Sunrise in the Dark
By Chris Wisniewski
Though I took four classes there, I don’t remember much about the space, despite its status as an architectural landmark. The Harvard Film Archive is nestled in the basement of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts—the only Le Corbusier-designed building in the country. I recall ascending the ramp at the Center’s entrance and the descent to the theater itself. That’s about it, other than vague memories of sitting through lectures by Eric Rentschler and Isaac Julien and screenings of Lili Marleen (my first Fassbinder) and Killer of Sheep, when the privilege of watching Charles Burnett’s masterpiece was a rarity.
Still, I’ll never forget lining up for an evening screening of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans during my junior year. It was a public screening, but required viewing for a course taught by Giuliana Bruno, something having to do with cinema and the city. As I approached the door to the theater, I recognized the ticket taker as my Teaching Fellow from a class I’d taken the year before, called Black Cinema as Genre. (Who would have thought that he’d go on to become a well-regarded member of the New York film community, someone I’d still know professionally some 20 years later?). We exchanged pleasantries, and I mentioned that I’d never actually seen the Murnau film.
“I envy your virgin eyes,” he told me.
The rest of the experience is a blur. By now, I feel as if Sunrise has seeped into my moviegoing soul, transcending and eclipsing any one particular encounter with it. But I’ve never forgotten that exchange just before my first viewing of it.
I write this essay after two weeks of social distancing, on a Friday after a week that saw layoffs and furloughs decimate many of the institutions that define New York film culture—the Museum of the Moving Image, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Film at Lincoln Center (forever a Society in my heart). Right now, the human toll of this crisis is hitting me hard. These institutions are more than touchstones for cinephiles like myself; they are also employers for programmers, marketing professionals, box office staff, security guards, projectionists, and others who have been my friends and colleagues for nearly two decades. The costs to people I know, admire, and care about weigh heavily.
In every corner of the city and around the country, movie theaters sit in the dark right now, with no light from the booth to illuminate their screens. When film lovers write the stories of their moviegoing lives, they often focus on the movies themselves and, sometimes, the audiences. I do the same. I’ll never forget exiting a theater on a brisk October night in San Francisco, my hands trembling after first seeing Mulholland Dr., or the sublime exhilaration I had driving back to my parents’ house from the Downer Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, after watching Before Sunset on a beautiful summer night. The movies are the story, of course. And yet, these are experiences that are embedded in specific places: cities, neighborhoods, theaters.
My life as a moviegoer began at the now defunct Southtown Cinema 4 on Highway 100 in West Allis, Wisconsin. Now a strip mall, this modest suburban multiplex is where my late grandmother took me and my sister to see the abominable 1991 Chevy Chase and Demi Moore vehicle Nothing but Trouble—the first time I recall seeing a movie I knew was objectively bad. It’s where my mother took us to see Beaches against her better judgment, because my sister and I insisted, having convinced ourselves we were in for a delightful romp about two mischievous lifelong friends. It’s where my high school friends and I saw Stargate and Crimson Tide and A Time to Kill and a digitally enhanced Star Wars Episode IV—A New Hope.
The Brattle Theater in Cambridge became my next touchtone. As a child and teenager, I pushed up against the cultural limits of my midwestern home, exhausting the artistic possibilities that the Southtown Cinema 4 and my local Blockbuster, with its modest but respectable “Foreign” shelves, had to offer. College gave me a chance to reinvent myself, and my moviegoing habits were central to that reinvention. I discovered cinema as an art form at the Brattle. There, I saw Vertigo, Psycho, and Notorious. I was one of many snarky undergraduates who packed a screening of Written on the Wind, giggling through the film until an indignant older woman yelled, “Stop laughing! It’s not funny.” I fell for Kurosawa, Fellini, and Bergman at the Brattle, like generations of students before me. Seen from the perspective of the Brattle’s history, I was a cliché. I’m fine with that. Over four years, the theater became, for me, a sacred space, a shrine to the seventh art.
After college, I moved to San Francisco for one lonely year, and the stunning Castro Theater became my anchor, a place I felt safe, social, and connected in a city where I was otherwise crushingly isolated and sad. I’ve never had a more glorious moviegoing experience than seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm at the Castro, complete with a “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” overture on the theater’s Wurlitzer, and I’ve never felt a purer joy at the movies than watching Funny Girl there, surrounded by fellow gays who taught me, for the first time, why I should love Barbra Streisand. If the city greeted me with cold indifference, the Castro seemed to envelope me in a warmth that gave me more comfort than I can properly describe.
When I moved to New York City in 2002, I discovered, for the first time, a true home for myself, and the city’s cinematic treasures came to define my adult life. I had my second date with my future husband at Film Forum. I sat through my first Hou Hsiao-hsien film on one of Anthology Film Archives’ famously uncomfortable seats. (The screening was interrupted when the projector blew a bulb at a reel change.) I had seen my first Terence Davies film, The House of Mirth, at the Paris, while visiting during college; I saw my second—The Long Day Closes—in the mid-aughts at the MoMA. I endured Shoah in a single day at BAM, and I’m a better person for it.
Now, these places sit alone in the dark. The Brattle, the Castro, and New York City’s great repertory screens, including its two crown jewels, Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater and the Sumner Redstone Theater at Museum of the Moving Image. Right now, they’re just empty rooms, but they are also the settings for some of my life’s most profound, moving, and transformative artistic experiences.
I saw Sunrise a second time in 2003, three years after my first viewing at the HFA. At that point a New Yorker living in Brooklyn, I took my first trek to Astoria, Queens, to what was then called the American Museum of the Moving Image for a Saturday matinee of the film in the Riklis Theater. I could never have guessed then that this particular journey, which took over an hour, would become my daily commute for more than a decade. I never imagined that the person who sold me my ticket or the guard who took that ticket on the way into the theater would eventually become my colleagues. Sitting in that audience, I never would have thought that one day I’d be perched on the edge of the stage of the Riklis teaching high school students. I remember that second screening of Sunrise more vividly than the first, perhaps because AMMI’s audience got such a kick out of the drunken pig in the film’s second act. I remember all of us laughing together at Murnau’s delightful depiction of urban mayhem, and the memory brings a smile to my face.
The Riklis is long gone, like the “American” in the Museum’s name. I worked at the Museum throughout its $67M expansion, which saw the demolition of the Riklis and the creation of the Redstone, with its Yves Klein–blue acoustic paneling and signature multi-colored curtain. There’s still a projection booth where the Riklis’s used to sit, though it’s not the Redstone’s. Instead it services the Bartos Screening Room, a 68-seat space we used for our education programs after the Museum’s reopening in 2011. Over a decade after I first visited the Museum for a screening of Sunrise, I would find myself teaching the film to high school students in the Bartos. Introducing the movie, I told them the story of the first time I saw Murnau’s masterpiece, when a teacher of mine said to me, on my way into the theater, “I envy your virgin eyes.”
In Sunrise, the City is a locus of intrigue, danger, and adventure. The film retreats to the comfort and security of family and a country home, but it celebrates the endless possibility offered by the hustle and bustle of the city, with its traffic and restaurants and clubs and bars and mobs of people.
The second to last film I saw this month—before our movie theaters were closed indefinitely—was Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes at BAM, my neighborhood art house theater. Teshigahara’s film is ostensibly about a man from Tokyo who is abducted by villagers in a remote beach town. In another sense, though, it traces the psychological effect of extreme isolation. Teshigahara’s hero has been ripped away from the city and forced into social distance, a hermetic existence in a modest hut where he spends his days alone with a woman who longs for a radio to connect to the wider world. How apt.
I live in our country’s largest city, but right now, I miss the city—the crowds and coffee shops, the traffic and street noise, my office and colleagues, my friends, even the subway. I miss the repertory screen at BAM. And I miss the Redstone. I worry about them, as well as the Walter Reade, the Castro, and the Brattle. It probably sounds silly, in the middle of a pandemic that is costing people’s lives and livelihoods, for me to admit that I spend any emotional energy worrying about movie theaters. When I think about what they’ve given me, though, and how they’ve defined my life, my heart swells.
I wish I could thank them, but they’re just empty rooms.