Old chewing gum, cheap carpet sticky from spilled drinks, sagging seats pitted with cigarette burns: Satoshi Chuma’s photographs of old cinemas on show at the National Film Center are fantastically evocative of the decline and fall of celluloid.
Having spent several years working in the projection booth, Chuma has photographed the dark interiors and grimy exteriors of movie houses around Japan for several years. As an exhibition, “Movie Theaters” is not perfect: Some of the prints are perhaps a little too dark, the presentation is fairly rudimentary and monochrome photos of rundown architecture are nothing new. Chuma also, rather profanely, mixes genres. Close-ups of the editing and projection machinery are strongly reminiscent of the “new objectivity” movement of the 1920s and ’30s. At other times, when shadowy figures make an occasional appearance in the frame, or Chuma’s composition strays from the straight and level, there is the more human and conversational tone of New York School street photography.
The exhibition has ample opportunity to fail, but it doesn’t. With less commitment and heart, it could easily have been a retro-hipster project, with less perspicacity it would have been a sentimental nostalgia trip. It succeeds because deriding and distancing oneself from narrative has become something of a mannerism in contemporary art photography, but in Chuma’s dream-like images, there seems to be a measured and conciliatory ambivalence toward the desire to feed the unconscious with stories of sex, violence and adventure.
In comparison to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s more widely known cinema photography series, which treats the blank whiteness of the overexposed screen as a kind of transcendence, Chuma pokes about in the gloom, photographing the vaguely smutty abjection of out-of-date movie posters, ruched curtains and cheap chandeliers. Sugimoto presents movie theaters as grand and vainglorious. Chuma lurks around like a jaded film-noir gumshoe at the scene of the crime — disillusioned, but nevertheless driven to pursue the mystery of human folly to the bitter end.
Whether by accident or design, Chuma’s “Movie Theaters” series also provides a neat visual exploration of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”: The forlorn auditoriums, juxtaposed with the mechanisms of projection, hint at the Greek philosopher’s proposition that we can escape the world of shadows by properly understanding how we are deceived by representations. Nathan Anderson suggests in his book “Shadow Philosophy: Plato’s Cave and Cinema” that we differ from Plato’s prisoners, who are born in the cave and are chained to their beliefs, in one crucial respect: We enter the cinema in the full knowledge that we are going to be deceived.
This understanding seems to be present and correct in Chuma’s gaze. He does not romanticize cinema, but it’s quite possible he loves it all the same.
“Movie Theaters: The Works of Satoshi Chuma, Projectionist-Photographer” at the National Film Center runs until July 10; 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m. ¥210. Closed Mon. www.momat.go.jp/english/fc
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.