The Demise of the Velvet Curtain
Everyone says that movies are going through a major change these days. I’m not so sure. Some people think that the big change is in their speed. The pace of movies is much more frenetic – and viewers have a lower attention span than they used to. So you get movies like Crank: High Voltage, a comic action movie from last summer about a British gangster who has to keep recharging the batteries in his artificial heart. Older action movies don’t have the speed and the special effects of newer ones. Hitchcock thrillers like North by Northwest — with airplane chases in corn fields and fight scenes on Mt Rushmore — are just not as impressive as they used to be. It’s simple enough now to have a herd of CGI elephants run across the screen, even for a cheap laugh.
But whether or not chase scenes are gradually speeding up their space, and are flashier, speedier, noisier, they’re still more or less the same. It’s just a matter of degree.
Other people point to the new technology available to audiences, saying: “After Avatar, all movies are going to be 3-D… And using video-game style animation!” I can safely say, that ain’t gonna happen. These kind of movies may become more frequent — as long as 3-D movies make money they’ll keep making them — but I doubt this will amount to a fundamental change in the nature of movies.
But I’d like to talk about one small detail that seems to be completely disappearing from the “movie experience” after 90 or 100 years, something that outlived silent movies, black and white movies, movies on film. But I’m not talking about something in the movie itself, but something outside the movie, in front of the movie.
There has been a subtle change in the past few years. One, seemingly superficial part of the movies is fading away. I’m speaking of the Velvet Curtain.
Traditionally, after the trailers, but before the movie begins, a curtain is lowered or pulled shut, only to reopen after the film starts to roll. So the first image of any film is the luxuriousness of curtains distorting the projected image, soon replaced by the crisper look of film directly on the screen.
You know when a movie is starting by the opening of the curtain, and when it’s over by its closing.
I don’t know for sure why it started. Perhaps a curtain was needed to replicate the vaudeville or stage theatres that were their main competition. In fact, many movie theatres used to share their screens with newsreels, cartoons, shorts, and B-movies in double features – so the opening of the curtain before the main movie gave it a sense of majesty.
Many theatres are now inserting a metaphorical curtain before the movie, a 3-D -looking commercial celebrating the magic and adventure of that chain’s cinemas – plants growing around the seats, shooting stars and rainbows in the sky, teenagers excitedly drinking cups of cola – but it doesn’t do it for me. And they haven’t even tried to find a replacement for the equally important closure at the end of a movie.
I’m not nostalgic, but I do regret the slow demise of this cinematic gesture, this "Amen", now in its death throes.
– Daniel Garber, February 12, 2010.