The Cinematheque Quebecoise recently screened a 35mm projection of a favourite film that I had seen dozens of times and know and love like a well-worn novel, like the back of my hand, like a beloved relative — Oliver Stone’s 1994 tour-de-force, Natural Born Killers. Even though I could practically recite this movie start-to-finish, in part because its Trent Reznor-produced soundtrack lived in my Discman and that of every sullen teenaged boy throughout the 1990s, I thought it would be a throwback to enjoy it again on celluloid, on the silver screen.
I saw this film in its first run, sat next to my girlfriend, high as a kite on mushrooms. Of course the screening was on 35mm: 35mm was the standard theatrical medium in 1994. Although it might have been the drugs, I remember it being one of my crispest cinematic experiences. Audiences and critics agreed at the time that Oliver Stone was firing on all cylinders and had made a masterpiece. The movie had generated a lot of buzz in its day for its use of handheld video, super-8, and digital animation. And all sorts of primary and tertiary controversies swirled around it and its director and stars. (Remember Robert Downey Jr.’s biodegradable phase?)
I could see that something was wrong right away with the Cinematheque projection. I had expected the print to have a few scuffs and scratches, which it did. But it also seemed zoomed in, as a picture would look reformatted to fit the dimensions of a laptop screen. It appeared as if the entire film was in close-up. And since Stone was obsessed with close-ups, it gave the effect of an extreme close-up. When the titles were cut off in the satirical sitcom segment starring Rodney Dangerfield, I guessed that something was significantly off, and when the projectionist missed nearly eight seconds of the film during the first changeover because the cues were almost invisible (despite what Brad Pitt says in Fight Club, they are not called ‘cigarette burns’ — nobody who loves film would come close to a film print with a lit cigarette) I decided to inform the house that the projection was incorrect.
At the box office, I told the girl working there that the film was in the wrong aspect ratio. To which she replied, “what do you mean?” This put me in the odd position of having to explain aspect ratio to a Cinematheque Quebecoise employee, as if I were explaining to a surgeon the exact location of the spleen. She ducked into the projection booth and re-emerged, telling me that there was nothing that could be done. I politely requested a refund and walked home in the misty post-apocalyptic night thinking that this was not the Cinematheque I once knew.
I also knew that nothing could be done about the bad projection because I worked for seven years as a projectionist at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. I projected 16mm, 35mm, and even a bit of 70mm during my Telluride days, and had the genuine honour to work under the tutelage of Chapin Cutler of Boston Light & Sound. Chapin is the guy who beat Michael Moore in court recently for the Traverse City Film Festival fiasco. I’ve subsequently lost all respect for Moore. Chapin and his wife, Deborah, are consummate pros and wonderful people.
My first guess was that the Cinematheque projectionist had left the wrong lenses on the projectors — maybe the 1:37 lenses for a 1:85 film. Or it could have been that the lenses themselves were the wrong focal length. I emailed former Telluride Director of Operations, Jim “BF Deal” Bedford, to ask for his opinion. He replied,
Every screen image is based on a perfect relationship between lens, aperture, and screen size. For example, if one would get a perfect 1.85 image on the screen using a 47mm lens, but the lens that was used was a stock 45mm (let’s say because of the cost or lack of availability of a custom 47mm, or perhaps they want to maximize the size of the screen), then this is possible.
The third and least likely possibility is that the Cinematheque had somehow obtained a dupe print, created with an optical printer. Which would have been the only method to “pirate” a film in 1994. Regardless, this couldn’t possibly be the way that 35mm films are shown regularly at the Cinematheque, can it? If the Cinematheque Quebecoise is no longer the place to go to be extremely snobby about film, whither cinephilia?
The last year that I worked in Telluride, the big movie was The Artist — the French, mostly dialogue-free film set during the late 1920s at the turn of sound cinema. It was 2011. Even back then I took the film as a metaphor for the coming digital age, that DCP was about to overtake analogue formats, streaming was about to overtake the theatrical experience, and we had all better get used to it. 2022 was the first year that there were no film prints screened in Telluride. Can it really still be called a film festival if there is no actual film? RIP, seventh art.
Given that even veteran film critic and literally last man at the movies, A.O. Scott, has arrived at the same conclusion, I thought that it might be an opportune time to share some of my all-time favourite experiences in the projection booth.
The Diving Bell and The Butterfly (2007), dir. Julian Schnabel
In 2007, the New York artist and filmmaker, Julian Schnabel, came to Telluride with his newest feature, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I was excited to see this movie, having been a fan of his previous films, Basquiat and Before Night Falls. The print arrived shrink-wrapped from the film lab, never before run through a projector. It still had that lab chemical smell, and each reel was wound tight as a drum. Machine perfect. I could not wait to throw this picture onscreen.
Before the premiere, in which Schnabel was in attendance, I had set up the projectors using loops of RP-40, which is a piece of film with a test pattern printed on it designed to align and focus the picture. Everything looked crisp and sharp and perfect. So I strung up the film and prepared for showtime. But when the lights in the theatre went down and the first frames of the picture went up, I was immediately mortified. Everything was out of focus.
The picture appeared to oscillate wildly between fuzzy and extremely fuzzy, an absolute nightmare situation for a projectionist. I was pulling focus like a madman trying to produce an image — any image. I had my binoculars out, trying to find the film grain. Was there something wrong with this print, I wondered? Had something spilled on the first reel of the film?
What I didn’t realize was that the first reel of the film was shot from the subjective viewpoint of the story’s main character, Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French fashion magazine magnate who had suffered a stroke and was in the midst of having one of his eyes sewn shut. It finally occurred to me about five minutes in. When I made the first changeover and the picture came up in focus, I breathed one sigh of relief. Then, when I changed back over to projector #1 for the third reel and only had to make a slight adjustment, I sighed again.
Film projection is one of the few jobs that, if you do it right, nobody should notice. The only time an audience becomes aware of the projectionist in the booth is when you fuck up.
Incendies (2010), dir. Denis Villeneuve
Hometown boy makes good. The Quebecois contingent in Telluride that year was so proud of Villeneuve for his emerging success as an independent filmmaker on the festival circuit. Little did anyone anticipate that he would end up making Bladerunner and Dune reboots. But it was exciting to have the Maelstrom director visit my theatre for the premiere of his newest and, in my opinion, best film. I even played Radiohead as the exit music (for a film).
Modern Times (1936), dir. Charlie Chaplin
As a graduate student at McGill, I started an underground film society called Theatre la pepite. My only aim was to show the prints that I had acquired in Telluride in the little black box beneath the Subway that the university had constructed with grant money and nobody knew about except for undergrads wanting to play video games on a giant screen in the basement of the Arts building. I brought my 1962 print of Modern Times and screened it for a small audience, including Wayne Ross Cullen, the renowned Montreal film technician who helped construct meticulous screening rooms at the Museum of Fine Arts and elsewhere. After the show, Cullen told me that it was the nicest projection he had ever seen. An enormous compliment.
Passerby (2010), dir. Eryk Rocha
The North America premiere of this incredible Brazilian film seemed like it should be straightforward enough. The only remarkable things about the print were that it was in black and white and it was long — ten reels if I recall correctly. But about two minutes after the picture went up, I received an anxious call from the house manager. The film’s director was concerned that the subtitles were not showing up.
Had I accidentally put the wrong aperture plate in the projectors, cutting off the subtitles, I wondered? I framed the picture up and down to see if there was anything cut off. I checked the other nine reels. Nothing. In fact, there were no subtitles. The distributor had sent us the wrong print. The director suggested that we attempt to run a DVD overtop the picture, but that was unfortunately impractical. And there was no way I was going to interrupt the screening: the show must go on! And so the decision was taken to screen the entire foreign-language film to an American audience with no subtitles.
To everyone’s amazement, the film was so captivating that it had transcended the language barrier. Nobody walked out. Even the L.A. Times noted it in their festival report — I was chuffed to be mentioned in this notice as “the projectionist.”
Tree of Life (2011), dir. Terrence Malick
At 10pm one night during the festival weekend, I received a clandestine phone call from my boss asking if I would show up to the theatre for a top-secret screening. I was not to inform anyone. I was not to invite anyone. This screening was, in effect, not happening.
I arrived at the theatre like a ninja clad all in black and under the shadow of darkness and was handed an unlabelled cassette tape by guy with long, scruffy, dirty blonde hair who looked more like a surfer than someone in the film industry. I later learned that this was Bill Pohlad, the producer.
I had no idea what we were about to watch. There were only two men in the theatre and I surmised that one of them was Harvey Weinstein. I pressed play on the device and observed in awe as the most spectacular and moving film I have ever seen unfolded in front of my eyes. The movie was fresh off its win at Cannes and had never been shown in North America. Not only was I one of the first people to see it, I was projecting it.
After the show, Pohlad asked me what I thought of the film. I was speechless. I told him it was brilliant. And he asked me if I would mind sitting through it again for another showing the next morning, to two Fox Searchlight executives, who would end up buying the rights to distribute it in North America.
That was a masterclass in how the film business works. Or worked. Because that was the last time something like that ever happened. Like films themselves, those kinds of deals are no longer seen in theatres. And chumps like me aren’t allowed in the room.
What I learned recently at the Natural Born Killers screening is that the house has ground to a halt. The future of film is in the past. Like the era of the album, or the opera, or the novel, everything ends. For film, this feels like it. Ayo, A.O. Leave the “discourse” to the film girlies on Twitter who think that Michael Bay is an auteur.
That’s all, folks.◼︎