I’d seen celluloid film burn in a projector before, but the print of Werner Herzog’s How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck at The Charles Theater in Baltimore appeared to be dripping out of the projector and slipping off the screen. The livestock auctioneers in the documentary started out looking like run of the mill humans, then after a few seconds their faces and 40-gallon hats would swell and boil. Watching their sagging skin melt away, I immediately recalled the dissolving gestapo agent in Raiders of the Lost Ark and the doubly unlucky RoboCop villain who gets dunked in acid and mowed down by a car. If a shot was held for any length of time the people onscreen would liquefy and begin phantasmagorically floating around the frame like loose-limbed figures in a Marc Chagall painting. The bizarreness of it all was made way more extreme by the hallucinatory glossolalia of bewildering bid calls on the soundtrack. It may not seem like it from my description of things, but I was 100% sober, and completely enraptured by the horrid beauty erupting in front of me. Without question I knew that I was experiencing one of the most sublime moments of my life.
I sat gawking at the carnage alongside the theater manager, whose initial annoyance quickly blossomed into full-blown panic. He probably figured that it would take the projectionist a few seconds to fix the mistake; instead, things just grew increasingly severe and surreal. Snapping out of his stupor, he hightailed it out of the theater and catapulted upstairs to the projection booth. I trailed right behind, eager to eyeball the catastrophe. We found the flummoxed projectionist standing at a very safe distance from the projector, which he glared at as if it were haunted, kind of like Don Knotts in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. The poor guy couldn’t explain what was going wrong or why. Furthermore, he refused to turn off the machine for fear of what might transpire next. A few equally perplexed, weirdly quiet employees gathered alongside us. Peering out from the projection port window, I could see that no one in the theater was watching the movie anymore. The entire audience had turned around in their seats and were now gazing up at the booth.
After the movie ended, the reel was warily removed from the projector. Everyone assembled around a rewind bench to check out the damage. The manager suggested that the mishap could have been caused by an excessively hot projector bulb, although he was quickly overruled by the projectionist who pointed out that nothing had gone wrong during the earlier show. Winding through the print, it definitely appeared as if the film was sweating. The emulsion had almost completely loosened from the base, which is a bit like the words falling off a page of the newspaper. Usually a film breaks and burns when it gets jammed in a projector or overheats, but that didn’t happen with this one: it had managed to do the impossible.
I was always a crap science student, yet it would seem that the laws of physics should have prevented the print from ever making it through a projector in the first place. A lot of older films were made on acetate motion picture stock, a material susceptible to various hazards, the most notable one being a malady called vinegar syndrome. Named for its noxious odor, this chemical reaction causes a print to lose color, physically shrink and become brittle. Rarely does it transform a film into a semi-solid, jello-like substance. For some reason the projectionist stared right at me, a guy who he’d never met before, when he proclaimed that it was the damnedest thing he’d ever come across in all his years on the job. He really spooked me. When I saw Jaws for the first time a few years later, Robert Shaw’s monologue about shark eyes took me right back to that projectionist’s troubled gaze.
While it sounds preposterous, in retrospect I realize that this fucked-up screening was a pivotal turning point in my life. My curiosity about that possessed print set me down the path towards becoming a professional film preservationist. I’d already dealt with my fair share of projection problems as a cinephilic pre-teen Super 8 filmmaker. No one taught me how to use a projector, so I figured it out through trial and mostly error. Still, up until that demented evening I doubt that I’d ever thought about the mechanics and principles of the cinematic experience. I was so fascinated by the whole process of making movies that I never considered how we come to view them. As a child of the home entertainment era, I didn’t necessarily differentiate between watching a film on TV or VHS or viewing it in a theater. All I cared about was being able to see the movie that I wanted to see. It was only after becoming immersed in New York City’s repertory cinema culture during my late teens that I came to really recognize the unrivaled epiphanies that a superb celluloid film print can provide. And it was only after my fateful night in Baltimore that I realized how essential it is that we forever have quality prints available to screen. A great print can open up your eyes, alter how you see, and possibly change your life. Then again, as I discovered, so can a bad one.
Andrew Lampert is an artist who makes and regularly exhibits a variety of moving images, performances, photos and words. He is also a trained film archivist who preserved hundreds of films during his tenure as Curator of Collections at Anthology Film Archives.