If you had happened to attend the December 8, 1929, screening of Fox Movietone Follies (David Butler and Marcel Silver, 1929) at the opening of the Moulin Rouge cinema in Paris, you would certainly remember the raucous audience that surrounded you. If reports are to be believed, you might have been among the patrons outraged by the poorly written French subtitles—“deplorable” French, really. You may have joined others that night or the following weekend in vandalizing chairs and throwing pieces of furniture at the screen, with shouts of “Shut up” or “In French!” But maybe you were there for a romantic rendezvous, in which case the film and the music and the subtitles mattered a lot less than having your evening marred by unhappy, snobbish viewers. Whatever the hypothetical situation, imagining yourself as a willing participant in Parisian film culture from the era of early sound cinema to around 1950 is nearly inevitable while reading Eric Smoodin’s Paris in the Dark: Going to the Movies in the City of Light, 1930–1950.
Slipping into my neighborhood art house one recent afternoon, I wondered how much longer that theater—the Avalon, a nonprofit community film center in Washington, D.C.—would, could continue to exhibit film.