminate the necessity of such heads bereft of bodies and the scenic material which gives them meaning, allowing instead a more naturalistic technique of narration. Every spectator should be given the conditions which allow him, if his faculties permit, to experience, from his seat in a theatre, the feelings which the director desired him to have. The picture should have such realism that the audience lives through its time in front of the screen as a witness in the environment of the performance. Effective obstructions to its view of the screen, and intrusions upon its perception of the scene, defeat the purpose of the new technological effort [...] For the performance to dominate the field of vision and give a high sense of 'presence', the audience must
be as close to the screen as practical requirements permit.
Discourses of widescreen 'domination' in the 1950s provide further evidence that a passive form of spectatorship had been embedded in the structure of the auditorium's interior design for decades. Looming above its spectators, the movie screen became a monumental, overpowering force, yet one that mimicked real life perception. In 1953, Schlanger analyzed quotidian visual experience as threefold:
(1) With no, or very little, movement of the eyes or head; (2) with movement of the eyes and/or the head [in which the subject does not feel conscious of the movement]; (3) with eye, head and sometimes
91 Ben Schlanger,'Theatres and the new techniques', 'Better Theatres' section of Motion Picture Herald, 5 September 1953, p. 12.
92 See Steven Shaviro, The Cinematic Body (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 52.
93 Peter Kubelka, 'The invisible cinema', Design Quarterly, no. 93 (1974),'Film Spaces', pp. 32-36.
body movement, consciously, to cover a wide range, which may even be as much as full circle coverage [a turn-around]. The greatest part of visual experience falls within the second group, with the next largest falling in the third.91
Based on this breakdown of visual experience, theatres should create realistic perception by limiting the spectator's head movement; thus, as in
the 1930s, the domination of the gigantic image and relaxing yet °
structured seats led to a regulation of the spectator's inactive body to l
release her vision into the filmic ether. 'Visual acuity' was produced not e
just by film projection but by audience positioning. In this way, mid- Г
century American movie theatres embraced a spectatorial culture of *
immersion and submission, evoking, decades in advance, both Baudry's p
ideologically encapsulated spectator and Steven Shaviro's account of Ss
cinema's pleasures, its mimetic properties and the tangible physical and 3
identity-effacing effects it has upon its viewer.92 Through the dual o
influence of massive screen and structuring chair, the auditorium and its Г
attendant objects formed an engine of passivity that anaesthetized U
spectators. Little surprise, then, that the rhetoric of domination through 3
closeness to the screen would increase in volume with the onset of home o
viewing, one of the first major crises for exhibition; the placating effects "S.
of the easy chair were simply too effective on their own. Yet the theatre p
chair was still redolent of a humming machinery, of the delicate network
upholding the primacy of the screen, and of the sweet sublimity of being 3'
one cog among many activating cinematic immersion. D
Peter Kubelka's infamous 'Invisible Cinema', replete with hooded t
seats designed for a fully immersive experience, opened at Anthology g
Film Archives in 1970 - the year that Baudry's 'Ideological effects of the S basic cinematographic apparatus' essay first appeared in Cinethique -
and closed in 1974 - the year that Film Quarterly published it in Alan b
Williams's English translation. To once again recall Elsaesser's view of 3
theory as the funeral of practice, perhaps both Kubelka's artworld N
cinephilia and Baudry's sparking of a theoretical turn elegized a certain t
mode of spectatorship. The chair's transition from luxury to g
mechanization to secondary stand-in for the pleasures of home viewing 33
speaks to the progression of our relationship to the screen, to theatrical 3
surroundings, and to the messages we accept when we watch a film. g
Unlike the myriad places in which we consume digital media, the mid- e
century theatre seat spoke to a desire for commonality in erasure, for у
universality in efficiency and for immersion in repetition. Its unspoken g
contract was that to give oneself over to the chair, to be consumed by t
the screen, was to join a multitudinous state of cinephilic rapture. e
In 'On the mimetic faculty', Benjamin describes how 'the
of meaning of words or sentences is the bearer through which, like 1
a flash, similarity appears'. Humans, he explains, have an innate ^ talent for mimesis. They find similarities in nature and, prior to language, 'read what was never written' in animal entrails or the movements of
94 Walter Benjamin,'On the mimetic faculty', Selected Writings 19311934, ed. Michael William Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 722.
I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers and the editors at Screen, Bryan Ogg at Naper Settlement and Richard Leson.
the stars.94 Such earlier mimesis passed through language, and eventually effaced the word's attachment to sensuousness and magic. Theories of spectatorship have looked to versions of this mimetic inclination to explain the enigma of film's seductive power, particularly in terms of the image's bodily draw. Yet we might also look to theatrical space and, in particular, physical position in the auditorium as the gateway between body and eye, and as a structuring force in spectatorial projection. Stillness arises not just from the artificial movement of images on the |
screen, but from the very architecture of the theatre, from the chairs that attempt to maintain us in passive denial of our bodies. Our theatres, haunted by mid-century ideals, still subtly foster spectatorships of projected minds and complacent bodies on which they can act like a drug. And like a narcotic, film provides its subject in repose with the promise of a momentary release, with the opportunity to experience something past the richness of the sensual world, past the nervousness of everyday life. If we still take pleasure in the theatre's promise of escape through enforced bodily passivity, then perhaps we learn to do so by the ready guides that hold us in our assigned and identical places. The auditorium chair has long been a product of cinematic, cultural, economic and phenomenological discourse, and a tool of identification that shows us how to be alike in our stillness, in our forgetfulness of our bodies, in our projections towards the screen. Its modest nature camouflages its work as a manifestation of, and a rationale for, Baudry's dispositif and our cinephilic nostalgias. If we look back, we might uncover exhibition's long-standing insistence that film alone does not act upon us; so do the unnoticed elements of inanimate spectatorship that sit beside and around us, silently, in the dark.
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