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Imagining the Multiplex

Imagining the Multiplex

| On Aug 01, 2013

What if going to a movie theater felt more like a trip to The Getty? That’s a question I asked myself this summer as I walked the grounds of the most beautiful site for art in California. It is not just the art on display that moves visitors to contemplation and attentiveness. The form and liturgy of the institution itself puts us in a mood. Our hearts are shaped for beauty and culture by the physical space and structure we move through. A foundational part of what makes art “art” is the institution and context it expresses itself in. How we experience a work of art is a crucial part of what we experience.

Especially in the United States, film and television are generally perceived as entertainment and lazy “fun” rather than serious art. Our anti-elitist culture labels films that fall outside these expected norms as “weird,” “boring,” or “artsy.” Of course, these sharp dichotomies between entertainment and art are usually false. Blockbusters such as Avatar and Pacific Rim are worth studying alongside The Seventh Seal. Like Shakespeare with literature, some of the cinema’s best artists have been masters of pop culture. However, film isn’t easily associated with “art” in the popular imagination. Why?

Today’s film productions display what is arguably the most intricate and complex artistry that human beings have yet to accomplish. Many employ the collaboration of thousands of craftsman, designers, and performers united around a vision that is shown to billions across the world.

How do these works become so trivialized?

Many misunderstandings and prejudices are certainly due to a poverty of serious art and film education in our schools. However, I suspect that a low view of cinema as an artistic medium is reinforced by the very structures in which we experience these works. Bad movies aren’t primarily what undermines perception of the art form. Our movie theaters and television networks do the job every day.

That’s not to say the local multiplex is evil or that we’ve got it all wrong. I love the familiar sights and smell of popcorn just as much as the next guy. The Italian film Cinema Paradiso is a moving love letter to a local movie house and the community’s shared experience of it. Nor do I believe that a capitalist spirit is intrinsically hostile to art. But I think Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky was onto something when he said that “cinema’s progress toward self-awareness has always been hampered by its equivocal position, hanging between art and the factory: the original sin of its genesis in the market-place.”

Motion pictures began as sideshow attractions. Cheap nickelodeons were the world that the art form was born into. In structure and form, today’s movie theaters still generally treat movies as products for our consumption rather than art for contemplation. They subconsciously train us to treat the work before us as mere entertainment. The decor, the food selection, and the commercial emphasis all tell us that the movie is an object to be consumed. It serves our craving for dazzling experience. We go through a liturgy that matches spectacle and glitzy movie stars but not one that readies our hearts for attentive thinking or engagement. The formation we undergo and participate in is very different than a trip to the art gallery.

treeoflife-popcornWhen The Tree of Life was released in 2011, a satirical fake commercial highlighted the absurd contrast between a serious philosophically and theologically minded film and its cheapening setting. A fake commercial for a “What’s Your Tree?!” contest says to “Check under the bottle cap of participating soft drinks and you could win a Tree of Lifetime prizes!” The corresponding promotional gimmicks include Terrence Malick flash cards, an animated video game, and a roller coaster ride. The crass world of the multiplex and a challenging film like The Tree of Life could not be stranger bedfellows. Complex meditation on sin and grace doesn’t go well with nacho cheese.

After a century embedded in these circus-like institutions, is it any wonder that the public doesn’t typically view movies as high art? As embodied creatures, human beings are deeply shaped by practices and rituals. In Desiring the Kingdom, the first book of James K.A. Smith’s cultural liturgies project, Smith makes the compelling case that we are affective animals more than cognitive ones. He argues that “Different kinds of material practices infuse noncognitive dispositions and skills in us through ritual and repetition precisely because our hearts (site of habits) are so closely tethered to our bodies. The senses are portals to the heart, and thus the body is a channel to our core dispositions and identity.”

This is why our institutional practices are so important.

“Practices don’t float in society; rather, they find expression and articulation in concrete sites and institutions – which is also how and why they actually shape embodied persons. There are no practices without institutions … a telos is always already embedded in these practices and institutions. That is, there is an intimate and inextricable link between the telos to which we are being oriented and the practices that are shaping us in that direction. The practices “carry” the telos in them. Just as we desiring animals are intentional and teleological, so the practices themselves are teleological.”

In other words, the way in which we present films powerfully shapes our understanding and experience of them. They are forming our hearts and minds around a specific vision of the cinema. To re-phrase Marshall McLuhan, we shape our theaters and afterward our theaters shape us.

What’s exciting about the digital revolution is that all of this is changing. Technology continues to dramatically alter the landscape and our wisest prophets proclaim new visions of the future. Movie theaters may become increasingly specialized and only survive when they offer an experience that home viewing can’t match. One day, going out to the movies may be more like going to see a special event or Broadway show. Now may be the perfect time for entrepreneurs and lovers of film to step up and imagine how to best present film. Could a movie-going experience feel more like a trip to The Getty than an amusement park? What if the local theater ran more like a curated museum than a box-office smackdown? What if the practice of theater-going embodied film as art more than film as product?

I was reminded of the possibilities recently on a visit to LACMA’s Stanley Kubrick exhibit. To step into that museum space and walk through rooms of concept art, prop displays, and information panels was to experience a filmmaker being treated like an artist. His film canon was analyzed and expounded by interpretive displays and monuments. His career were presented for consideration as a whole body of artistic work. It was miles away from star-driven flash and gaudy advertisement. Here was a cinematic artist on display alongside James Turrell and Henri Matisse.

What if our movie lobbies featured displays like these? What if interactive coloring rooms were available to children after Pixar’s latest? What if movie theater etiquette encouraged lingering and discussion rather than rushing to the parking lot the second that credits roll? What if?

I don’t know all the answers or have concrete solutions but I do know that institutions and cultural practices matter. If we care about the cinematic arts we also need to care about how and where we watch them. We need to care about what our theaters look like and how they function. We need to think critically about how streaming websites are designed and how they operate for home viewers.

Imagining a better multiplex could lead to habituating an experience of cinema as art. As the studio system transitions into uncharted territory, opportunities for new ideas and institutions present themselves to daring thinkers. How will our motion picture shows evolve? What can we dream up?

Anthony ParisiAnthony Parisi (@AnthonyParisi) is an independent filmmaker, photographer, and writer. For many years he has collaborated with New Renaissance Pictures to create a variety of web series, feature films, and television series. He also has a prolific background in documentaries, contributing to many National Park films seen across the country. As an artist and storyteller, he is deeply passionate about the visual arts and new possibilities for cinema in the digital age. Visit him online at

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