Some of my movie theater experiences far eclipse the movies themselves. My opinion of “Avengers: Endgame” was certainly better on opening day, surrounded by screaming fans, than it is now that the dust has settled over three years later. Sometimes the scale and spectacle of a film is uniquely suited for a theater environment — look at the visually and sonically breathtaking “Interstellar,” for example.
In the case of “A Page of Madness,” I felt that the experience I had at the Michigan Theater was the most enjoyable way that I could have watched the film. The almost 100-year-old Japanese silent horror film is a tale of a man (Masao Inoue, debut) and his wife (Yoshie Nakagawa, “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum”), who is locked in an asylum. For me, few things sound less accessible than a “100-year-old Japanese silent film.” I’ve seen some unconventional and daring movies before, but this film seemed especially daunting.
What piqued my interest initially was the live music that was going to play as the film’s soundtrack. I had not heard of the local group, Little Bang Theory, before the screening, but now I would happily go to any of their shows.
The group consists of three members who switch between various percussive instruments and unconventional melodic instruments, such as the xylophone and some kind of synthetic mini-saxophone. The music started off ambient, with some sinister motifs that were just uncomfortable enough to get me on edge while keeping me generally calm. As the events of the film got progressively more intense and more uncomfortable, the music increased its volume and ferocity, causing my own engagement and excitement to heighten.
The emotions of descending into insanity and the setup of the man and his institutionalized wife came through, but the film’s story beyond that was tough to understand. This is not necessarily negative. The lack of spoken dialogue combined with strange, continuity-breaking editing created a narrative that was incomprehensible in the literal sense, but engaging in the primal sense. This kept me on a consistent emotional wavelength for the entire runtime.
The members of the audience who spoke Japanese must have had a clearer understanding of the literal plot, as the other special aspect of this viewing experience was the presence of a “benshi” — a traditional Japanese narrator of silent cinema. While I couldn’t understand what she was saying, her presence and energy on stage greatly improved the experience, just like the music had.
I’m not sure how I would have felt about this movie if I had watched it in another context. It was as incomprehensible as I expected, which could have frustrated me if the narrator and music had not provided such an overwhelming, absorbing experience. The presence of these aspects eliminated my reservations about the lack of continuity and my attachments to reality — attachments that would have turned into annoyances and questions had I watched the film alone in my bedroom.
If there is a case to be made for the necessity of movie theaters and the “theater experience,” creative, unique events like this screening for “A Page of Madness” should be cited as examples of how the movie theater can elevate films. It creates an irreproducible experience of art across many senses and moods. I don’t think I will ever forget my viewing of “A Page of Madness.” I certainly might have if I watched it any other way.
Daily Arts Writer Alvin Anand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.