Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Projectionists in movies by Sean Goodrich

Sean Goodrich came up with the recent poll question and he takes over CineRobot for this post about the portrayal of projectionists in various movies:

I’ve been a projectionist for almost 14 years, starting at Tinseltown 17 in Grapevine, TX.  I’ve worked at theaters ranging from 1 to 24 screens, currently I work at The Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz in Austin, TX.
Movies featuring projectionists have always piqued my interest, how accurately do they portray the job?  How good is the projectionist?  Here’s a list of some in order from worst to best, it’s not a ranking of the quality of movie, just the projectionist.
I haven’t seen every movie featuring, so I know I’m missing a few movies.  I have seen The Majestic, but you won’t see it on this list either.  I really hated that movie.
There will be spoilers ahead.  You’ve been warned.
Gremlins--The Gremlins
These guys are projection done wrong.  You must treat film carefully, nicely.  You can’t undamage film.  I’ve done similar things to film, but it was always intentional, like the time I destroyed a trailer for The Majestic.  You can’t do that by accident, but I guess that’s what The Gremlins are all about.  So their gremlin grade is A+, projection, D-, and that’s only because they managed to get an image on screen, in frame and focus.  Unfortunately that’s the last time that print will be played.  Also, the projectionist has a duty to not blow up the movie theater.  At least you have a responsibility to stop the movie, turn on the lights and get a manager to escort the audience out of the theater if you smell gas.
And then there’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Threading the projector that fast is good projection, I can’t even thread that fast.  Letting the bulb shine on the screen without the motor running will really screw up the lens, that’s bad projection, but good gremlining.  But letting an audience member shout at you and tell you how to do your job is both bad projection and gremlining.  I don’t care if it’s Hulk Hogan, there are boundaries, the manager goes up to the booth to yell at you. 
Nick--Last Action Hero
Nick is the kind old projectionist who can’t keep the movie in focus.  He makes friends with little Danny Madigan, and let’s him have a private advanced screening of the new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Jack Slater IV.  But first he gives him a magic ticket that throws him into the movie, and hilarity ensues.
Let’s take this one at a time.
First, an old man makes friends with a boy.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, just a little creepy.  I haven’t done that yet, but The Alamo doesn’t let unaccompanied minors in the theater, so that’s understandable.  I’m also not a creep.
Second, he acts like showing Danny Jack Slater IV is a favor.  When I was first starting out, I used to look down at a sold out theater, and think that somewhere down there, a five year old kid is watching the movie, and he’s mesmerized, enchanted.  In those two hours his life has changed, and he’s taken the first steps towards becoming the next Martin Scorsese.
Nick has been around, I’m sure he’s seen, and projected North By Northwest, Bullitt, The French Connection many times.  If he really wants to be a friend to Danny, he’d show those action classics.  The only reason Danny is going nuts over a crappy sequel to a crappy movie is because he hasn’t seen a good movie.  If Danny continues on the path Nick started for him, he’ll soon become the next Brett Ratner.
Third, if Nick doesn’t give Danny that magic ticket, there’s no reason for Last Action Hero to exist, and I can have my two hours back.
Projectionist--B, shepherd of young minds--D, film’s inciting incident--F 
Tyler Durden--Fight Club
This is kind of where we cross into good projectionist territory.  It’s a little hard to give Tyler a grade.  For one thing, it takes some talent to splice in porn into Kiddie Movies.  But it’s something you shouldn’t do.  You can also be a very talented soap manufacturer, but you shouldn’t use that talent to blow up buildings.
This is the movie people ask me about when they find out I’m a projectionist.  “Have you ever spliced porn in your movies?”  I can answer that question right now, but it may cost The Alamo it’s liquor license, and me my job.
Now, a word about “cigarette burns”.  I had been a projectionist for 3 years when Fight Club opened.  That was the first time I heard that term.  We just called them “Reel Change Dots”, or “Cue Dots”, or just, “The Dots.”  I said “cigarette burn” for a while after that, but it’s just too many syllables.  One year during SXSW, on the phone to a filmmaker, I referred to them about his movie, and he freaked out, “Somebody burned my film with a cigarette?!?!”  Now it’s back to “The Dots”.  I still hear it, usually from newbie projectionists, or people trying to impress me with their projection knowledge.  If you ever mention “cigarette burn” to me, all it really proves to me is you’ve seen Fight Club.
Projectionist--B+, human being--F 
Alfredo--Cinema Paradiso
Here’s another movie where a kindly old projectionist befriends a young boy, only this time he does it right.  Alfredo is not a cinematic ignoramus, and he cultivates Salvatore's love of movies, and sets him on a path of being a pretty good projectionist on his own, and into a successful director.  We know Salvatore is a good filmmaker because he’s Italian. Brett Ratner is not Italian.
Cinema Paradiso is the most accurate movie about being a projectionist.  Yeah, I’ve even played the start of a movie while the end was at another theater.  But we weren’t biking the reels between theaters, so there was no interruption.
Alfredo loses marks for burning down the theater, but not much, because that was always a risk when handling nitrate film.  But I’m not going to dock him points for editing out kissing scenes.  Basically, the projectionist’s only job is to show every frame of film to the audience.  But sometimes management has other ideas.  I’ve been instructed to install dimmer bulbs to save money, remove footage, or insert penises.  I usually put up a fight, explaining how it will hurt presentation, but in the end I do what the people who sign my checks tell me to do.
Alfredo was up against something bigger, the local priest was telling him what to cut out.  It’s one thing to lose your job to protect a movie, but who’s willing to burn in Hell for a few kissing scenes?  Anyway at least he saved them so Salvatore could watch them all at the end and give the audience a tear-jerking ending.
Projectionist--A-. Catholic--A+, fireman--F 
Buster Keaton--Sherlock Jr.
Buster Keaton plays one of my favorite projectionists in one of my favorite movies, period.  I could go on and on about how great this movie is, and how awesome Keaton was.  His Kubrick-like perfectionism in getting the camera tricks just right, or how he did all his own stunts, and actually broke his neck filming this movie, and didn’t know it until years later.  But none of that has to do with film projection.
There isn’t really a lot of projection in the movie.  Keaton just starts a projector, dozes off and the rest of the movie is a dream sequence.  But in the end, that’s all being a projectionist is, start the movie, and be bored for two hours.  Bored is good.  Bored means nothing bad is happening.  You shouldn’t fall asleep though, that’s never good.  I’ve never fallen asleep while on the clock (well, I did once, but it was between shows, and I was REALLY tired).  I’m not going to take away too many points though, because he woke up before the next reel change, so no harm was done.
That’s my favorite kind of mistake, when the audience doesn’t notice it.  I call it the Projectionist’s Curse, you’re only noticed if something goes wrong.  If you play a movie perfectly, people leave the theater talking about the movie, if you screw up, they’ll leave talking about you.  I’ve had to keep a platter, or a reel, spinning by hand for the two hours to keep the movie running.  I’ve also gotten a cramp in my wrist keep a film trap shut because the latch broke.  I’ve had last minute fixes involving rubber bands and masking tape.  But the audience never noticed the problem, and had no idea of the panic that was behind their enjoyment of the movie.
Projectionist--A-, being a better silent comedian than Charlie Chaplin--A+ 
Shosanna--Inglourious Basterds
Buster Keaton was my favorite movie projectionist until August of 2009, when I saw Inglourious Basterds.  This movie proves that you don’t have to be a creepy old guy living in an attic to be a projectionist.  You can be female and hot.
On its face, Shosanna should get an F.  She splices in extra footage, the audience never sees the end, and she burns down the freaking theater.  Normally those are all no nos.  But if I didn’t mind that Quentin Tarantino ended Inglourious Basterds with a bullet-riddled Adolph Hitler, I certainly won’t mind horrible projection in the name of Nazi killing.
She did break one rule that can’t be ignored.  She let Private Zoller, the movie’s star, into the booth.   Actors and filmmakers don’t know how to do my job, but they like to tell me how to do it.  I try to keep them out of the booth, and try to keep my distance.  It makes everyone happier.
Shosanna paid for that mistake with her life, so I won’t penalize her anymore, which is a shame, because she never got to see Hitler’s face when he realized he was about to be killed by a Jew.
I don’t know what I would do in her situation.  They don’t make nitrate film anymore, so if Osama Bin Laden asked me to show his latest propaganda movie for Al Qaeda High Command, I’d have to come up with something a little more blunt.  Projectors are pretty heavy, I could drop one on him, but it wouldn’t kill everybody.  Nope, movie theaters aren’t the death traps they used to be.
Projectionist--A+, Bad Ass Nazi Killer--A+ 
Honorable Mention
The unseen projectionist in Singin’ in the Rain
I feel for this guy.  Big premiere, stars and reporters all over the place, brand new high tech equipment, and he totally screws the pooch.  Sometimes bad things happen to good people.  I’d like to scold him about not being prepared, not knowing the equipment, but I know that’s not all in his control.  The first movie to run through the projectors at the Alamo Ritz wasn’t a test run, it was on opening night, full theater, Quentin Tarantino and other hot shots in attendance.  How that night wasn’t a disaster was a small miracle 
The projectionist from Purple Rose of Cairo
What do you do when a movie character jumps off the screen and runs off with an audience member?  The movie keeps going, but the story grinds to a halt.  The other characters are just sitting around.  You just have to keep the projectors running, until the rogue character returns and the movie can end.  What happens when you turn the projector off, will the lives on the screen be snuffed out, will Jeff Daniels in real life die?  I hope I will never be forced to answer this kind of moral and philosophical question 
Well, that’s about it.  Hopefully you have a better understanding of my job, and the people who work, unseen, to entertain you.
At the very least, I hope you stopping talking about cigarette burns.


Rumblefish said...

Great article. Thank you for finally pointing out the subtleties of "good gremlining." Go Shosanna!

Joshua Blevins Peck said...

It's a nail biter on the poll. I know a couple of people were waiting for Sean's article to base their vote on what he rated each projectionist.

Joshua Blevins Peck said...

I may not have voted for Shosanna but I've put the great image from the post on my desktop. Great poster!

Ms. von Hammerspleen said...

Great post. Gremlining is my new favorite word.

Ryan said...