Smarts Behind the Silver Screen


Now you see it, now you don't.

Magicians have customarily spoken that phrase, but it applies equally well to the magic of motion pictures. When we watch a movie, we're seeing a series of still images - 24 every second - separated from each other by moments of total darkness. Now you see it, now you don't, then you do again.

Given this, it's appropriate that a major installation at the freshly renovated American Museum of the Moving Image (AMMI) is a sculpture by Robert Breer, a renowned filmmaker who's also a wizard at traditional art forms. At first glance, it's just a vertical column with asymmetrical markings scattered across its surface. But flip the switch that sets it rapidly whirling around, and those quirky hieroglyphs blend into the crystal-clear shape of a familiar phrase: "Now You See It...."

This could be the motto for "Behind the Screen," a wide-ranging exhibition that has drawn visitors to AMMI since 1988 and should prove more popular than ever in its newly expanded and redesigned form.

Devoted to every aspect of moving-image creativity, from silent movies to digital technology, it features about 600 artifacts. These trace the histories of cinema and TV while pointing toward future developments never dreamed of in the days when W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers practiced their art in AMMI's distinguished old building. The structure was built in 1920 as an East Coast facility for what later became Paramount Pictures.

In the past couple of decades, one of the biggest changes in moving-image entertainment has been a shift from pure spectatorship - with audiences gazing at a screen they can't control - to the hands-on interaction allowed by videocassettes, CD-ROM discs, and other developments in visual technology.

True to this trend, AMMI has given a hands-on dimension to several of its most compelling attractions, letting visitors design a video flipbook, sample film music through a Soundtrack Jukebox, and use a Moving Image Jobs Database to check the show-biz employment market.

Some of these displays emphasize mere amusement, while others, like the jobs database, have real utility. Among the most illuminating are those that enhance understanding of the processes that produce film and TV entertainments. One such exhibit is an Automated Dialogue Replacement station, where museumgoers can dub their own voices into familiar movie sequences - matching their rendition of "You talkin' to me?'' to Robert De Niro's lip movements in "Taxi Driver," for instance - and hear the results instantly.

This is great fun, but it also calls attention to the artificial means by which screen stories (and movie-star personas) are constructed. Equally instructive is a display on Panning and Scanning, which lets visitors alter a rectangular wide-screen image to fit a square TV-type screen. Have you ever noticed how most TV transmissions and home-video cassettes chop off the edges of the wide-screen pictures they show? This exhibit makes moviegoers more aware of the process - and perhaps more critical, as well.

Other displays are less interactive but similarly engrossing. An array of photographic devices takes viewers from an 1867 zoetrope to cameras and projectors that advanced cinema's effectiveness and popularity over the next 100 years. People with an analytical eye can study an editing breakdown of Angie Dickenson's museum sequence in "Dressed to Kill." Aficionados of set design can scrutinize a model skyscraper from "Blade Runner" and a full-size set from "The David Letterman Show." History buffs can see how "matte painting" contributed to a memorable moment in "The Age of Innocence." Costume fans can study the duds that transformed Robin Williams into Mrs. Doubtfire.

Among other attractions are three video minitheaters, commissioned works by such artists as Red Grooms and Gregory Barsamian, and neatly arranged conglomerations of everything from fan magazines and movie-star dolls to theater programs and (no fooling) lunchboxes with Hollywood themes.

Add an excellent track record of adventurous film programming in AMMI's well-designed theater, and you have a still-young institution that clearly has a long, productive, and delightfully entertaining future in store for itself and its growing number of admirers.

Located in the Astoria district of Queens in New York City, the American Museum of the Moving Image is part of the Kaufman Astoria studio complex, owned by the City of New York and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

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