Announcing the start of The Blue Angel yesterday, the rising red curtain in the main theater of the Music Box took on a certain risque quality—it was as though the screen were performing a striptease for the audience, creating anticipation for the burlesque numbers Marlene Dietrich would perform in the film. Of course, a movie house doesn’t need to show The Blue Angel (or Gypsy or The Rocky Horror Picture Show) for a curtain to trigger this association. All it needs is the curtain—though, unfortunately, fewer and fewer theaters have one. How many are left Chicago? In our era of IMAX screens, surround sound, and concession areas bigger than some corner stores, I find it odd that cinemas would forgo this age-old amenity, which has the effect of rendering the big screen separate from (one might even say more mysterious than) the world outside the theater.
A few months ago I bemoaned having to watch a promo for a TV show before the usual round of coming attractions preceding a movie. My issue wasn’t with the commercial (at this point, one simply has to live amid a constant barrage of advertisements and learn to tune it out, unless they want to go through life avoiding media and public transportation) but with the negative effect it had on the film. How can a theater create anticipation for a movie when it seems as though the projectionist has arrived at it by changing the channel on a giant TV? Bigger screens and better sound don’t solve this problem, since they represent only more sophisticated versions of the technology people can purchase for their homes. And as everyone knows, consumer-grade technology is getting more sophisticated every day.
For an unsophisticated piece of technology, the curtain has enjoyed remarkable longevity in the world of spectacle. From the seven veils in Salome’s dance to the handkerchief a magician lifts to reveal some foreign object, pieces of fabric have primed countless people to be delighted for thousands of years. Only now that the curtain is becoming a thing of the past (at least with regards to movies) are we in a position to fully appreciate its ingenuity, as it goes with so many simple pleasures.