MANHATTAN PROJECTIONIST

I didn’t think I’d like Jose. Every old-school projectionist, the ones who’ve held union cards for decades, hold claim to their booth that they decorate as they please. Jose adorned his booth with a single corkboard pinned with a bounty of buxom-boxer-babes, many of them autographed with salacious sentiments and “we loooooove you Jose”s. Scattered among the ladies are a couple snapshots of his wife and kids.

I thought this macho-man Jose Rodriguez, a towering chain-smoking alcohol-stenched Puerto Rican with a thick New York accent, might not take me seriously. He was far closer to the paradigm of the classic union projectionist: middle-aged male, gruff and full of vice. I was an atypical projectionist: too young, scrawny, and female. I’ve handled adversity here-and-there: a film trafficker asked “why is there a little girl running the films?” and I’ve had a manager tell me I don’t have the physical strength for the job. But Jose never questioned my abilities, and neither has any other projectionist.

Projectionists often have families, and it’s easy to watch your kids in a projection booth. It’s inevitable with children’s curiosity and the long lulls of booth boredom that they’ll want to know how to thread a film projector. It’s a simple pattern through a series of gears, creating loops ensuring the film won’t slide across metal causing scratches. There are easy rules to follow: soundtrack always face you, reels take up counter-clockwise, there are four sprockets in a frame. Within a couple years, these kids are professionals. My former boss’s eight-year-old daughter has thread machines for me without a scratch.

Jose used to let his (now grown) daughters thread machines. He’s been projecting film since before they were born. Jose attended a technical highschool in the Bronx to learn mechanics, so when he would be drafted in Vietnam he could fix planes far away from the front lines. Two months before he finished high school the war ended. A movie theater was in need of someone skilled with machines, and Jose’s been a projectionist ever since.

Jose claims to have worked at every movie theater in Manhattan. He was the go-to projectionist for the adult-film festival. He was working out lighting cues with one of the stars of an adult film: she wanted the lights slowly to brighten, building up to a “trick” she’d perform for the audience during the end credits. This feat involved a handstand and a ping pong ball. Jose looked me dead in the eye, “after that, nothing fazes me.”

He used to work exclusively at porn theaters, but since the 90’s Jose has worked at Anthology Film Archives in the Lower East Side, a theater and preservation site for film often leaning towards the avante-garde and experimental. It’s a projectionist’s nightmare. The prints are old, sometimes damaged and always a bit scratched. Techniques employed by these filmmakers often involve upside-down titles, purposefully damaged or jittery photography, and completely erratic sound. They are enough to give projectionists a heart attack.

Jose has had two heart-attacks. He doesn’t like referring to them as heart-attacks, he calls them his “heart mishaps”. I didn’t ask if they were projectionist related.

I questioned why he would settle down at Anthology, of all the New York theaters, since union projectionists notoriously like taking easy jobs. The platter system was invented to ease projectionists into a culture revolving around the multiplex: films consisting of five to seven small reels are combined on a platter into one giant reel. Just thread the one giant reel into the machine, press a button, and your job is done at that screen for the next two hours.

Anthology Film Archives does not have platters, it still does the old-fashioned system of reel-to-reel. This requires two projectors and one projectionist standing by every twenty minutes, keeping an eye on the right hand corner of the screen for cue marks (often called cigarette burns, indicative of the profession’s nicotine habit). The first cue tells you to start the motor, the second cue comes exactly seven seconds later and tells you to open the shutter. The goal is seamlessness: every frame of black between reels is a painful disaster, and every smooth transition is a sigh of relief.

Projectionists are forgotten until they screw something up. As Jose says, “they’ll forget you exist until you fuck up and then they’ll start talkin’ about your mother”. Every projectionist will screw something up eventually. They have nightmares about it: they’ll show a print that will be horrificly scratched and they can’t figure out why; their hands will be too big to thread the machine; they’ll run a screening for Paul McCartney, the print will break and Sir Paul will personally berate them.

I hold my breathe during the cue marks at any screening I go to. No one has sympathy for projectionists but their colleagues.

Anthology assuredly breeds nervous projectionists with their reel-to-reel 35mm prints, along with the myriad of other film formats they show, none of their material standard and none of it as easy as the platter system. However, Jose loves Anthology. He doesn’t mind their quirky, artsy programming. Kidlat Tahimik, a famous Third Cinema movement Filipino director, asked Jose to keep the projector running past the credits, projecting the “tail” of the film (extra liter on the end) and then just light on the screen. During this additional portion of the program, Kidlat performed a dramatic and bizarre hybrid Filipino tribal dance/graduation march. Jose, looming in his gruff Bronxite ex-porn theater employee glory, gazed down at the spectacle and commented with pure sincerity, “These artists. They sure are creative”.

Jose settled at Anthology because they have a one-projectionist-per-booth rule. In the multiplexes that use platters the projectionist’s job is simpler, but he has to walk from screen to screen. Jose would much prefer sitting in his chair, having to stand up once every twenty minutes or so.

Like many other projectionists, Jose sleeps on the job. The booth is comfortable, it’s a home away from home. It’s dark and relatively warm. In large enough booths there are couches dedicated to naps, complete with blankets. Yet, the projectionist sleep is never a fully restful one. They often wake up in alarm, fearing they’ve slept a second too long, leaping to their feet to ensure there’s still an image on screen.

In this strange mix of boredom and neurosis, you’ll find that a projectionist is never just a projectionist. If they’re not sleeping, they’re designing websites for a client or making illustrations for their portfolio or reading for their grad school. During his shift Jose often grades papers for his math class. Monday through Friday, 8am to 3pm, he teaches math to high schoolers in Brooklyn. He used to work five nights a week as a projectionist, but after his “heart mishaps” he decided to cut it down to three.

Jose’s health has taken a recent decline. He tells me about his recent adventures with the Chinese practices of acupuncture and cupping. He explains all this to me while smoking his fifth cigarette in the booth, whose only ventilation is an exhaust pipe running straight to the projector. Jose is determined to find a cure for his ailments as long as it doesn’t involve quitting cigarettes or alcohol.

One cure Jose is sure will work is retirement. He’s reluctant about moving to his seaside house in Puerto Rico; having grown up in the “concrete jungle” and worked most of his life in a room without windows, he’s not big on nature.

Jose is getting out just in time, along with dozens of other unions projectionists who dedicated decades to the projecting films. Digital projectors are already standard in most multiplexes, and within five years distributors will no longer be shipping film prints. Jose, along with others, agree that it is inevitable. Technology changes, and as platters dominated reel-to-reel, digital projectors are bound to dominate. Film projectors are being torn out of booths, along with their projectionists.

Projection is a solitary and often lonely job, but one with history and mysticism. There is an immediate kinship felt among projectionists, a sharing of fuck-ups and freak accidents only particular to this job. In the last decade this kinship has broadened to the bonding over the profession’s own demise. Digital booths have an inhuman silence without film passing through gears, and are bereft of the personal touches (including corkboards filled with busty athletes) that made them a second home. Inevitable but sad, the lullaby of the film projector will no longer be singing their masters to a restless and sacred sleep.

-Grace Sloan

photo credit: Brennan Lashever

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4 Comments

Filed under Notes, Thoughts

4 responses to “MANHATTAN PROJECTIONIST

  1. ascendingdevil

    Nice Essay. Reminds me of this:

  2. Pete

    You act like there is a science to making a smooth changeover in reel to reel projection. That’s the easy part of the job and you could teach someone who doesn’t even know how to thread that procedure in a minute. Even mediocre or bad projectionists usually do alright on the changeovers. Film inspection, focus, framing, correct aspect ratio and most importantly knowing how to baby sit those damn carbon arc lamps (admittedly now extinct!)…that’s something else. After running thousands of features reel to reel (1958-1980) I’ve only missed a few first changeover cues and can count on fingers one hand instances I’ve witnessed in other theaters. You miss one once in awhile and it’s no big deal.

  3. I don’t think I’m acting like it’s a science, but it’s certainly more nerve racking and haphazard for a projectionist like me, who was trained on platters, and I think from a regular audience’s perspective it’s a process that is surprisingly human controlled. Yeah, most projectionists don’t miss cues (though the number of imperfect changeovers I’ve seen exceeds a hand, maybe two) but I think that’s a marvel considering how archaically simple the process is.

  4. Robert Roy

    Lovely article. Many thanks.

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