Thursday, April 12, 2007

OPEN FORUM: PROJECT PROJECTIONIST


First there were the families last week who took their young ones to see the PG-rated sci-fi fantasy The Last Mimzy and, due to an error in the projection booth, were treated to the opening scene of The Hills Have Eyes 2, featuring a woman chained up and screaming for dear life as she gives birth to a mutant baby. And the release of Grindhouse has thrown even more light onto the dice-and-splice world of projectionists in sleazy grindhouse cinemas, whose battered, badly-maintained equipment routinely shredded the few prints of these films that were available and allowed those projectionists to collect frames featuring topless cheerleaders and nasty night-duty nurses from those prints— and sometimes entire sequences, thus the context for Grindhouse’s hilariously timed “REEL MISSING” cards.

I don’t think I’ve ever been witness to as ghastly a juxtaposition as that Mimzy/Eyes 2 disaster, or the kind of subliminal augmentation that so made Tyler Durden’s day in Fight Club. My stories of projector problems, growing up with my local movie house in the ‘60s and ‘70s, make up a pretty familiar laundry list—hallucinatory melting frames; the gradual fade-to-black that signaled a dying carbon-arc stick; reel changeovers accompanied by inexplicable sonic booms on the soundtrack; if it was a ‘Scope film being shown, the anamorphic lens would almost always need to be radically adjusted mid-film after every reel change; or any combination of the above at once, which usually resulted in complete shutdown of the movie, a tidal wave of flop sweat in the projection booth, and a chorus of “Put a quarter in it!” from the razor-sharp wits sitting among us in auditorium peanut gallery. And there was one instance I remember pretty vividly—a quiet pastoral scene which ended one of the reels in Disney’s original version of The Incredible Journey was interrupted rather shockingly when the changeover occurred and it was revealed that the projectionist had, instead of the next reel of the movie, accidentally loaded up the cartoon he’d showed before the feature—dogs and cats at rest together under the night sky suddenly, mercilessly gave way to a giant close-up of a grinning Donald Duck, shafts of light streaming from behind his head, and a fanfare leading into Donald’s theme song. The lights went dark, the quiet mood of the movie ruined, a few of the older patrons picked themselves up off the floor, and the rest of us did our part to uphold a tradition that I’m sure still continues in my hometown, where a hilarious comment only gains in hilarity if it can be passed down to a new generation of impatient morons—of course, we all began chanting “Put a quarter in it! Put a quarter in it!”

J.R. Jones, film critic for the Chicago Reader, has taken some madcap inspiration from the Mimzy incident, as well as his own memories of projecting films in the ‘70s, and come up with a hilarious proposition in his brief piece entitled “We Apologize For The Inconvenience.” And don’t stop at the end of the piece— there are a lot of anecdotal contributions in the comments section from other projectionists and “victimized” moviegoers too. So enjoy J.R. Jones recipe for stirring up audiences in the multiplex and the art house, and then, if you’re an ex- or current projectionist or an audience member who can bear witness and would like to share any good anecdotes of spectacular projection snafus, please do. It’s Open Forum Day at SLIFR, so please feel free to post comments on anything you're interested in talking about. But the question of the day is: What’s your best story of when things went terribly wrong with the projector, or anything else, at the movies?

18 comments:

Bill Cunningham said...

Went to see the re-release of the original 30's KING KONG at the local Aiken,SC movie palace when I was a kid.
Right as Kong was revealed through the gates of the wall, the movie froze and the frame melted... At the time I thought it was a cool effect then realized what happened.

Another time at an entirely different theater, I went to see the Sean Connery movie MEDICINE MAN with images of a lush rainforest that seemed to move with a life of its own...

Until the movie went into a closeup of Lorraine Bracco and we could all see this mass of hair that was caught in the gate...the girl had a beard I tell ya!

I can't wait to go see Grindhouse at the Vine Street theater... now that WILL be a "true grindhouse" experience.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Bill, good stories! And thanks for the reminder about the Vine-- that really would be cool to see Grindhouse there, huh? Does the Vine advertise anywhere, or do you just have to call to listen to their tape every week?

Moviezzz said...

I remember seeing one of the STAR TREK films I believe in the 80's and they had the wrong lens on the projector for the opening commercials.

One of those commercials was for a hospital for children with cancer.

It was one of the most painful moments in a theatre. Here are these sick children, that we are all supposed to be so sympathetic for. Yet, due to the projectionists screw up, they are all distorted. The kids were all three feet high and five feet wide.

I think when they passed the can around for donations, everyone gave more to them out of guilt for laughing so much at the ad.

And then, during the first screening of TITANIC on opening day, right at the three hour mark, as a certain character is sinking to the ocean floor, the film froze and burned.

Dan E. said...

One time, during a showing of Sanjuro, the changeover didn't happen. I mean it didn't happen. I was sitting there in the dark for 10 minutes before the movie started up again. I'm not even sure what happened.

The worst projecting experience of my life was the first time I went solo. The speakers were functioning horribly, so all dialogue was practically mute, and all other noises were amplified. Of course, I was showing The Phantom of the Opera, the recent edition. And then the reel fell off the projector. Fortunately, I was showing to about 3 people, so I didn't have to do too much apologizing.

David Lowery said...

Being a projectionist was pretty much the only job I ever had before I started filmmaking full time, and I've got lots of stories. Film burns are the least of the problems that can occur when one underpaid, beleaguerd projectionist is entrusted an entire twenty four screens at a megaplex (a situation that happened far too often during my tenure), and in our attempts to relieve stress, I have to admit that the audience would sometimes be vicitimized. Splicing frames into other movies was a common trick (although I was never as devious as Tyler Durden). I always liked dropping a frame from a horror film into romantic comedies. I don't really condone my behavior, in retrospect, but I also don't condone these corporations that try to save a buck at the expense of their employees (and audiences) by spending as little money as possible on projectionists and their equipment.

Anyway, I did have on Mimzy-like incident. I can't remember what the kids' film was - it may well have been the Barney movie - but it shared a platter with James Toback's Black/White which begins right out the gate with a threesome in Central Park. The parents weren't too happy about that.

Weigard said...

I also saw a film meltdown in Titanic, about two thirds of the way through. Took about 10 minutes to fix. I tried to get a chorus of "Nearer My God to Thee" going, but I don't think anyone knows it any more. :)

Dan Aloi said...

Two I can recall, vaguely:

Seeing "Ed Wood" at the horrendous Crystal Cinemas in Painted Post, N.Y. managed by a former college rival of mine (I am NOT making this up...) the film was shown squashed top and bottom to a much wider aspect ratio. Eventually, the film broke, probably not from the squashing but for related incompetence behiind the glass upstairs.

Another time, and I wish to god I could remember the film -- was it Titanic? No, probably not. I actually saw the print CATCH FIRE and the movie replaced by an expanding oval of burnt halloween orange, black and then white bubbling to the edges of the screen. It was hilarious, and looked just like I'd seen it done for effect a few times before in movies that goofed on movies...
I think we got free movie passes because of that.

pacheco said...

Nothing spectacular hear, except that I consider one theater I went to to be jinxed.

At a college I went to, the town next to us had a dinky little theater that played current releases, but was a small, dirty theater that I never want to walk into again. But it was close to the school, so everyone went there. Not me. For quality movies, I drove the 20 minutes to a better theater.

But every once in a while, in a fit of giddiness, I wanted to see a movie I knew would be trash, so I'd see it at the trashy theater for a better trashy experience. My best friend saw great films in that theater and said the projection was fine, etc. But EVERY TIME, without fail, that I went to that theater, SOMETHING happened.

For My Baby's Daddy, the framing was off, so we could see all the mics overhead for an hour and a half. For The Punisher, an entire reel was blurry, almost beyond recognition (my girlfriend at the time joked that it was an "artistic choice"). I believe for Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (I told you they were bad movies), the reel snapped.

Yet my friends said nothing like that EVER happened to them. Maybe it was just me.

Bemis said...

Titanic broke down when I saw it as well. I guess it can be attributed to very full platters coupled with many, many showings.

I've been a projectionist for five years, and while the occasional mistake happens, it's actually a very easy job, which only amplifies my rage when a film I've paid nine bucks to see is out of focus. I'll never forget when a friend and I went to see Dawn of the Dead at the Harvard Film Archive a few years back and reel one abruptly cut to reel four. The projectionist (at Harvard, mind you) had attached the wrong heads and tails after a previous screening and didn't know which reel was which. We knew the film very well, so I offered my services and we saved the day. As a state school graduate, I relished the opportunity to show Harvard how it's done. Plus, I got some free passes out of it.

Joseph B. said...

I remember during a screening of David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive", the film broke in the projector. It was right during the mental collapse scene when Naomi Watts is fighting back visions of little people crawling under her door and the film builds to this nightmarish climax.. then... tear.. the reel breaks and the screen goes black. Interesting thing was, I was so into the film and believed in Lynch's horrific head trip, that I and the 5 other people in the theater sat there for about 3-4 minutes before we understood this was NOT the intention of the filmmaker. Leave it to Lynch to disturb and screw with the viewer so much that we get lost in reality!

Paul C. said...

I was a projectionist too, and as one Charlie Meadows once put it, "I could tell ya some stories." How about the time we had to do a 10-projector interlock for the midnight showing of LOTR: RETURN OF THE KING? Those aren't much fun- basically threading one print through all 10 projectors, which requires a good amount of leader, quite a bit of projection know-how, and a whole lotta luck.

With all the loops and gears involved in the interlock process, it took me and my helper about 20 minutes to set up, and we were ready in plenty of time, but just as we were starting it up, one of the projectors decided it didn't want to work, and it took at least half an hour to get the problem resolved and start the movie for real. And if this wasn't enough pressure, the entire multiplex was sold out, and 10 theatres of rabid LOTR fans were knocking on the windows to the projection booth, as if their contributions would be of any help. Add to this the gradual piling of managers into the booth to check what was going on/escape the increasingly pissed-off hordes of moviegoers and I ended up having one of my more stressful projection experiences.

Another fun one was when a print of NATIONAL TREASURE failed to show up in time for opening day. We had two other prints, but unfortunately three screens were scheduled to show, and tickets had been sold to all three. What ended up happening is what we call "bicycling"- basically cutting the print in half and moving the halves between the two theatres. If done right, by a projectionist who knows how, you can do this without interruption, but it's tricky and I probably couldn't even explain how anymore. Suffice it to say that it took a lot of sweat and bravado on my part to pull it off. I was never so happy to see the delivery guy as I was when he finally showed up later that afternoon with the long-awaited third print.

Oh, and should I mention the time one of my fellow projectionists built a print with an entire reel BACKWARDS? That was, um... interesting. No way the theatre could get out of that one without giving away passes, but hey- I got it fixed in time for the next show.

Andrew, I had a similar experience when I saw BUBBLE at a theatre that wasn't mine. They were running a skeleton crew with a manager starting the projectors, and when the projector had a brain wrap I volunteered my services and the problem was solved in minutes. I never had to pay to see a movie there again whenever that manager was working, so it was well worth my time.

Bill Cunningham said...

If the Vine st. actually advertised they would lose their cool factor. I think they list in the LA weekly but other than that -it is the phone call.

Sharon said...

When I saw The Messenger a the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, in its pre-ArcLight configuration, the film broke with about 15 minutes left in the movie. The audience waited fairly patiently for about 15 minutes. Then one of the ushers came down in front and announced that they would not be able to resume. A chorus of boos followed, and then the usher uttered the immortal words, "Please don't shoot the messenger."

You gotta love it.

manaotupapau said...

Again, off subject: Is the tag from Bunuel from My Last Sigh? (Sorry if someone already asked this...)

On subject: The Island, terrible movie with Michael Caine. Saw it when I was a kid and half-way through we had to leave because of a bomb threat. Someone had a sense of humor...

Paul C. said...

Yeah, my theatre had a bomb threat once too. It was on a Saturday afternoon, and I was actually helping out downstairs at the time when it happened. No fun having to suddenly evacuate roughly 1500 moviegoers, kids in tow, to the parking lot in mid-movie. The kicker is that we eventually figured out that it was a disgruntled former employee pulling a prank, but we could never get any hard proof, so nothing happened to him.

Rick Olson said...

One time, we were seeing a Bond movie -- I believe it was the first Pierce Brosnan one -- when the ceiling fell in and hit one of the patrons. It didn't hurt her -- it was accoustic tile -- but I remember that the movie just blithely went on and on and on ...

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Manaotupapau: How goes it? Yes, that Bunuel segment is from My Last Sigh. I haven't read the book myself yet-- I got the section from a post that Jim Emerson featured a month or so ago. His revisiting the book happened to coincide with a Bunuel-watching project I have currently going, and I found that quote so moving that I couldn't resist making it a part of every visit to this site. I pledge to get a copy of My Last Sigh and start reading it ASAP.

One other projection story: My wife, a friend and I went out to the movies 12 or so years ago for my birthday for an 8:30 p.m. midweek showing of Tales from the Crypt presents Bordello of Blood. We were so busy talking and laughing and anticipating the show that around 8:45 we noticed the film still hadn't started. I went out to the lobby to inquire and was treated to the sight of five or six uniformed employees tossing full buckets of popcorn at each other and laughing the night away. I interrupted as brusquely as I needed to in order to get their attention and asked, "Excuse me? Is there a problem with the projector in number #4? Bordello of Blood is over 15 minutes late." A tall, pimpled kid holding a bucket that had yet to set sail through the empty lobby straightened up slightly and said, "Oh. Sorry, sir. I'll turn that one on for you right away" and proceeded through the door leading to the projection booth. Incredibly, there were no other projection problems to report that entire night!

And here's an official shout-out to Blaaagh, who spent many years projecting movies for various theaters in Portland, Oregon during the '70s. Any stories you'd like to regale us with, best friend?

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