Wednesday, July 16, 2014

On Projectionists: A Look Back at Cinema's Portrayal of a Lost Art

The first time I laid my hands upon a movie projector (other than my parents eponymous super 8 projector as a kid back in the seventies) was the Summer of 1990. I was a few weeks shy of birthday number 23, and had just started a job at a local theater called the Eric Twin (a company long out of business now, its building demolished to make way for a PetSmart). At first I worked the concession stand, but shortly I was being trained on how to run the cinema's projectors (for those in the know, we still had to change over reels in those days). Cut to nearly twenty years later and yours truly, along with his lovely wife, found himself running Harrisburg's very own Midtown Cinema for nearly five years, and once again (at least until we left that world a year ago), I had my hands on a movie projector. Sadly, those days are gone now, as the digital age is now upon us, and the art of film projection is now an almost completely dead art form. Now you just push a few buttons or click a mouse, and viola, the movie begins. No threading, no rewinding, no platters, emulsion, nor that wonderful clicking sound of an aperture opening and closing 24 times per second. No Maltese Cross or Latham Loop. A sad sad world indeed. Anyway, as I obviously have a certain affinity for the profession of movie projectionist, and being one of the last generation of people who will actually ever have such knowledge, it got me to thinking on how the projectionist is portrayed on film. Granted, it was a stretch to find such a profession portrayed on film, or at least portrayed prominently, but find them I did. Let's look at these noble knights of the darkened cinema, shall we?

First up, chronologically speaking, is Buster Keaton in the 1924 silent classic, Sherlock Jr. He would play the offshoot of a cameraman four years later (in the appropriately titled The Cameraman), but here he was the projectionist. Playing a typically hapless Keaton character, the silent clown and comic genius is an unnamed movie projectionist (a precursor to Eastwood's Man-with-no-Name perhaps) who dreams of being a famous detective a la Sherlock Holmes. Keaton's projectionist, a poor schlep with the proverbial heart of gold but also with a conniving streak, dreams not only of a detecting prowess (as well as the inevitable pretty girl) but also of being part of the films that he is showing. Falling asleep and dreaming himself into the movies, Keaton's projectionist certainly has the love of movies (and Keaton the director an innate ability to create some of the best gags in silent film history) even if his ability to work without falling asleep (something a projectionist in those days could never do since he or she had to change reels manually) leaves a bit to be desired.

Next up we have Salvatore in the 1988 Italian romantic nostalgia piece Cinema Paradiso. Played by Philippe Noiret, Alfredo is the projectionist at the title cinema in Giancaldo, Sicily (a small village similar to director Giuseppe Tornatore's own hometown) who begrudgingly at first, becomes a father figure to a young boy named Salvatore, or Toto as he is called, and helps the boy learn the ways of life. After a fire at the cinema (oh that darned flammable old nitrate film stock!), Alfredo is blinded, and once the cinema is rebuilt, Toto takes the old man's place as projectionist. A heartwarming, but far from trite (as heartwarming often plays out in motion pictures) film, Cinema Paradiso is a film that only a true lover of cinema, a cinephile if you will, could make. Its success helped put the Italian cinema industry back on the map. The best scene, of course, comes at the end. After years of being made to cut kissing and other sexually provocative scenes out of the films that played at the Paradiso (oh those darned small village priests!), a grown Salvatore, now a famous film director himself, is shown a reel of all these spliced kissing scenes.  As the projectionist starts the reel, all those old thoughts of his childhood and of Alfredo come flooding back to him. Not to sound too sentimentalist of me, but this may well be one of the most emotional scenes I have ever seen on film.

Another interesting look at movie projectionists on film is found in a movie that is not actually about a movie projectionist, but just seen as a small subplot of a much larger and much more convoluted plot line. The film is Fight Club and the projectionist is Tyler Durden. Played by Brad Pitt (one of the actor's best roles), the somewhat batshitcrazy Durden, when he isn't out making fat soap or forming secret underground fight clubs (we are not supposed to talk about this though), works as a movie projectionist. Durden's favourite projection habit (other than breaking the fourth wall and telling the audience about those cigarette burns in the corners of the frames) is splicing frames of pornographic images into family films. Fleshy, bulging subliminal images bounce across the screen as children cry and parents look around anxiously, never quite sure of what they just saw.  Before the age of digital projection (a thing that will sadly bring the age of film to an end in a few years) this was a rather popular prank pulled by many an animator, including those oh so wholesome guys over at Disney Studios. Now as a former projectionist myself, I have never done such a thing (or at the very least I refuse to admit it in such a public forum) but I will fully admit to having licked both Blue Velvet and Godard's Breathless before projecting them. Yeah, you read that right - I licked 'em, and I'm proud of it. I'd do it again if the opportunity ever were to present itself.

Now there have been other movie projectionists that are more implied than actually seen, such as the projectionists in Singin' in the RainSunset Blvd. and Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo. We also get to see Stooge Shemp Howard as a somewhat crazed projectionist in the little known but highly entertaining H.C. Potter film, Hellzapoppin'. Other projectionist appearances can be seen in the Spanish film Spirit of the Beehive, the Taiwanese film Goodbye Dragon Inn, as well as in such a diverse array of films like The Muppet MovieThe BlobNight of the CometKings of the RoadGremlinsThe TinglerThe Last Action HeroThe Shawshank RedemptionThe Majestic and Phantom of Paradise. Of course then there is the 1971 film The Projectionist. A sort of retake on the aforementioned Keaton film, with Chuck McCann as the projectionist who dreams of his life as the superheroes he sees portrayed on screen.  The most interesting of these other projectionist is the one portrayed in Peter Bogdanovich's feature debut, Targets.  The story of a sniper who is offing people at random, the showcase finale of the film takes place at a drive-in theater. Bogdanovich cast real life drive-in projectionist Byron Betz as the film's projectionist. To not spoil things too much, let's just say things do not end well for the screen version of poor Mr. Betz.

But after all these other great movie projectionists, the one that tops my list is Shosanna Dreyfus, as played by Melanie Laurent in Quentin Tarantino's audacious masterpiece Inglourious Basterds. Now anyone knowing me and my obsession with everything Tarantino should not be too surprised at Shosanna being my favourite. When I first saw QT's 2009 masterpiece in the theater (the first of three times that week!) I instantly fell in love with the character of Shosanna Dreyfus, but then who wouldn't. A Jewish survivor hiding out from the Nazi's right under their very noses, Shosanna, going by the name of Emmanuelle Mimieux, runs a cinema in Occupied Paris and takes it upon herself (and her lover and co-projectionist Marcel Ido) to help put an end to World War II by setting her cinema ablaze (oh those darn flammable nitrate prints again!) with Hitler, Goebbels and many other high ranking Nazis (including Oscar winning German actor and Nazi sympathizer Emil Jannings) trapped inside. This penultimate set piece (including, *Spoiler Alert, Duh*, Shosanna's death) is the highlight of an already filled to the brim motion picture event as only Quentin Tarantino can make. And, with Tarantino being Tarantino, there should be no surprise that he glorifies the art of film projection, as lovingly as one would expect the rabid old school cinephile to do.

Well that's about it for movie projectionists on film. Even as the digital age of cinema has finally hit the movie theater, and the era of movie projectionists, as we know it, will forever be dead (except of course in the revival houses of America, but even they will succumb someday), the noble profession of projectionist will still be able to be seen up there on the big screen. The format may change (I don't want to get all maudlin and start decrying the death of cinema, for that will not happen) but the projectionist, hidden away in the dark (perhaps even licking a print or two), will always be there somewhere, either in the aforementioned films or in new ones yet to be made. Now before I start crying for the inevitable loss of such a great institution as the movie projectionist, a job I did and loved doing for seven years of my life (much preferring my time in the dark dusty projection booth, to being out among the actual moviegoers), I should just end this post right now. So, take care, and always remember, even if it's only up there on the screen, there is someone in the dark, making all your cinematic fantasies come true. That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.


  1. I love watching videotapes or DVDs, and seeing those little marks signifying a reel change on the original film. Shame to see such things relegated to the land of the lost.

    Btw, you may want to check out a very strange "best of" list on my blog...

  2. How I enjoyed the burning and end to all those nazi sob's in Inglorious Basterds. I never did have the ability to run a cinema house so you are one I envy you that you had that ability to do that. Cinema Paradiso is a great film and one I also love is Hugo. Aside from wanting to sit down with Quentin Tarantino and talk about film, I would love to sit and talk film with Martin Scorsese...oh well

  3. I loved that dark projection booth at your old cinema. I remember all of us watching those late night movies there too. Those were fun times.