The Message in the Medium

Seeing that there was a 35mm screening of Casablanca in the local independent theatre, I suited up and dragged a couple of friends along, insisting that they dress up to respect the film. I did not regret this decision when we walked into the auditorium to find a silver haired audience all in finest regale. Unlike the rest of the audience, who would mouth the words along and laugh together in expectation, my guests hadn’t seen the film before and so they were understandably devastated when in the dying moments of the film, Humphrey Bogart poised on the runway, the picture burned hot white and split across on the screen. I had only seen something like this in Gremlins 2: The New Batch.


The projectionist came down to explain that a lot of restoration had to be done to get the print to work in the first place and that it was now irretrievable. A collective groan escaped the crowd, and as my friends sat there sullen, saying that we would need to find it online, an elderly gentleman wearing a wide grin leant over from the row behind. “A lot of films used to end like that when I was your age. You know, it happened when I watched this film! And we didn’t have a way of finding out what happened..”. In one fell swoop the romanticism had been restored by this mystical figure. This was truly a spectacle.

Now compare that to a screening that very same week at the multiplex on the other side of town. The first showing of Black Swan to reach us down in Cornwall, sold out to a mixed crowd – I sit amidst a cluster of elderly women who must be here for the ballet (they had all walked out by the half-way mark). The trailers play as the last stragglers sprout silhouetted Mexican waves against the screen in pursuit of their seats. When the film starts though there is something off about the picture. Somehow the bottom of the screen is cut off and is instead spilling down from the top of screen. When we see Natalie Portman in a medium close up, her shoulders are above her head.. foreboding the body-horror twist of the film with an Omenlike split across the screen.


No-one gets up for a few minutes. I imagine that they, like me, assume someone in the projection booth has seen the mistake and is rectifying it. Failing this I can only assume that they, like me, don’t want to risk missing the most important, exposition-laden part of the film. Then the Mexican waves signal that someone has taken the responsibility upon themselves, god bless em.

I have taken this responsibility myself a few times – the humble hero that I am – when the wrong aspect ratio gave Sigorney Weaver an even longer, more spindly stature in Red Lights; or when the focus was out during Attack the Block. All of these instances occurred at the very same multiplex in my student town of Falmouth – this place in particular was a habitual reoffender.

I recently read The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex by hand-flapping ranter Mark Kermode. In this book he laments the process of projection, the prologue reading as a love letter to the projectionist. Bemoaning the fall from grace from the good ol’ days and berating the new digital system, I resent that my multiplex experiences are not uncommon.

In that same arty little polytechnic in which we experienced a micro-paradiso, I had arranged as part of a film society, a 35mm screening of Once Upon a Time in the West. Now the film was divided into a few reels, and somehow a couple of these ended up playing out of sequence. An entire section of the film playing at the wrong time… but it played out just fine. People didn’t even notice! Maybe it’s down to how the film is made? I realise that I am unfairly inclined to forgive the projectionist. Lending my obvious preferential treatment to those who are there to tend to the film, as opposed to the extended duty of the guy who serves popcorn.

I worked at a cinema for a while, serving popcorn among other things, but never projection. The cinema was part of a small chain that was bought out by a more trendy outfit – the type to play the odd foreign film and serve thimbles of organic ice-cream – this meant that the projectors would be ripped out so we could have 3D screenings and less staff. Before the refit I befriended the projectionists and would often take my lunch break in the booth amidst the clattering and clambering of machinery as the film whirred around the room, creating an experience for all of those in the room adjacent. It was dark, dank and a bit dingy but romantic – a dirty kind of romance.

A close friend of mine is a projectionist, or rather he was before the digitals came in, and so he now finds himself working for an industry giant; managing a multi-screen leviathan. Before the changeover he would have disaster tales of the undue stress  bestowed on him as a projectionist, having to identify and fix the problems whilst under attack from disgruntled cinema-goers – now he has the same level of hostility but can do nothing about it.

He tells me about the time when, during a screening of Made In Dagenham, a moment of distraction cost him a couple of days:

The film is taped together reel by reel and put on the cake stand. There are 3 tiers and all of them spin so that it is laced through the projector. The other end of the film is taped to one of the tiers so that once it is fed through the projector it ravels up perfectly in the same order as it went on. I had set both motors to feed out which meant that as the film completely unwound  on the floor, it would twist and tangle more and more.

After refunding the audience my assistant manager prepped me for a long night ahead. He suggested throwing the film off to the roof to untangle it. We settled for cutting it into 7 parts and taping it back together which took 3 hours.

The worst part was I had to come in the next day early to watch the film to see if I had correctly put the film back together and it was a really shit film. I never made that mistake again.

So whilst my dear friend was culpable for his actions and was eventually able to fix the problem, albeit overnight, he informs me that when there is a problem with the digital, there is little you can do to help. He tells me of another harrowing experience when Peppa Pig The Movie failed to play:

Films nowadays are loaded into a computer and scheduled to play on a line up for a certain time. Each film has a security key, or KDM, that activates the film so you can watch it. Without the KDM the film will not play. I arrive at work early in the morning to find that the first showing of Peppa Pig had no KDM. I rang around but couldn’t get one in time for the showing.

I tell the customers that the film won’t be showing, that I will refund the tickets as well as giving free tickets for another performance of their choice – but unfortunately Peppa Pig won’t be on until we can fix the problem. Now I can deal with beef from adults but with children it’s different. This is a big day for them.

This guy comes up to me with his daughter. Now she is covered head to toe in Peppa Pig merchandise: the back-pack, the necklace, the t-shirt, the lunch box, the whole fucking lot. I explain the situation but the father says to me that I don’t need to empathise with him but his daughter. Cheers mate. So I say in the kindest and best way I can “I’m really sorry hun but you won’t be able to watch Peppa Pig today”… The kid instantly starts crying. I looked at the Dad and thought nice one, this is just what I needed.

I have had a fair share of disaster screenings at multiplexes. During the high-speed chase in the third act of The Dark Knight the screen just straight up blacked out along with the lights. There was a beat of silence. Then, from the back of the room, a gruff, gravely voice: ‘I’m Batman!’. The laugh that followed from the room diffused the annoyance – this would surely have been petrifying in the light of Sandy Hook, but for a moment it felt like part of the performance, like a 4D Disneyland ride.

In a packed screening of 12 Years a Slave amongst the very white, affluent audience of Esher Odeon, I found myself in the seats by the centre exit. So when the film started and one side of the screen was lopped off, and it was apparent that there was no genie in the back room ready to fix it, I felt responsible. Like sitting by the emergency exit on an aeroplane, I felt I had inherited this duty. I headed straight down the stairs to the foyer where I collared one of the staff. On the way back to the screen I met a string of middle aged men all on this self same mission, brothers in arms out to rectify the shoddy display – evidently we like our injustice exhibited properlike. And so began a huge ordeal in which the film was stopped and started again with the same problem before being stopped and started again – all the while, the staff stood watching with walkie-talkies blaring in hand. Ambience slightly off-set but at least they were paying attention now.
Now in the first cases I mentioned the film was irretrievable so why is it more forgivable than in the latter cases? Because it was avoidable maybe? Or because we know that there is no-one in that light emitting booth, no wizard behind the curtain trained in the artistry of projection. I think maybe I am more forgiving of 35mm mishaps because I am grateful for the medium to have existed at all.

Maybe it’s because I have met a lot of projectionists and each one has had some connection to cinema – they knew how film worked and cared about the process. To think of this person making a mistake is more forgivable than a button pressing system that has been designed as to be used by anyone. There is someone culpable and therefore redeemable, rather than a rush-goalie stepping in from the box-office. The projectionist is, or was, a symbol of our own passion for film. They were the facilitator of our magical experience, the man who sits on high in the clouds, the bringer of light.

Maybe it’s that I view the faults of film to be part of its character, part of the experience. ‘A medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart’ as Brian Eno said of the signatures of imperfection in dated mediums. That definitely seems to capture my Casablanca experience.

‘The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.’

– Brian Eno from “A Year With Swollen Appendices.

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