Carlos Müller

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Rooftop Projectionist

As a child I felt a great attraction to film, which intensified when I was 15 or 16 years old. I had no doubt that it was the most complete art and the most powerful means of expression. While in high school I started studying scriptwriting, the only film-related topic one could study in the mid-1990s in my city, Mar del Plata. I began to watch a lot of films, to work on small video productions, to take photography courses and to write scripts until I moved to Buenos Aires to study film at ENERC, a well-known film school there.

I quickly learned the difference between film and video. My interests leaned towards everything that involved film formats. For many years I frequented film archives and film societies where films were shown in 16mm, 8mm, 9.5mm and 35mm. The format most commonly associated with film societies is 16mm, because a 16mm projector gives a good image and can be moved about easily. A 16mm projector can be placed in the same room as the audience and still let them hear what is said in the film. The projector and the audience thus co-exist in the same room. Although technically the sound of the projector ‘muddies’ the sound of the film, for many film society regulars this is far from a drawback but rather one more reason to prefer watching films on film. The sound of the projector is an important part of the ambience of a film screening.

My first projector was a 1930s Kodak. It was hard to thread and you had to keep your finger firmly in the loop so the film didn’t break. This was not a particularly practical method, and not very good for the German expressionist films I was watching back then. In many cases the films had been spliced back together many times and were decades old. I needed a new projector, so I decided to buy a Bell & Howell 2592, the projector I still use today after seven years of intense use.

For the first two or three seasons the film society I founded, Cineclub Dynamo, was a good excuse to see 16mm films in the company of others and to talk about film. We met in the living room of my home, and there would be five or six people. Once I even screened Flaherty and Murnau’s Tabu for a single viewer, who arrived an hour late. I was glad when they arrived; the screening would not be cancelled. The small audiences didn’t get me down; it was better than watching films alone, and what I liked best, by far, was being the projectionist at these shows.

By the third year we had some regulars: film students, theatre actors, older people and all kinds of film buffs. I began to pay more attention to programming and getting the word out. There soon came series of film noir, poetic realism, the New Wave, New German Cinema and experimental film. And series devoted to directors such as Lang, Renoir, Bresson, Truffaut, Buñuel, Herzog and Fassbinder, which let us increase the frequency of our screenings and brought in more people. Many young film students started coming to the film society then and are still coming today.

For the past four years our film society has also been projecting silent classics on the walls of large buildings in the city. We have to find an appropriate wall and a place from which to project the film, which can be an apartment, a terrace or a rooftop. News travels by word of mouth and the audience at these screenings is always very enthusiastic. The fact that we don’t charge admission, and people’s custom of bringing food and drink to share after the show, contributes to the film-lovers atmosphere of the group. When it’s over everyone leaves a donation to help cover our costs.

Buenos Aires is an appropriate city for this kind of undertaking; the city’s cultural life is astonishing. The first film society was founded here in 1929 and today, more than 80 years later, there are at least seven film societies projecting film, in addition to the many art house or repertory cinemas which regularly show 16 and 35mm films. Buenos Aires is a city of film buffs. Once, a few years ago, a homeless person showed up to a screening. He arrived with his bags of belongings and sat near the projector. After the film I spoke with him about French crime films and a German version of Hamlet with the great Danish actress Asta Nielsen. I realised that this homeless person had seen a lot of films at some point in his life. He loves to talk about film and it’s comforting to know that a person in his situation can find in our film society a place to get away from the reality of the street for a few hours. There are also a lot of older people who come on their own and find an opportunity in the discussion after the film to express themselves.

I’m not nostalgic as film naturally retreats in the face of other formats. That the cinema is regressing is an undeniable fact. But there is no hurry in declaring its death. Perhaps something will happen like happened with vinyl records: whereas a decade ago no group was releasing their records on vinyl, today those records have pride of place in the record shops. This has brought turntables and old records back in popularity. Cinema on film, like music on vinyl, is something concrete and material. In an age that is saturated with digital information, material objects are becoming valued and esteemed again. Today there are festivals devoted to showing film on film and the Internet has excellent forums where you can consult films, learn about restoration techniques and buy and sell films. Over the past five years the number of film screenings has grown considerably in Buenos Aires film societies. This shows that film on film is still alive. Students have a great interest in anything to do with film: making short films with movie cameras and seeing films on film. In Buenos Aires at least, it would seem that there will be films shown on film for decades to come.

June 2012
© copyright caboose 2012

Carlos Müller was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina, where he lived for twenty years and where the largest film festival in Argentina and perhaps all of South America is held. He began studying scriptwriting at the age of 17 and soon afterwards moved to Buenos Aires with a fellowship from a well-known film school there. At the age of 24 he began giving classes on film language at the United Nations library in Mar del Plata. As a filmmaker he has made seven short films in 16mm and several more on video. He also worked for eight years making videos for a number of businesses, sometimes also doing the camerawork and editing. In 2004 he founded the Cineclub Dynamo, which initially showed films in Mar del Plata and Buenos Aires. Today he is responsible for this film society’s programming and projection and for introducing the films. For the past three years the Cineclub Dynamo has been meeting at the “La Libre” bookstore, specialising in art and literature.

Showing films at night from buildings lets me see a hidden and intimate part of Buenos Aires, that of its rooftops.
Summer in Buenos Aires. Heat and humidity. Film and beer.
Wim Wenders’ short film 3 American LPs. The American desert on the wall of a Buenos Aires building.

Have you ever seen a video projector cast such an intense light without illuminating the whole room?