The movie is filled with beautiful music and scenes set in the opulent drawing rooms, palaces and opera halls of 18th-century Vienna. The theater it is being shown in is evidence of how far we have come since those days. As you enter from the back, it appears that the top half of the screen is obscured by an overhanging balcony, for surely no movie screen can be so small. But as your eyes become accustomed to the dim light, you see that you are not standing under a balcony -- it's the ceiling, and it is crisscrossed by pipes, and that little rectangle in front is the screen, and, yes, you have just paid $5.50 for admittance to a low, cramped room that could be used for secret meetings of a persecuted religious sect.
There is only one aisle, and it runs down the middle of the room, directly in front of the projector, so that anyone entering or leaving during the showing casts a large shadow onto the screen. A number of seats near the front are in a cold draft, apparently produced by the fans that are noisily forcing air through various vents. Halfway through the show, a woman walks to the front, enters a door behind the screen and turns something off, and the draft ceases. Is she on the theater staff, or is the first customer into the theater assigned engineer duties for that showing and given a set of keys and a wiring chart? During quiet moments in the film, dialogue and music are audible from movies playing in other theaters only a few feet away.
This is what passes for an evening out at one of the newest multi-movies, or mini-cineplexes, or whatever you care to call it when a building is cut up into too many little theaters. Movie houses with more than one screen have been the rule for some time -- it's the economics of the business -- and we know it's unrealistic to think we can return to the days of Wurlitzer organs, crystal chandeliers and gilded trim.
But judging from some of the rooms recently opened for business as theaters, it appears we're getting to the point where it's not rococo and nostalgia that are at stake, but things that would seem to be the bare irreducible minimum: walls, ceilings, chairs, room temperature. Maybe in time it will be decided that not even all of these are essential. One thing that is essential, though, is a screen you don't have to squint at. We may not know much about the movie business, but we know there's a limit to how long customers will keep paying $5.50 to watch people who are smaller than life.