I worked as a student projectionist in the late nineties. I was not particularly good at the job. My professor P. Adams Sitney had recommended me for the position because I was interested in film and had taken his class, and I ran the screenings for his course on postwar international cinema. Most of these were on 16mm, pulled from the university’s collection, though occasionally I would show films on VHS or LaserDisc. I would unlock the theater, turn on the lights, thread and switch on the projectors, rewind the film, and if all went well, I wouldn’t talk to a single person the whole time.
The work was straightforward, but I lacked experience, and it sometimes showed. On the night I screened Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, nothing seemed out of place. Midway through the third reel, I heard a knock on the door of the booth. Often Professor Sitney would call at some point during the screening to see how everything was going, but that night he showed up in person. He was remarkably calm telling me I’d inadvertently swapped the second and third reels. I was embarrassed, not least because I’d seen the film the previous term, and I apparently didn’t remember it well enough to know that Orpheus lingers a while longer in a Left Bank café before descending into the underworld. We stopped the film—it was too late to start over—and Professor Sitney stepped into the theater to announce that we’d conclude with the fourth and final reel. I was still in the booth, and through the window caught a few dirty looks from students who’d turned around to glare at me. On another occasion I learned about Cinemascope the hard way, having projected a third of Pierrot le fou before realizing that 1) anything was wrong; 2) a special lens existed to stretch out the image; and 3) it was my job to flip that lens into place.
My first encounters with Pickpocket, Breaking the Waves, Ordet, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles happened from behind that small glass window. These are hazy impressions. It’s hard to pay attention to a film while projecting it, because much of the time you’re looking directly at the film, threading or rewinding it, adjusting sound levels, or trying not to blink as you wait for the cigarette burn to appear so you can make the switch to the reel on the other projector. Focusing the film can take all your attention, especially when dealing with a warped print or an image that rarely stays put, as in the case of Stan Brakhage’s hand-painted films. Whenever I attend a projection of a print, I still cringe when someone in the audience shouts “focus,” because they don’t understand the way prints harden and buckle when they age, or how the constant toggling of focus means the projectionist is hard at work. But usually the projectionist can’t hear that person anyway.
A year after I started, the Bell and Howell projectors we used were replaced by large industrial projectors sourced from the U.S. Navy by a man named James Bond. Bond is a legend among projection system designers, though I didn’t know it at the time. But for years afterward, I would encounter his meticulous handiwork when I attended screenings at the REDCAT in Los Angeles, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Gene Siskel Film Center, and others. The 16mm projectors he brought to the James M. Stewart Theater were as big as the 35mm projectors, and just as powerful. Each had its own vent, and unlike the weak lights of the previous classroom model projectors, the Xenon bulbs in the new projectors could burn through film. This both terrified and enthralled me. Fire seemed the surest way to destroy a print (granted, this was not nitrate, so there was no danger of burning down the theater), but I also secretly longed to see an image inflamed onscreen. Of all the films I projected, this only happened once. On the night I showed Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a section of the film caught in the gate, sputtered to a stop, and began to bubble and melt. Though the film was black and white, the image we saw was a rich amber rippling around the white hole growing in the middle of the screen. The images stood frozen, but the film kept curdling, as if all the motion had migrated to the film itself. In the end, the damage wasn’t all that bad: just a few ruined frames, no more than a fraction of a second. I still have that filmstrip with Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur standing beside each other, a golden-edged void opened between them.
For 35mm films, the union projectionists were brought in. They didn’t have much use for me, though when Francesco Rosi came to show his 1998 film The Truce, based on Primo Levi’s journey home following the liberation of Auschwitz, I was given the task of pinning a microphone to the director’s lapel. The union projectionists also worked the night Nathaniel Dorsky delivered the first version of what was to become Devotional Cinema, and when Robert Beavers showed a selection of his very pristine and precisely edited experimental films. I’d heard how exacting these filmmakers could be about the projection of their films, and on those nights I was happier to be a student in the audience and to forget entirely about what was happening in the booth.
It is impossible to show a film without ruining it a little. Even under the best conditions, the projection of a film will result in the accumulation of tiny scratches and dust, and sometimes a perfectly calibrated machine will chew up a jumpy print. Films aren’t just flickering images we see on a screen but objects that can and will get worn down. When left untouched in a vault, films are still vulnerable to heat, moisture, and the fading that comes with age. (Archivists have yet to agree on how best to preserve film, acknowledging the limitations of acetate stocks, as well as digital formats that are themselves prone to crashes and sudden disappearance. Where it concerns the longevity of film, there is no secure medium.) The act of watching a film, then, is indirectly tied to its slow but sure decomposition. Projectionists are well aware of this, and they seek to prolong the inevitable. Part of reckoning with the medium is knowing that it won’t last.
When I was a projectionist, I came to know how fragile film is, how liable it is to break or burn, and how easy it was to miss a cue mark. I didn’t realize that, fifteen years later, film would have vanished from most theaters (save those dedicated to showing on original format), replaced by DCP projection and movies made entirely with software. For me, learning about film was very much about handling it. I could hold up a filmstrip to a light and peer through it. I could bend and bounce it. Under a loupe, I could study the seams of previous repairs and observe the long life of a print. There are undoubtedly many advantages to digital cinema, and these are probably numerous enough to outweigh the losses. But because I know what came before, I will always feel the losses, too. Film technology is always changing, of course—people were probably making similar complaints when electric motors replaced hand-cranked projectors in the early twentieth century. But in most places around the world, going to the movies just doesn’t mean what it used to. I’ll still turn around to look for someone in the booth, even if it’s increasingly likely that no one’s there.
As part of my job, I was given the keys to the theater. I would sometimes go in late at night, put on a movie, and watch it by myself. This was somewhat risky; I hadn’t been explicitly told I couldn’t do this, but I didn’t want to get caught, either. One night, the theater door opened while I was watching Jonas Mekas’s Lost Lost Lost, and I froze. A janitor came in with a stern look. He asked what I was doing. I told him I was watching the film because I was writing a paper about it. He looked at the screen, then back at me. He asked what I was watching. I explained that Mekas was a displaced person as a result of the war, and that he had used the camera like a diary, recording little moments of his new life after emigrating to New York City in the late forties. The janitor sat down a few seats away from me, and one row behind. For several minutes we watched in silence. Mekas enjoying dinner with friends. Lithuanian immigrants gathered in a Williamsburg square. Snow falling quietly outside a downtown Manhattan window. Then he stood up. “Enjoy your movie,” he said, and left.
Genevieve Yue is an assistant professor of Culture and Media at Eugene Lang College, The New School. Her essays and criticism have appeared in October, Grey Room, Reverse Shot, Film Comment, and Film Quarterly.
Photo by Carolyn Funk