Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
seen @ Trinity Church at Wall Street, New York NY
10.29.10

Trinity Church is this great big church down in lower Manhattan that dates all the way back to the 17th century. It's got quite a history. Though not a believer, I've always been fascinated by the architecture of churches and cathedrals ever since studying them in my high school art history class. In college, I took photography, and one of the very first places I went to take pictures was St. John's Cathedral. I think it's the general design of a church that interests me: the vaulted ceiling, the flying buttresses, the stained glass windows, the sculptures. Obviously not all churches are built the same, but the classical looking ones, the ones that have stood the test of time all over the world, those are always great to look at and admire.

So it was with a very secular feeling of awe that I came to Trinity last night for a screening of the silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. A small vestibule leads to a long, spacious nave, overlooked by a high, vaulted ceiling. The movie screen at the front blocked the altar, and candelabras flanked its sides. High above, a backlit carving of Jesus (presumably) shines from the rear wall. A giant organ stands stage right from the movie screen. The pews line up on either side of the center aisle, kind of like box seats at a stadium, with giant pillars like oak trees at intervals. Within each pew was a slanted desk-like surface with a nook underneath containing prayer books, hymnals, and of course, bibles. Maybe this all sounds like standard accoutrements for a big-city Catholic church, but I'm not Catholic, so seeing all of this was a rather exotic and unusual experience for me.


There were some concessions to modern times, however. Spotlights and video screens were mounted on the pillars. The latter were tied into the main screen, so they'd also show the film, but they were wide, and as a result the aspect ratio of the original film was distorted significantly. The picture on the rectangular video screens was flat in comparison to the more square-like main screen that showed the film in its original dimensions. Fortunately, I had a good view of the main screen and didn't need to rely on the video screens. (Well, actually, the guy in front of me was pretty tall, so I had to lean a little bit to the right, but not much.)

The screening of Caligari was part of a family-friendly Halloween party the church was throwing that afternoon. Before I entered, I caught sight of a play area for the kiddies with what looked like some kind of "spooky" jungle gym. I also saw a photo booth, which I found odd.

The pews were more comfortable than I thought they'd be. That's because they had cushions. I really thought I'd have to sit on the hard wooden benches. (At least I didn't have to kneel.) It was a large crowd. I had to sit towards the back after not finding anything closer to the front, and I obviously didn't want a view obstructed by a pillar.

A lady preacher introduced the organist after some obligatory announcements about upcoming events. I gotta say - this guy was amazing. The organists at the Loews Jersey City theater are always entertaining in an old-school Hollywood kind of way, but you could tell this guy was used to playing in a church. It didn't hurt that the acoustics here were stronger. From the opening chords, I swear it was almost as if my heart skipped a beat and my teeth rattled. That's how powerful the music was. I was sleepy last night and I occasionally nodded off, but sooner or later, another power chord would jolt me awake again!


I'd only seen Caligari one other time, back in my film history class in college, so I didn't remember much. Unlike Nosferatu, there's fewer dark, moody shadows and more weird, unusual set design. This didn't strike me as a horror movie so much as a psychological suspense movie, kind of like Hitchcock's Spellbound or even recent fare like Memento. It hints at the supernatural, but it has more to do with madness and obsession.

The Trinity Church was an inspired choice of venue to watch a silent German expressionist film - by candlelight, no less! I have no idea how often they show movies there, but I certainly wouldn't object to returning for another one - especially if it means hearing that organ again!

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Previously in Halloween Week 2010:
Nosferatu
Young Frankenstein
The Phantom of the Opera

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