Silent Screens: The Decline and Transformation of the American Movie Theatre

Michael Putnam,
Silent Screens: The Decline and Transformation of the American Movie Theatre
Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.
ISBN 0 8018 6329 5(hb) 202pp
122 pp

(Review copy supplied by Johns Hopkins University Press)
Uploaded 1 March 2001

This is primarily a book of photographs – works of art, but as record rather than nostalgia.

Michael Putnam, the photographer, explains the project in his preface:

Disappearance preserves some presence, always waning into loss. One anodyne is to collect things. Willingly and unwillingly, I have taken responsibility for preserving things that are passing from the world. I have collected things that are not preservable in primary form, things I cannot own or acquire, which are nevertheless part of me. The testimony I have collected will have to stand in place of the void loss is creating. The small-town and neighbourhood movie theater is almost gone. (xi)

It is a project to document change, appropriately published within the series ‘Creating the North American landscape’, and sponsored by the Center for American Places. So, each photograph, reproduced splendidly in black and white, documents a site where a cinema once operated – sometimes recording abandonment, decay or deliberate destruction, sometimes transformation. Taken between 1980 and 1995, in small towns and suburbs, these cinemas are all well past their heyday, but some have found a new incarnation as a bookshop, a place of worship, a cafe, a swimming pool, a parking station, a firing range… The images are cool and distant, often confrontational – emotionally challenging as well as technically spare and repetitive. The dominant architectural fashion seemed to be utterly functional, square and chunky, with some art deco ornamentation not always successfully integrated into the design.

Rather than image illustrating text, the text runs parallel to the images, often just as cool and distant. A list is provided of ‘demolitions noted’ and ‘conversions noted’, with selected examples in thumbnail images in the margins. The tone of the whole book is captured in an extract from Larry McMurtry’s Flim Flam:

Such elegiac feelings as were aroused in me by the sight of all those dead picture shows were provoked, I believe, not so much by the fact that times have changed and a great mode of popular entertainment has partially broken down or because I recognize that small-town kids today are deprived of a simple source of fantasy or a simple means of escapism, as by the melancholy aspects of the empty building themselves.

These melancholy feelings are echoed in extracts from other published works (John Updike, John Hollander), as well as in reminiscences provided by Peter Bogdanovich, Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell and Chester H.Liebs. Robert Sklar’s introductory essay is rather different. It places these small independent theaters into the wider picture of the cinema industry, controlled by the big companies through their ownership of the first-run cinemas in the major cities. It explains the programming needs of a small community, with perhaps only one theater but a heavy demand for product, as one of the shaping forces of the production industry, until the advent of the regional multiplexes changed the cinema landscape permanently.

For once, the jacket blurb really does sum up the book:

While the images in Putnam’s book can be read as a metaphor for the death of many downtowns in America, Silent Screens goes beyond mere nostalgia to tell the important story of the disappearance of the single-screen theatre, illuminating the layers of cultural and economic significance that still surround it.

Ina Bertrand

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →