The Booth Fills up with Film
In 1990, when I was twenty years old and lived in Tours, France, I discovered a group of first-rate art houses, the Studio movie theatres, and with them the pleasures of cinephilia. But this passion had a price – the cost of admission! Monthly cinema passes, specialty movie channels on TV and the Internet did not yet exist, so I quickly had to find a way to see all the films I wanted to without ruining myself. When I turned around and saw the glass portholes looking out onto the movie theatre, I found the solution to my problem: I’d become a projectionist!
Military service was obligatory in France at the time, but not for much longer. I set off as a sailor on a 120-metre corvette and there on the lurching ship I worked on correspondence courses with the goal of obtaining my projectionist diploma (1993 was the first year in which the program of study included video projection). When I finished my service I landed an intensive and exciting internship at the Louis Lumière school near Paris, where I settled. My cinephilia led me to the Cinémathèque française and to the classic American films shown in the six auditoria of the Action theatres – the Action Christine, the Action Écoles and the Grand Action – which I attended assiduously. I took work in various independent cinemas in Paris, where I cut my teeth and sweated bullets when the spectators were impatient enough to add to my technical worries. I spent a month here and a month there, at the St Lambert, the Espace St Michel, the Épée de bois, the Clef, the Entrepôt, the Studio des Ursulines, the Champo and the Ranelagh where for several years running, twice on Saturdays and once on Sunday, I screened in back projection the same 35mm print of The Children of Paradise, the print becoming more fragile each time. I even had the pleasure of receiving a visit in the booth, a few weeks before his death, from the great Marcel Carné, small of stature, when Didier Decoin filmed a couple of shots of him for his documentary about Carné’s life. In 1996, I was asked to take over on short notice from a projectionist with the Action cinemas who had just been fired for having scratched the only print in distribution of a 16mm film showing at the Action Christine: Atom Egoyan’s Calendar. After three months, my boss, Jean-Marie Rodon, offered to let me take over from the projectionist at the Grand Action, who was retiring. I still work there, but part-time now.
Technical things have never been my strong suit. For me, what I project has always been more important than the entrails of the projectors (two 35mm Victoria V8 in each booth), to which I have nevertheless become attached. I can tell by ear when one is malfunctioning. My priority is getting the aspect ratio right. The program was mostly classic American cinema (should On the Waterfront be shown in 1.66 or 1.37? That’s a big discussion) with some Italian films (should one use a 1.66 lens or a 1.85 lens to project 1.77 Italian films of the 1960s? I prefer to leave a black bar above and below the image in L’Avventura with the 1.66 than to crop the image) and the occasional Japanese film (a Mizoguchi arrived with its reels out of order; Jean Douchet was there to introduce the film and came back to the booth. Knowing the film by heart, he helped me put the reels in order: bravo!).
Westerns, musical comedies, film noir made by Warner, 20th Century Fox, MGM, Paramount, RKO, Universal and Columbia made up most of the more than 200 films distributed by Action that my colleagues and I had to look after: thousands of reels we delved into not only for our programs but also for the after-hours or daytime screenings we organised for pleasure.
I remember a projectionist once showing the scene at the beginning of Little Odessa where the film catches fire, causing him to panic, not knowing why everything was working in the booth while the film seemed to be burning on the screen. Seeing film burn on the screen, by the way, has happened to me! But what appears so spectacular for the audience represents the loss of a single film frame stuck in the projector gate. Much worse is scratching the film along its length when a perforation tears and the film is scraped by a piece of metal. A scratch like this can only be stopped by rushing to and manually shutting down the machine.
I remember the enjoyment of projecting silent films, without music, for an audience observing a religious silence. I remember the infernal noise made by 70mm film as it ran through the projector, a noise caused by the weight of the film in the projector gate. I remember the fatigue of those working days, compensated by the aural splendour of six magnetic tracks and the visual splendour of Vertigo, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Spartacus and Lawrence of Arabia. I remember films that sometimes broke like glass and the technique for removing, without stopping the film, the little hairs that jump about and get stuck in the projection gate (just put a few drops of water on the upper loop of the film; one of these drops will carry the hair away). I remember the “professional projectionist” (actually a film editor) in the audience who didn’t like the way I focused a print with fuzzy subtitles and who I invited to come up to the booth to do the focus himself. I never saw him again. I remember having in the audience on a regular basis people like Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert and Micheline Presle, and occasional viewers such as Laura Dern, Guy Maddin (for a von Sternberg retrospective) and Jean-Luc Godard.
One evening in December 2010 I projected the film Seven with the film’s cinematographer Darius Khondji present. A feverish crowd filled the large auditorium while I exited the booth in the other auditorium I saw an imposing man staying discreetly off to the side: Darius Khondji. I move towards him, greet him and invite him into the booth. He casts a curious glance through the glass portholes. “Ah, The Swimmer by Frank Perry, I’ve never seen it, I’d rather sit in the audience and watch it than go talk in public!” He’s also interested in the equipment in the booth and asks what sort of things we show digitally. I reply: “I just showed Days of Heaven”. “Ah yes”, he says “I had dinner with Terrence Malick last night”. I look at him, impressed, but he doesn’t give any sign that such a dinner was in any way exceptional. It’s 11:40 when the enthralling discussion of Seven with the audience comes to an end, and the cinema is closing in ten minutes. With the agreement of my boss, Isabelle Gibbal-Hardy, I suggest to Darius: “If you want to watch The Swimmer, I could show it you now, just for you”. He looks at me: “Seriously?” “Sure, sure”. Darius calls his wife, who comes to join him. We close the cinema and I start up The Swimmer. At two in the morning, Darius leaves the cinema with stars in his eyes: “Thank you, that was a magic moment”. That day I was truly pleased to have made a great man of the cinema, a great cinephile, so happy. We’ve seen each other regularly since then. The fact that Amour won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival, that he works with the greatest filmmakers (Bernardo Bertolucci, Roman Polanski, Sidney Pollack, Wong Kar-Wai, Stephen Frears), that he is preparing his second film with James Gray and his fifth with Woody Allen will never change his simplicity or authenticity.
In 2005, the Grand Action’s two cinemas came under new management and the film storage area was cleared out to make a bar, but the programming today is just like what I encountered when I started out. A few years ago the digital revolution inevitably landed in the booth with two impenetrable big black boxes accompanying two digital servers, which led to two of our four 35mm projectors being scrapped. We maintain 35mm projection with a single film projector in each booth with a vertical unwind spool. The chattering of 35mm film is increasingly being replaced by the whirring of the digital projector. The visual magic of 35mm film winding its way through the machine has been replaced by the dematerialisation of digital files on hard drives, KDM keys and playlists, and by K2, 4, 8 and soon 16. While we await 32—but then what?
A projected film still brings a kind of magic to the booth that will soon be lost (you only have to see the children gaze in wonder when they see a 35mm projector and their lack of interest in the big black boxes). This past year I trained two intern projectionists for their technical diploma. Will they be the last? What will remain of the trade in a few years’ time? Memories.
Still today I have projection nightmares: I’m in the booth projecting 35mm and a problem arises, the film unwinds and piles up on the floor. I can’t stop it. The switches don’t work and the booth fills up with film. I am overcome with panic, I don’t know what to do. Luckily, I wake up.
© copyright caboose 2014
Pierre Filmon became a projectionist in 1993 at the age of 22 following ten years of musical studies. Alongside this trade, which he has practised since 1996 at the Grand Action cinema in Paris, he makes films—short films and, soon, features—and is working on several documentary projects. You can find him and his personal web site at Twitter, @pierrefilmon.