If you go to a movie, you will most likely see a lot of people facing in the same direction. There’s a reason movie theater seats don’t swivel: the action, the stuff you shell out all that money to see, is happening up on the screen. Why look anywhere else?
But if you caught “Mirror Stage” last night at the Brattle Theater, you might start to wonder if those moviegoers sitting there with their eyes glued to the screen aren’t missing half the show. The screening, part of the ongoing avant-garde film series Balagan, was a compilation of short films that flip the normal geometry of film one hundred eighty degrees around to examine the projector, the camera and the audience itself.
The first film, “Projector Obscura,” was made by running unexposed film through projectors instead of cameras, with ghostly and dreamlike effects: out of a blur of swimming colors, a vision of a movie screen – itself on a movie screen – comes briefly into view before dissolving into white with a hissing noise that suggests the striking of a match.
Several of the other films turned the camera on the audience. The second, “Play,” was a montage of movie clips featuring theater audiences. Orson Welles, Robert de Niro and Cary Grant all rise from their seats for standing ovations. Elizabeth Taylor looks moved by the drama unfolding before her; Paul Newman looks bored. But not once to we catch a glimpse of what they’re watching – the real drama, the film seems to suggest, is in the crowd.
Next came “Ten Minutes Older,” a 1978 film by Bulgarian filmmaker Herz Frank that is nothing more than one unbroken, ten-minute shot of a little boy watching a movie. His face swings wildly from wonder to terror to delight to boredom and back, with music matching his violent spikes of emotion. “Ten Minutes Older” is a perfect illustration of the often-unnoticed drama of spectatorship, and was the inspiration for the screening as a whole.
Balagan, which means “chaos” in Hebrew and “balcony” in Persian, is co-curated by Mariya Nikiforova, Stefan Grabowski and co-founder Jeff Silva, a professor of film at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. It has been running for over a decade.-Nick Cox