Sarah Halpern

New York, USA

Solar Plexus Cineplex Nexus

The other day I found a very small piece of splicing tape under my eyelid. While tape on my eyeball was a new experience, as a projectionist my body is frequently marked by indications of my trade. My hands are regularly stained black from touching oily machine parts or from dirty film prints. Sometimes I get paper cuts from running the film between my fingers on the rewind bench. Working in a cramped space filled with big metal things, I’ve usually got a bruise somewhere on my body. One time, a projectionist friend broke her toe when she accidentally dropped a 6,000 foot reel on it. Another friend got it in the head as he was bending down under a feed reel he hadn’t properly secured (‘that’s a mistake you don’t make twice’). My boyfriend has a scar on his hand from being burned by the electric flame from a carbon arc projector many years ago. There are stories of exploding bulbs with hot glass shards to the face and singed eyebrows. There are stories that involve the sentence ‘I was trying not to bleed onto the film’. A female projectionist in her mid-50s once told me that women age faster in the booth because the dry air damages their skin. I recently spoke to a 72-year-old projectionist who had, earlier that day, banged his head on a projector’s lamp housing. Because he was bald, the depth of the wound and the brilliance of the dried blood were very noticeable. ‘See how quickly it’s healing?’ he said, ‘It’s a regular check-up I give myself, so I know I’m still healthy’. All of these are examples of the close physical relationship between the projectionist and the projector/film/booth. I wonder how this relationship extends as far as the content on screen. How is the projectionist in particular (as opposed to the audience) bonded with the content of the movie?

Up in the booth a few months ago, I was projecting Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, a film about a man obsessed with and being stalked by a serial killer. It’s a very absorbing movie with bright colours and stylised violence. I used to like watching horror films, but now, as a projectionist, I feel overwhelmed by them. I turned down the volume coming out of the monitor and tried not to watch too closely. But of course I have to watch from time to time so that I can do my job. I was frightened and alone and felt like I was being watched. Reflections from the glass window flickered on the wall behind my head. I found myself checking to see if someone was there as the light caught my eye. There was also something else bothering me that I couldn’t put my finger on. It wasn’t just the vulnerability of being alone; watching horror movies alone in a basement is definitely scarier than the booth, but not as lastingly unsettling. I was not only scared. Operating the 35mm projectors, having a physical role in the presentation of the movie and being ultimately responsible for the image reaching the screen was somehow allowing the film to pry much deeper into my mind than it would have from a simple viewing.

Reel three of six was ending so I got ready for the changeover to reel four. The film was running through projector #1 as I stood beside projector #2. My hand gripped the dowser, my finger lightly rested on the motor button and my foot hovered over the changeover pedal, as I waited for cue marks to appear in the upper right hand corner of the frame. I had the audio monitor turned back up so I’d know if there was a sound problem (sometimes on this particular Century projector, the change over pedal sticks and the image switches over but the sound does not). I stared at the right side of the screen and saw part of a young woman’s shoulder. She was running away as the camera followed her up the stairs. Hovering just above my three triggers I kept waiting, focused on the screen. A hand in a black glove appeared, gripping a knife. The film cut back to the girl running. I saw my first cue, a circular ‘scribe’ mark, etched into the emulsion. I pressed the motor button, opened the dowser and waited for the next cue, eight seconds away. I saw the girl trip (one, two) fall (three) and turn (four). She looked up at the camera (five) and screamed (six, seven). Then (eight) the knife went up. I saw my second cue and stomped on the changeover pedal. The film switched over to reel four on projector #2. The knife went down and the girl, still screaming, was stabbed. Blood was everywhere. I stopped the motor on projector #1 and wiped the grease off my hands and onto my pants. I had oiled the machine at the beginning of my shift and it was a little leaky.

I later realised why the film disturbed me so deeply. It’s because I was involved. The audience is just a witness whereas I, the projectionist, am a participant. I am physically enabling the violence to take place by allowing the film to continue running. In some cases I even seem to be almost pantomiming the violent act itself as I operate the machines. In situations like the one I just described it sometimes occurs to me, just before I hit the motor, that I could stop the violence. All I’d have to do is put my hands down and step away. Of course I’ve never done that because it’s just a movie.

I used to work in a multiplex with three theatres, where all the films ran on platter systems. Platter systems became popular in the 1970s, dissolving the need for a projectionist in every booth. With 35mm platter projection each of the 20-minute reels of the feature are spliced together and wound onto a metal platter, about five feet in diameter. The film then feeds out through a series of rollers attached to a sensor that tells the platter either to spin faster or slower depending on the amount of slack needed. This part of the platter system where the sensor is located is very aptly called the ‘brain’. It tells the platter what to do and it disseminates the film from the platter to the projector (kind of like a human brain inside a head, disseminating information to a body). The entire film plays this way, running from the platter, over many more rollers, over to and through the projector’s film path and then back over more rollers and onto a second, spinning take-up platter. At the end of the film, a small piece of magnetic tape attached to the edge of the film itself triggers an alarm that alerts the projector to dowse itself (cut off the path of light pouring out through the lamp-house before it reaches the film frame) and stop its own motor. In most theatres the magnetic tape also sets off a trigger that turns the house lights back up and may even switch the sound system back over to in-house background music as the patrons exit the theatre. Once the film has been threaded up and started it is self sufficient, so a multiplex will hire only one projectionist to run several films at once, moving from booth to booth.

My experience projecting movies on platters was like a cinematic game of musical chairs, hopping from booth to booth every few minutes. During the course of my shift I watched radically different scenarios cobbled together in sequence with no imposed over-arching theme. For example I would start the previews for Theatre A, watching a few moments of that. Then I’d skip over to Theatre B’s booth as the previews there were ending and start Feature B, staying long enough to watch the first scene and check the framing and focus. Passing by booth C as the feature was ending, I might watch the last scene of Feature C to kill time. Then back to booth A to switch over to the feature, staying to watch the first scene. Then back to booth C to thread up and start the previews. And so on for 10 hours every day. I might watch a homecoming scene, followed by a bank robbery, followed by an old woman’s death in a hospital. It’s 1975 and the language is Spanish, then it’s Medieval England, then it’s modern day Paris, then back to Argentina in 1975. The burnt-down house stands intact again. The dead old woman is young and full of life. Most of the time each feature would run for a few weeks, and I would have the first and last scenes almost memorised, without ever seeing much of the middle. As these pieces repeated so many times for me each day, quilted together, the linearity distinguishing first and last scenes would become hazy. I would come to know characters in two possible states of being, outside of time. Plot did not factor in to my watching of these movies. Motives and consequences were not very apparent. My movie watching experience during the time I spent working in that multiplex was a Zen-like schizophrenia. I saw one movie about all of time and characters with every trait. That one movie lasted for the three years that I worked there.

I would like now to give an example of this special relationship between the projectionist and the movie as it occurs in digital projection, but unfortunately I can’t think of one. Since there is very little room for the projectionist with DCP systems, there is no space for this other perspective that is so different from that of the regular viewer. If all goes well, the projectionist has little to do with it. If something goes wrong, it’s probably not their fault. In this case, if there is a projectionist in the booth at all, they’re basically just like a member of the audience with a really bad seat. Unlike digital cinema, in projecting 35mm, the projectionist becomes part of a body that includes the machine, the physical strip of film, the projected light and the content of the movie. The projector itself begins to resemble a human form with moving parts and fluids. Its nature and purpose are projected outwardly in the form of light, filtered through a stream of ideas and emotions in the form of film.

The projectionist picks up a reel, threads the projector, starts the motor and hits the changeover pedal. Light pours out from the working machine, through the film, the lens and the glass window of the booth, out into the theatre and onto the screen. As the light is reflected back off of the screen, through the glass window and back into the booth where the projectionist can see, a circle is completed. The projectionist is not merely an operator. The projectionist is part of a larger physical cinematic body and shares a certain consciousness with the movie itself. When I project a film from the booth, the movie is not just something I watch, it is something that is happening to me.

February 2013

© copyright caboose 2012

Sarah Halpern has projected 16mm and 35mm film at movie theatres, museums and galleries all over New York City. She generally rounds out her income with a colourful bouquet of miscellaneous a/v tech jobs. Most devotedly, she has been a projectionist at Anthology Film Archives since 2007. She is also a filmmaker and a musician.

In the Deren Theater booth at Anthology Film Archives, home to many of the author's bruises, stains and anxieties. October 2012, New York City.